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Grouping for Reading Instruction
December 2018


What does the research say about supplementing whole-classroom reading instruction with skill-specific small-group intervention for increasing elementary reading achievement?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Bolick, K. N., & Rogowsky, B. A. (2016). Ability grouping is on the rise, but should it be? Journal of Education and Human Development, 5(2), 40–51. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This review of the research literature sought to determine the effectiveness of ability grouping on kindergarten through sixth grade students. Specifically, this review examined what ability grouping encompasses and the varying methods for implementing ability grouping at the elementary level. In addition, we investigated the effect of ability grouping on the academic achievement of advanced, on level, and below level elementary students. Finally, we explored how ability grouping influences the psychological and social welfare of young students."

Foorman, B. R. (2007). Primary prevention in classroom reading instruction. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(5), 24–30. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The focus in this article is on beginning reading instruction in primary-grade classrooms, with particular attention to (a) evidence-based practices that promote classroom reading success, and (b) the criteria for selecting core reading materials that address the needs of a diverse group of students."

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J. et al. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (Educator’s Practice Guide, NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse. Retrieved from (Available full practice guide, summary, and other materials)

From the Abstract:
"This practice guide provides four recommendations for teaching foundational reading skills to students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Each recommendation includes implementation steps and solutions for common obstacles. The recommendations also summarize and rate supporting evidence. This guide is geared towards teachers, administrators, and other educators who want to improve their students’ foundational reading skills, and is a companion to the practice guide, Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade."

Foorman, B. R., & Torgeson, J. (2001). Critical elements of classroom and small-group instruction promote reading success in all children. Learning Disabilities: Research & Practice, 16(4), 203–212. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This article reviews research on effective classroom reading instruction that finds dramatic reduction in reading failure occurs when explicit instruction is provided in phonemic awareness and decoding skills, word recognition and text processing, construction of meaning, vocabulary, spelling, and writing. The need for small-group instruction for at-risk students is emphasized."

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S. et al. (2009). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades (IES Practice Guide, NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse.

From the Abstract:
"Response to Intervention (RtI) is a comprehensive early detection and prevention strategy that identifies struggling students and assists them before they fall behind. RtI systems combine universal screening and high-quality instruction for all students with interventions targeted at struggling students. This guide offers five specific recommendations to help educators identify struggling readers and implement evidence-based strategies to promote their reading achievement."

Puzio, K., & Colby, G. (2010). The effects of within class grouping on reading achievement: A meta-analytic synthesis. Evanston, IL: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.

From the Abstract:
"Within‐class grouping is a common classroom practice and this review has shown it to be effective at improving reading achievement. It is perhaps, however, a diminishing practice; recent studies (Chorzempa and Graham, 2006) have shown that between 56 and 60% of teachers group students for reading instruction within their classrooms. This review recommends that teachers and schools continue to use grouping to improve reading instruction. More research needs to be conducted using high quality designs in order to answer the questions related to the type of grouping that is most beneficial and how to support teachers’ implementations of these practices."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Reading, Group, Classroom, Instruction, Elementary, Intervention, Ability

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.