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Whole-Class vs. Small-Group Instruction

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Instructor: Derek Hughes

Derek has a Masters of Science degree in Teaching, Learning & Curriculum.

To facilitate student learning, teachers today are taught a variety of grouping strategies. Explore the two main methods of grouping instruction, whole-class instruction, and small-group instruction, and which situations are best suited for each. Updated: 12/07/2021

Types of Groups

Way back when, students would go to school and sit in rows for the entire day, listening to the teacher talk on and on about different subjects. During this time, students were responsible for sitting still, listening, and taking notes to learn. However, we have come a long way in our understanding of how students learn (thankfully).

These days, teachers are taught to use a variety of grouping strategies to help facilitate student learning. The two main groups you will find in a classroom are whole-class, in which the teacher teaches a topic to the whole class or students have a discussion as a whole group, or small-group, in which students work with each other or the teacher in smaller groups.

This lesson will explain when each of these grouping strategies is appropriate to use and detail some example activities for each type of group.

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  • 0:00 Types Of Groups
  • 0:52 Whole-Class Instruction
  • 2:35 Small-Group Instruction
  • 4:32 Groups Throughout The Day
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Whole-Class Instruction

Those classrooms mentioned in the introduction were doing some stuff right, obviously. The idea of teaching to the whole class is still an important one. However, attempting to do so for the entire school day will most likely result in tears and frustration, and not just from the students. Whole-class instruction is best used in two broad situations: introducing a new concept or topic and facilitating a classroom discussion.

Small-group instruction is largely preferred for most of the school day, but sometimes you need to have your students all focused on one person or thing. For example, if your students had never heard the word 'verb' before, you wouldn't put them into a group where they had to work together to find verbs in a piece of text. You would first need to introduce the concept to the whole class, either through direct instruction, a video, or another form of media.

One area where whole-class instruction is especially useful is in modeling a new concept or procedure. Take, for example, during writing instruction. This week, your students are going to learn how to write a friendly letter. However, they have never before seen, read (maybe), or written a friendly letter. Through whole-class instruction, you can model a friendly letter, so your students can spend some time practicing independently or in small groups.

Facilitating class discussions is done through whole-class instruction, at least for the first couple times students are engaging in the process. It's important to use whole-class instruction for discussions, because you, as the teacher, need to make sure students understand the topic and are following the guidelines for a productive conversation. Perhaps after the students have had some practice, they can run the discussion themselves or even have smaller discussions in groups.

Small-Group Instruction

In an effective, productive learning environment, small-group instruction is where the meat of learning is done. Small-groups can be used for a variety of purposes and activities and can be divided into three sub-types. These are teacher-led small-groups, student-led small-groups, and independent small-groups (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn't, I promise).

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