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Flexible Grouping as a Differentiated Instruction Strategy

Janelle Cox

In order to reach all learners, teachers use differentiated instruction strategies.  These techniques are meant to accommodate each individual student’s learning style, readiness, and interest, and they involve using a variety of different instructional methods, such as flexible grouping.

Flexible grouping is not anything new. Teachers have been grouping students in varying ways since back in the schoolhouse days. Back then, teachers grouped students based on their age or ability.

Today, teachers are discovering that grouping and regrouping students in a variety of ways throughout the school day actually makes their job easier, and makes their students more productive. Flexible grouping is more than just moving a students’ seat, it is practical way to differentiate as learning needs dictate.

Here we will take a look at what flexible grouping actually is, what to consider when using differentiated instruction strategies, and how you can create and manage your groups.

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What is Flexible Grouping?

Flexible grouping is a range of grouping students together for delivering instruction. This can be as a whole class, a small group, or with a partner. Flexible grouping creates temporary groups that can last an hour, a week, or even a month. It’s not permanent, but it is a temporary way for students to work together in a variety of ways and configurations depending upon activity and learning outcomes.

In order to successfully differentiate instruction through flexible grouping, teachers must consider student learning profiles. In order to promote maximum learning, students need to move frequently among groups according to their specific needs.

What are the Benefits?

There are a number of instructional benefits to flexible grouping. Teachers use this strategy because it’s a great way to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of each student, and it allows the teacher to zero in on any specific needs of one student. It allows students to have the opportunity to work with, and learn from, their peers in a way that lets them feel comfortable contributing.  When students work in a variety of groups, they learn to work independently and cooperatively with a variety of personalities.

Creating Flexible Groups

Flexible grouping means a lot of preplanning. Teachers need to look at assessment data, test results, student needs, and abilities in order to determine the group size. It’s essential when grouping students to not place them in the same group for every activity. The key to successful grouping is to be flexible so you can meet each individual’s needs. Here are a few things to consider as you create your flexible groups:

  • Ask yourself, “What is the best type of configuration to meet my learning outcome for this activity?” Consider a teacher-led group (whole-class, small group, or an individual teacher-directed activity), or a student-led group (collaborative, performance-based, or pairs). 
  • Evaluate all assessment data and look over student-leaning profiles to help you form groups.
  • Identify the most effective grouping design. For example, group students by gender, previous group, student selection, or teacher selection.
  • Differentiate engaging activities for each group.

Managing Flexible Groups

Successful grouping does not happen overnight. It take a little bit of planning and classroom management skills.  As you group your students for differentiated instruction consider the following tips:

  • Create a color-coded system or chart to help you (and students) know which group(s) they are in.
  • Give specific instructions about the tasks groups must perform.
  • Post written instructions and expectations so you don’t have to repeat yourself.
  • Model and practice routines and procedures for getting into and out of groups. Develop a routine so your classroom isn’t utter chaos after a group task is complete.
  • Set a specific time limit for students to complete their group work. It’s best to set an alarm so students know when the alarm goes off, they must proceed to the next activity quietly.
  • Implement a student learning log for each group they are in. A color-coded one works best for students to keep track and record what they completed in each group.

Flexible grouping is a strategy that is developed over a period of time. To ensure successful grouping and promote maximum learning, it is essential that assessment is frequent, and that students are moved into appropriate groups regularly. To avoid any classroom chaos and disruptions, effective classroom management skills must be set into place.

How do you differentiate instruction in your classroom? Do you use Flexible Grouping? Share with us in comment section below, we would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators