University of Pittsburgh School of Education

What is Flexible Grouping, and why use it in your LEADERS classroom?

By Dr. Bruce Fischman (Muhlenberg College)

One of the best resource texts to understand Flexible Grouping was written by Michael Opitz for Scholastic Professional Books. He defines Flexible Grouping as "allowing students to work in differently mixed groups depending on the goal of the learning task at hand." This definition is a core belief for teachers in the LEADERS program, because it honors all kinds of learners, which helps to establish a community of learners necessary to promote literacy.

"Allowing students to work in differently mixed groups" gives students ownership in their classroom. Students can choose reading partners during independent reading time, while teachers select students for guided or guiding reading based upon running record data. The result is a wonderful atmosphere of trust, cooperation and support for readers at all stages of literacy development.

A Reading Workshop begins with a whole class mini-lesson that introduces a new reading strategy for everyone to try or a specific resource skill like using the dictionary for vocabulary development. Then, while the teacher is meeting with guided reading groups, students are choosing reading partners for independent reading time. The small guided reading group is the place where the teacher continues to model the specific skill or strategy shared in the mini-lesson.

The dictionary work is leveled for the students who need either a picture dictionary or intermediate dictionary or collegiate dictionary. The common link for all readers is their use of the dictionary as a resource tool to understand vocabulary. The flexible aspect is that different readers are using different dictionaries for vocabulary work.

Opitz lists nine reasons for using flexible grouping:
  1. To ensure that all learners feel part of the community.
  2. To help children better understand what they have read.
  3. To enable students to work cooperatively with a wide variety of peers.
  4. To help students feel more involved in their learning.
  5. To capitalize on the research that supports the use of grouping as a way to engage students with appropriate instruction and materials.
  6. To offset the effects of ability grouping.
  7. To help the majority of students by using time efficiently.
  8. To provide for individual differences using open-ended assignments.
  9. To accomplish the goals of a reading program and address national reading and language arts standards.
Using a flexible grouping plan makes sense, but it is not easy to put into place. Teachers must be willing to risk giving students real reading time, rather than quiet "seat work," while meeting with different small reading groups. Real reading time means that the classroom library has leveled books and that there is a system in place for students to select materials. Lucy Calkins suggests five levels. Your classroom library can be divided into easy, medium and harder text reading. Then sub-divide the easy and hard texts by adding a + for books needing closer reader attention. The five groups of books are color coded, and students are directed to select books "on their level."

Enter a LEADERS classroom with flexible grouping in place, and you will notice a community of readers doing real reading and thinking and writing. The standard that is upheld in those classrooms is the love for reading and writing and a lifelong commitment to literacy.

Submitted by: Bruce Fischman, EdD Regional Co-director, Muhlenberg College, and Third Grade Teacher

Resource Texts

Opitz, Michael
Flexible Grouping in Reading
Scholastic Professional Books, 1998
JoAnne Caldwell and Michael P. Ford
Where Have All the Bluebirds Gone? How to Soar with Flexible Grouping
Heinemann, 2002
Debbie Miller
Making the Most of Small Groups: Differentiation for All
Stenhouse Publishers, 2007