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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach Early Childhood Literacy
The Pros and Cons of Heterogeneous Grouping 
Miriam Bissu

A question that frequently arises in our classrooms is whether to group homogeneously or heterogeneously. My preference has always been heterogeneously grouped classes in which children receive reading instruction at their level in some combination of:
  • guided reading groups
  • individualized reading with one-to-one conferencing
  • flexible grouping based on needs or interests
  • literature circles.

In these classes, literacy skills and strategies are taught to the whole class during read aloud and shared reading, as well as during Writer's Workshop and writing mini-lessons.

My most rewarding teaching experiences occurred when I worked in a school that used Balanced Literacy in all its classrooms. The classes were very carefully grouped for heterogeneous instruction. All of the classes had fairly equal numbers of students with high, average, and low achievement levels. The classes had equal numbers of second language learners, learning disabled children receiving a variety of services, and children with behavior management problems.

The success of heterogeneous classes was largely due to the care that went into making up the classes. Children were very carefully matched to their teachers' styles. Some children work better with certain types of teaching and management styles than others. Heterogeneous grouping allows for the matching of learning styles to teaching styles. In addition, children who worked well together could be placed in the same class so that they could continue to support each other.

Homogeneous grouping often means that one teacher gets an overwhelming number of children with problems of one kind or another. Even when children are tracked there can be a range of ability of two years between the highest and lowest achievers in that class. A situation can be created that means an unsatisfactory experience for an entire school year for those unfortunate students and their teacher. Students who are tracked in this way can end up having several years of detrimental learning experiences.

One of the arguments for homogeneous instruction is that it is easier to provide whole class instruction, and that small groups would be unnecessary if children were grouped homogeneously. However, in reality, homogeneous classes can be rather heterogeneous. For example, in a high functioning class of fifth graders you could have several children reading 3 to 4 years above level and several reading 1 to 2 years above level. While they may all be able to read above level, a good number of them would always be reading way above or way below their ability level. It becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to provide whole class instruction which meets individual needs under these circumstances.

Early childhood classes, in particular, require smaller groups. Young children who are just beginning to learn about print and reading need more direct, small group instruction in using and integrating visual, structural, and meaning cueing strategies when reading. Without this close supervision during guided reading, many children will fall through the cracks. They will not be able to become strong, independent readers without ongoing assessment and guided instruction from text matched to their level.

In Balanced Literacy classrooms, children learn specific reading strategies as a whole class during read aloud and shared reading. During this time they learn comprehension skills and engage in meaningful dialogs about books. Then they practice these skills and strategies in text that matches their levels either in small, guided reading groups, literature circles, or independent reading. The teacher uses guided reading and reading conferences to assess children, teach to their level and take them a step beyond to provide an opportunity for growth as readers. Children also work closely with peers to gain support as learners.

For more information on balanced literacy, you may look at other articles on this web site which deal with read aloud, shared and guided reading, and assessment:



I would also recommend The Art of Teaching Reading by Lucy Calkins (Longman), Guided Reading by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell (Heinemann) and On Solid Ground by Sharon Taberski (Heinemann).


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