Small Groups with Benchmark Advance

I’ve had a lot of questions about how to set up and run Benchmark Advance small groups. I’m here for you! Today’s blog post will outline exactly how I run small groups in my classroom, and I have a TON of amazing resources to support your workshop time.

Teams vs. Reading Groups

First, I want to define a couple of terms for us: Teams vs. Reading Groups. My small group teams are mixed-level, heterogeneous groups who work together at their stations, independent of the teacher. 

My reading groups are homogeneous groups of kids at approximately the same reading level. For example, I have a group of struggling readers, mid-level readers, and advanced readers. I pull these students from their teams to work on guided reading with me, while their teammates continue at their stations. I see each reading group once a week (twice a week for struggling students). 

I’ll show you exactly how I create these groups in a bit. For now, let’s jump into the FAQs I’ve gotten about my small group setup.

Q: Why do you have your groups travel to different centers each day? Can they stay in their seats instead?

A: Let me preface by saying that every classroom is different, and there is no single right way to do it. Some teachers choose to have teams stay at their tables to work together; some will have students work independently at their desks; and others, like me, have them travel to their centers. 

For me, the benefit is that the students are more motivated and have more buy-in. They love the collaborative atmosphere that comes from moving together as a team. I have flexible seating in my room, so my centers look different based on needs. My tech center is at a low table with benches. My writing center is at a round table with yoga balls. The read-to-self center is on the carpet. Do what makes sense for you and your space!

Another benefit for me is that once students know their teams, it’s easy to have them work in their teams for other activities and subject areas, too. Working on a STEM project? Do it with your team. Group research project on a natural hazard? You and your team go for it!

Q: How do you pull your homogenous group to read with you from the heterogenous groups without them missing the independent workstation that day?

A: They will miss work, and honestly that’s okay with me. Most of the time, they will finish on Fridays, which are designated catch-up days during our Benchmark Advance small group time. If they don’t finish their independent center work each week, I don’t stress too much.  The priority for me is that they get time to work closely with me each week with the goal of strengthening their reading skills.

Q: Do I have to follow the Benchmark Advance Workstations or can I implement my own centers?

A: You can definitely implement your own centers during your Benchmark Advance small groups time! The key to running a successful classroom is to be responsive to your students’ needs and to provide meaningful practice to address those needs. A lot of teachers will do Daily 5 style centers: read to self, word work, listening, etc. There are resources in Benchmark for a wide variety of centers, like cursive for upper grades and handwriting for primary. You could add a social studies or science center. These subjects integrate really well with the Benchmark curriculum. I also love the idea of having a PBL center where kids get to work on an ongoing project each week. 

Q: What do the kids actually do at the centers? Ideas for activities?

A: Because I was the least confident about small group center time when I first started with Benchmark, I created a TON of resources for centers. I’ll link those below! But, don’t forget to check your BA resources, too. Just go on Benchmark Universe, click on your program, and find the practice tab. There are several kinds of resources you can print: text evidence questions, cursive and handwriting, spelling and vocabulary worksheets, etc. Students can also complete the “independent practice” portions from their whole group mini-lessons.

I also like the idea of having an interactive center where you incorporate hands-on word work. This can be in the form of games that reinforce phonemic awareness and morphology, and word sorts that involve cutting and sorting words.

Q: How do you create your teams of students that work independently?

A: My goal in creating student small group teams is to have self-sufficient groups that can work independently while I’m working with my guided reading group. Some guidelines to keep in mind: 

    • Not too many playground friends in the same group. 
    • A balanced boy-to-girl ratio.
    • A leader to keep everyone on task. 
    • Mixed reading abilities and independence levels.
    • At least 1-2 student tutors who are able and willing to help peers academically.

A heterogeneous mix is so important here if you’re going to achieve independence! A group of all struggling students won’t work, and you won’t be able to work with your small group of students without interruptions. I have a chart to help you plan teams, and team posters to keep students visually organized and on track. 

Q: How do you handle disruptive students?

A: First of all, I try to prevent disruptive behaviors by doing a full-week trial run of our Benchmark Advance small groups. I go over expectations, review and routines, and procedures. During my week-long trial run, I don’t pull the reading groups to work with me. Instead, I walk around to troubleshoot, answer questions, and observe how teammates are working together. If I notice some kids not working well together, I’ll make some minor adjustments. I do this during unit 1 so that students actually have unit-related tasks to work on during the trial.

When a student does get off task or is disruptive, my typical response is a quick verbal reminder. If it’s ongoing, we’ll have a chat together and I will let the student know that his or her behavior didn’t serve them well today and that it got in the way of their learning. I also use positive reinforcement by assigning team points or giving classroom dollars to each team. 

Q: What do the guided reading lessons with the teacher look like?

As the body of research surrounding the Science of Reading expands and becomes more widely acknowledged, the guided reading strategy is being revamped so that students are grouped by area of need rather than by reading level, and they are working on decodable readers with the teacher instead of leveled readers. In Benchmark Advance, there are decodables for grades K-2. Once students enter the third grade, those are replaced with the weekly Word Study texts (which are one-pagers included in their Texts for Close Reading books). 

If you are wanting to use the leveled readers with your students, then you can try the following routine that I used to do. 

Step 1: Preview the book and discuss how it connects to the unit theme. Most of the time, I read it out loud first, then I had them read with a buddy. This is a great opportunity for students to work on fluent reading and for you to listen and take notes on their strengths and needs.

Step 2: With struggling readers, we first focused on the key details, main idea, and graphic features. More advanced readers began with comparing and contrasting, discussing the author’s purpose, etc. You can weave in the higher-level standards with your groups using a text that is at their level. Most days, I continued working on skills introduced during whole group mini-lessons if the flow felt right for that group of kids. Another option is to follow the lessons that come in the Teacher Guide for each leveled reader. The ‘First Read’ always has a key details/main idea lesson. The ‘Close Reading’ has several lessons to choose from. The ‘Extend Meaning’ is for phonics support, and ‘Independent Learning’ has reading, writing, word work, and collaboration prompts.

Q: What resources have you created to support Benchmark Advance small groups?

For Phonemic Awareness and Word Study

  • Hands-On Word Work: Aligned with the Science of Reading principles, these word work activities provide students with a variety of ways to practice playing with words. You’ll notice that the activities reinforce many of the same skills in different ways. You can differentiate by selecting pages for students based on their learning styles. 
  • Word Work Pamphlets: Spelling, Vocabulary, and Grammar practice for grades 1-5. While you could print word work from the Benchmark resources, I find it wasteful to print out each 5 question paper. Plus, the kids seem to love the fact that the paper is folded up like a little brochure. I use these for whole and small group. With the whole class, I explicitly teach the skill and model how to complete each type of question. Then students complete it independently during center work.  
  • High-Frequency Word/Sight Word Practice Packs: This resource includes differentiated practice pages for all of the Benchmark Advance high-frequency words from all ten units. Students with both decode and encode. There are also checklists and fluency mats to help you assess each word!
  • Digital Word Work: Derived from the Hands-On Word Work resource, this pack is fully digital for use with Google Slides. 

For Comprehension and Writing

  • Close Reading Companions: Use these alongside whole group close reading lessons. These walk students through the comprehension of literature and informational texts. I recommend completing a portion during whole group guided practice and then allowing students to continue it in their independent practice at centers or for test prep. 
  • Text-Dependent Questions Bookmarks: These are for grades 2 and up. I consolidated the text-evidence questions from Benchmark and made them into a student-friendly format. Students use these bookmarks as they read the weekly text. They keep one bookmark for the whole unit, so when you print double-sided, you save a ton of paper.
  • Writing Companions: These follow the weekly writing lessons for grades 1-6. Use every day in whole group writing lessons, and then you can have students continue in the writing center as one of their options.
  • Response-to-Reading Question Strips: Includes question strips for both fiction and non-fiction. I print each genre in a different color, cut the strips, and then place them in a bucket. Students choose one at random based on text type and then answer on their recording sheet or in their notebook. Great for the reading center! 
  • Annotating and Close Reading Sticky Notes: 30+ printable sticky notes to use for annotating non-consumable texts. You can use these during guided reading time or at a reading center. 
  • Digital Maps + Graphic Organizers: 37 interactive Google slides full of activities for students to complete at their technology center. Includes reading comprehension practice, interactive thinking maps, spelling and grammar, vocabulary, writing practice, and more. 
small groups planner

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