Grouping is a term with which educators are very familiar. It is something that we are expected to utilize in our classrooms. It is one of the criteria on which we are assessed in evaluations. However, often times when we hear the term “grouping”, we think about ability grouping in terms of heterogeneous vs. homogeneous grouping often used for reading instruction. However, there is so much more to flexible grouping than that.

What is Flexible Grouping?

Flexible grouping is a best practice in education and is at the very heart of differentiation. Flexible grouping is a data-driven practice in which teachers are able to target specific needs for students by creating a variety of fluid groups in which students are provided specific instructional needs.

The key words in that definition are “flexible” and “fluid.” These groups are not static or set in stone. Flexible grouping is something that highly effective teachers do very well. Flexible grouping is simply grouping students in the most advantageous way for delivering instruction. It can mean using whole group, small group, or partners. The bottom line is: teachers use flexible grouping to provide the right instruction to the right students at the right time in the right way. So your groups will not look the same throughout the school year, semester, or maybe even the week. Flexible groups can and will most likely change from day to day.

Flexible grouping is going to look different in each classroom depending on grade level, class size, and a number of other factors. In my classroom, which is a self-contained, first-grade classroom, many of my flexible groups are what I call “pull-back groups”. These are usually brief meetings that happen with me at my “teacher table”. For example, if we complete a formative assessment on addition with regrouping and I can clearly see that five students did not understand the concept at all, then I would pull those five students back to my teacher table as soon after that formative assessment as possible to reteach the lesson.

While I am working with that small, flexible group, the other students would either complete some additional independent practice on the new math skill, play a math game on the computer, or read if everything from the day had already been completed.

Working with those students in such a small group allows me to often quickly and easily see what the problem is and how to address it. It may be only one student that gets pulled back to build words with letter tiles. It could be two or three students that need additional help understanding the difference between nouns and verbs. This type of flexible grouping in my classroom is used for any subject area at any time that a troubled area is detected.

Why use Flexible Grouping?

Because it works! Flexible grouping is a “best practice” for a reason. When you immediately identify a need and work to meet that need, students get exactly what they need. As students complete a lesson that they are struggling with and you pull them into a small group to address the need, the student is highly motivated to learn because they see the need as well. 

How to Use Flexible Grouping for Differentiation

There are so many different ways to use flexible grouping. Here are a few tips:

Know Your Options

Your flexible groups may always be small groups pulled back to work with you. However, flexible groups can also be putting students in pairs, partnering struggling students with advanced students to address specific needs. Heterogeneous small groups might be used to help struggling students or to boost advanced students. Students can also be grouped based on learning style so they can work on tasks together that highlight their strengths. The teacher can monitor and provide guidance as needed to make sure these groups are appropriate for all students.

Use Your Data

All flexible grouping for the purpose of differentiation should be based on current data. A lot of your data will come from formative assessments. This is why formative assessments are so important and must be incorporated on a daily basis. Formative assessments do not have to be long and complex. Each lesson should end with a quick formative assessment. An exit ticket question is a fine example of a formative assessment. Maybe have students complete 4 short math problems based on the day’s lesson. Or have them write 2-4 sentences about the story they’ve read to demonstrate comprehension.

These are very quick and easy ways for you to see which students are getting the concept and which ones are not. You can also use benchmark data that is gathered throughout the school year to address more broad categories of needs that students may have. Then, use this data to group struggling students together in order to address the misconceptions or difficulties. Remember, time is of the essence. Quickly work to address the problems the same day or the following day in order to maximize student learning.

Covert Differentiation

When providing differentiation, especially with older students, it is often necessary to provide that differentiation in a way that will help struggling students avoid embarrassment. The perfect way to differentiate in a way that is not obvious to other students is through Google Classroom. By giving individual students their own activities and assignments to do on Google Classroom, you can provide the right kind of practice for each student in a way that is not obvious to other students as they are working on their own needed skills and remediation.

Flexible grouping is truly how differentiation manifests itself in the classroom. As you check student performance on each day’s skills and concepts, stop and address the needs when you see them. That is a sure way to provide clear and effective instruction that gives students exactly what they need to be successful.

*Updated December, 2020