Three Ways to Structure Your ELA Small Groups

There are three main ways you can structure your ELA small groups. There is no one right or wrong way to structure them. It just depends on what works for your class! Also, this might change from year to year, or even within the same school year. I know that personally, I’ve made it halfway through the school year and then reevaluated what was working and what wasn’t and made changes based on that reflection. When choosing a method for structuring your small groups, you’ll want to consider three things: whether or not you’d like your students to work independently of one another or as collaborative partners/teams, what level of noise you’re comfortable with, and how your class and time restraints can handle transitions.

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Method #1: Whole Group to ELA Centers Ping Pong

With this structure, you would first start out by teaching a whole group mini lesson. For example, you teach a lesson on your spelling pattern for the week. Then immediately following your mini lesson, you’d have students go into their independent workstation (center), while you pull your first guided reading group. After this mini lesson to center cycle is complete, you repeat with your next mini lesson and next center rotation.

This works well for kids that need that movement or that like that transition because it might hold their attention better. Or, it might do the opposite. It might be distracting for some kids to ping-pong back and forth, or you might be concerned about losing transition time.

This method (along with Method #2) may work well for those who are concerned with being able to fit everything in. You could set a timer, teach your mini lesson, and then when the timer goes off, students know it’s time to transition into small groups. Then when the small group timer is up, everyone knows it’s time to stop and do the next mini lesson. Overall, this method allows for a tighter structure for time management.


  1. Collaboration: Since students are working on their independent practice tasks at a center with other students, this allows for student collaboration.
  2. Noise: The noise level may be higher since students are clustered and working together.
  3. Transitions: Since you’re “ping-ponging” back and forth between whole group mini lessons and independent workstations, there are more transitions. 
  • Pros: There is more movement and switching things up with this structure, so this may help with student engagement, especially if you’ve got shorter attention spans.
  • Cons: The transition time may chip away at your overall ELA time block too much. The collaboration aspect may not work well with your particular students.

Method #3: All Whole Group Lessons, Then All Small Groups

This is the method that I personally used with my third graders. I taught all of my whole group mini lessons back to back. For example, on one day, I taught my spelling and grammar lesson, my comprehension lesson, and my writing lesson, one lesson after the other. After, we had our designated thirty minutes for small group time. My students would actually travel to their center for the day (instead of completing seat work by themselves). This worked well for me because I was trained in and used to Daily 5 style centers. While my groups were completing their center work, I pulled my reading group for the day.


  1. Collaboration: Since students are working on their independent practice tasks at a center with other students, this allows for student collaboration.
  2. Noise: The noise level may be higher since students are clustered and working together.
  3. Transitions: Since you’re not doing the “ping-pong” approach, there is really only one main transition (from whole group to centers). 
  • Pros: You can ensure that you are teaching your lessons while your students’ stamina levels are at their highest. Also, since you’re teaching your lessons back-to-back, you’re really intentional with timing. They can’t drag on too long! The one transition is less distracting and doesn’t take away too much time, and students have a good chunk of time to knock out their independent practice tasks. You also have a nice long block for your reading groups (whether you just do one a day or do rotations).
  • Cons: The whole sitting for whole group lessons without any breaks in between might not be as ideal for your class if they need more movement or brain breaks.

Method #2: Whole Group to Seatwork Ping Pong

Similar to method #1, with this structure, you would start with your first whole group mini lesson, and then once that was done (or the timer goes off), students would complete independent seat work for a set amount of time. While they are working at their seats by themselves, you are pulling students for a small group with you. When that is done, you start your second whole group mini lesson, and repeat the cycle.

The only difference between this way and Method #1 is you are taking away the “center” aspect and instead having kids work at their seats by themselves. This may be preferable you’ve got a really talkative class or if the idea of centers is just particularly stressful for you. This method would also work well for those concerned with fitting everything in, because you can use a timer to manage your lesson duration, transition time, and small group time.


  1. Collaboration: Since students are working by themselves on their independent practice, there isn’t much collaboration unless you allow them to work with a shoulder partner.
  2. Noise: This method is probably your most quiet method.
  3. Transitions: Like Method #1, you’re ping-ponging back and forth between whole group mini lessons and and independent work, so there are more transitions.
  • Pros: There is less opportunity for students to get off task since they are working by themselves. The transitions allow for more movement, which may be better for student engagement and stamina.
  • Cons: Transition time may take too long or be distracting. Students who need more support may struggle to work independently on their seat work.

Whichever method you choose, it’s important to remember that you can always switch things up! Do what works best for your students and yourself. Change it up if things get stale or if behavior issues start popping up. As long as you can achieve the goal of having that one-on-one time with a small group of students (doing guided reading, guided writing, fluency, assessing, etc.), then that’s what matters!

Next Steps

Now that you have a structure decided upon for your ELA small groups, what’s next? Creating the perfect independent centers, of course! Check out this blog post to learn how to create the perfect teams (student groups), and what resources you can use during your center time!


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