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Navigating the Classroom: Small Group Instruction vs Whole Class Instruction in Years 0-3

This blog aims to spark dialogue and encourage educators to critically examine their instructional practices, enhancing the fabric of students’ experiences of the structured literacy approach in their classrooms.

In the dynamic landscape of education, teachers are continually faced with the conundrum regarding instructional approaches that best serve their students’ needs. One of the most debated topics around a structured literacy approach to teaching is the choice between small group instruction versus whole class instruction, leaving educators grappling with the question of which approach is most effective for fostering student learning and growth. Let’s delve into the intricacies of small group instruction and whole class instruction, considering insights from research and experienced educators to provide clarity and guidance for teachers seeking to optimise their instructional practices.

Small Group Instruction: Tailored Support for Individualised Learning

Small group instruction involves a tailored learning experience that targets the specific needs of individual students or small cohorts. This approach allows teachers to provide targeted support, personalised feedback, and differentiated instruction. Research suggests several advantages and disadvantages of small group instruction.


  1. Personalised Attention: In small groups, teachers can focus on the specific needs of each student, offering individualised support and guidance tailored to their learning preferences and abilities.
  2. Increased Engagement: Smaller group settings foster active participation, peer collaboration, and meaningful interactions, creating a conducive environment for student engagement and learning.
  3. Enhanced Observation: Teachers can closely monitor student progress, identify areas for growth, provide timely feedback and adjust instruction accordingly to facilitate deeper understanding and mastery of concepts.
  4. Differentiation: This instruction allows for greater flexibility in adapting teaching strategies and materials to meet the diverse needs of students, ensuring that each learner receives appropriate levels of challenge and support.

Sorenson & Hallinan (1986) found superiority of small group teaching over whole class teaching, but they also found this advantage to be dissipated by the relatively low amounts of learning obtained during the independent seat work activities that students were obliged to engage in while their classmates received small group instruction.

Small group teaching was found to be superior only when the lessons were taught by multiple teachers, not when individual teachers were delivering the lessons while the other children did seat work (Taylor, Pearson, Clark & Walpole, 2002).


  1. Limited Time: Allocating sufficient time for small group sessions within the constraints of a busy classroom schedule can be challenging, especially when balancing the needs of various student groups.
  2. Management Complexity: Managing multiple small groups simultaneously requires careful planning, organisation, and classroom management skills to ensure smooth transitions and maximise instructional time.
  3. Unequal Participation: In some cases, certain students may dominate the conversation or require more attention, leading to unequal participation and engagement within the group.

Whole Class Instruction: Fostering Community and Shared Learning Experiences

Whole class instruction involves teaching all students in a class at the same time, providing opportunities for shared learning experiences, collaborative discussions, and collective engagement. Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of whole class instruction:

“Never do with a small group what you could be [doing] as well with the whole class … maximise the amount of learning opportunity that you provide the students. Use groups to focus on different learning tasks or to follow up whole class lessons as needed. Don’t group for the sake of grouping.”  Timothy Shanahan, Shanahan on Literacy


  1. Shared Learning Experiences: Whole class instruction ensures that all students receive the same foundational knowledge and exposure to essential concepts, fostering a sense of inclusivity and equity within the classroom community.
  2. Efficient Use of Time: Addressing the entire class simultaneously allows teachers to efficiently deliver content, model skills, and engage students in collective learning activities, optimising instructional time and resources.
  3. Teacher Expertise: Skilled teachers can effectively manage whole class instruction, leveraging their expertise to engage students, facilitate discussions, and provide timely feedback, promoting meaningful learning experiences for all learners.
  4. Community Building: Whole class activities promote a sense of belonging and collaboration, encouraging students to learn from one another, share ideas and work together towards common goals.


  1. Limited Individualisation: Meeting the diverse needs of students in a large group setting can be challenging, potentially overlooking individual learning preferences, interests and abilities.
  2. Unequal Participation: In whole class discussions, certain students may dominate the conversation, while others remain passive observers, leading to unequal participation and limited engagement for some learners.
  3. Management Complexity: Maintaining classroom discipline and managing student behaviour can be more challenging in a whole class setting, requiring effective classroom management strategies and techniques to ensure a productive learning environment.

Striking a Balance: Blending the Best of Both Worlds

As educators, our goal is to create a balanced instructional approach that leverages the strengths of both small group and whole class instruction. Here are some strategies to achieve this.

  1. Differentiated Instruction: Tailor instruction to meet the unique needs of individual students while providing opportunities for shared learning experiences and collaboration.
  2. Flexible Grouping: Utilise flexible grouping strategies to accommodate changing learning objectives, allowing students to work in small groups, pairs, or independently as needed.
  3. Purposeful Planning: Design instructional activities that promote active engagement, critical thinking, and meaningful interaction, whether in small groups or as a whole class.
  4. Continuous Reflection: Regularly reflect on instructional practices, gather feedback from students, and adjust teaching strategies based on ongoing assessment data and observations.

“I’m not willing to give up altogether on small group instruction (or even individual teaching)—because there can be useful learning advantages from it. But I’d never organize classrooms to ensure that they specifically deliver small group teaching. I’d always try to minimize small group teaching whenever possible for the sake of efficiency.”  Timothy Shanahan, Shanahan on Literacy

The choice between small group instruction and whole class instruction is not about selecting one approach over the other, but rather finding a harmonious balance that optimises student learning and promotes inclusive educational practices. By embracing the strengths of each approach and adapting teaching methods to suit the diverse needs of their students, educators can create dynamic and engaging learning environments where every learner thrives. Together, let’s navigate the classroom with purpose and intentionality, and empower educators to make informed decisions that positively impact student learning outcomes.

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