Differentiated Small-Group Reading Lessons

Keys to Successful Implementation


  • Students are grouped by a common need in a strategy or skill, rather than reading levels alone. This enables more targeted instruction.
  • The text selected for the lesson is at the instructional level of the student at the earliest reading level, or a shared reading format is used.
  • Student goals are highlighted on their strategy bookmark to provide a focus during lessons and independent practice.
    • What is your goal as a reader?
    • How does this strategy help you grow as a reader?
  • Group membership is continuously changing based upon ongoing, informal assessment data in order to meet every student’s current reading goal.


These include:

Anchor Strategy Charts:

  • Picture-cued charts with consistent strategy statements are used during the demonstration and coaching for application part of the lesson. They provide a set of common strategy statements that students can internalize and apply to their own reading.
  • Clip the strategy chart onto a whiteboard and use a colored paper clip or clothespin alongside the strategy that is the teaching point for the lesson.

(See strategy charts for word-solving, fluency and comprehension in Southall, 2009 and 2011)

Strategy Bookmarks:

  • Bookmarks with strategy statements and corresponding picture cues depict how to go about applying each strategy step by step. The bookmarks provide valuable tactile memory aids and support a high level of student engagement.
  • Students use the strategy bookmarks as a focusing tool during ‘turn and talk time’. Students pinch the icon that represents their thinking and use the sentence starters or prompts to help them verbalize their strategy use.
  • The ‘think-pinch-share’ routine ensures all-student responses are incorporated at regular intervals during each lesson.
  • Allowing students opportunity to verbalize how they applied the strategy during reading supports transfer of new learning to independent reading.
  • You can also provide sticky flags coded by strategy for students to store on the bookmark. They use the sticky flags to mark their thinking spots in the text. This helps students to apply the strategy during reading and prepare for discussion and/or writing in response to reading.

(See strategy bookmarks for word-solving, fluency and comprehension in Southall, 2009 and 2011)


  • Teaching sequences for essential skills and strategies help streamline the teacher preparation and planning required when teaching multiple, differentiated reading groups each day (see Differentiated Small-Group Reading Lessons, Southall, 2009, Scholastic).

Word-Solving Lessons:



I Can Sound and Say:
Build and Blend
Build and Blend Dominoes

Accurate and fluent blending

Blending Words in a List and Connected Text

Blending words in isolation and in context

I Can Chunk the Word
Sound and Say the Chunk

Recognition of common vowel patterns
Learning patterns in key words

Use What I Know

Using vowel patterns in familiar words to problem-solve new and complex words (analogy)

I Can Switch the Sound
Switch the Vowel

Flexibility with vowel pronunciations

Fluency Lessons:



I See Words I Know: X-Ray Eyes; Sight Word Sorts

Increasing accuracy in reading irregular high frequency words

I Can Read Groups of Words

Reading with meaningful phrasing

I Can Use My Voice;
I Can Look at the Marks

Reading with intonation and expression
Attending to punctuation cues in the text

Comprehension Lessons:



I Can Connect

Making Connections

I Can Predict


I Can Wonder

Generating and answering inferential and evaluative questions

I Can Figure It Out


I Can Stop and Fix

Self-monitoring using clarifying strategies

I Can Retell

Using story structure to comprehend fictional text

I Can Sum It Up

Summarizing Informational Text; Determining important information

I Can Use All My Tools

Integrating Multiple Strategies

I Can Code the Text

Integrating Strategy Use with Interactive Notetaking - coding the text during reading


  • The sample below is of an excerpt from one of the Comprehension When/Then Charts in Differentiated Small-Group Reading Lessons (Scholastic) that align student difficulties with specific teaching practices, formats and materials. You will find When/Then Charts for each skill/strategy in word-solving, fluency and comprehension in the book. The chart below can be found in the Handout.

Student Difficulty With Questioning

Teaching Response/Next Steps

Retells accurately and responds to literal questions with success, but is unsuccessful with questions requiring higher level thinking; provides text-based literal answers to inferential questions and may respond to probing by the teacher with comments such as The book said that…; That wasn’t in the book; or It didn’t tell us about that

  • Model and provide supported practice answering questions that require integrating information and personal reflection
  • Demonstrate the difference between literal, inferential and evaluative questions with examples and picture or body part cues; reaffirm personal responses are appropriate with inferential and evaluative questions
  • Focus on making connections to the theme or topic in the prereading activities; point out how these are related to student’s own lives and validate their ideas
  • Highlight the ‘’markers’’ or key words in the questions on the group chart that indicate which type it is (for student and teacher generated questions)
  • Support students in discriminating between literal and inferential or evaluative questions with a sorting activity in which the group identifies the questions that require them to seek and find (literal) or Think and Feel (inferential and evaluative); records these and has students place the cards under the appropriate categories
  • Provide time for journal writing, partner dialogue journals during which partners (or teacher and student) exchange journals to ask and respond to each others ‘I wonder’ statements

Responds to higher-level questions with vague and/or ambiguous answers full of general statements and weak descriptors; is unable to explain what they mean; says "I don’t know"

  • Focus on story or text structure and cause-and-effect relationships, such as chain (sequence) of events, 2-column ‘’This Happened/Because’’ formats, story maps, story structure sorts (see I Can Retell lesson), character analysis to identify the theme or main idea with fiction, summarizing activities with nonfiction to determine important information (see I Can Sum It Up lesson)
  • Include compare-and-contrast activities using Venn diagrams or two-column charts to clarify students’ thinking
  • Highlight key words in the text such as before, after, because that indicate a relationship between events and ideas (see Inferring lesson)
  • Integrate vocabulary development in the prereading activities so students are able to understand and use these words or concepts they represent to express their thinking (See Story Structure Sort in I Can Retell lesson)

Provides brief responses that lack sufficient detail to be ’correct’ answers; for example, when asked to describe how a character might be feeling at this moment in the story, responds bad and when asked to expand on their very bad, or That’s all I can think of

  • Provide guided practice on cumulatively integrating multiple sources of information across the text - break text into short sections and analyze the clues available to the reader so far What do we know so far? How does this help us figure out ...?
  • Suggest student sketch a visual representation of their understanding in their response journal before reading then adding more details to represent new information, during and after reading (Sketch to Stretch, Harste, Short and Burke, 1988)
  • Supports understanding through concept maps

Neglects the information in the text

  • Provide categorizing information activities e.g. sort facts under subheadings or story structure sort (see I Can Retell lesson)
  • Incorporate visualization activities (see I Can Fix It bookmark)
  • Provide vocabulary from the text before reading so that students can use the words to generate their prediction; after reading they compare their predictions to the actual events or information in the text
  • Asks “How do you know?” Prompts students to locate and read the evidence in the text and/or give reasons for their thinking
  • Strategy prompt cards that use the same terminology as the strategy charts are also provided. When students have difficulty, you can quickly glance at the card for a prompt to use during coaching that corresponds to the strategy they are neglecting and need to apply to self-correct.

With years of experience as a classroom teacher, special education resource teacher, reading specialist and literacy coach to guide her, Margo now enjoys her role as an educational consultant with school districts across the United States and Canada. Margo's books and training are designed to support teachers in developing highly effective, differentiated literacy programs.

Copyright 2007-2009 Margo Southall - Developed by GoLogo