Teacher Scholar Voices

Book Groups: Re-thinking Assumptions about Grouping

Teacher Scholar Voices

LauraAlvarez2Laura Alvarez is an 8th grade English teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland Unified School District. In the second of her series of three connected blog posts, Laura discusses how looking at video data of student book groups prompted her to rethink student grouping practices and better support her students to have analytical discussions about their texts.

One of my many unexamined teaching practices has always been to make heterogeneous groups, unless I was directly facilitating a guided reading group. So, for their Animal Farm book groups, I put students in heterogeneous groups based on their Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) scores. When I listened closely to my students’ discussions, however, I began to see a striking contrast between my two focal students who had higher SRI scores (Fabiola and Charles) and their groupmates with lower scores (Elisa and Alejandro).

Fabiola and Charles had great discussions—mostly with each other—while Elisa and Alejandro asked questions, which sometimes sparked their groupmates’ discussions, but they responded minimally themselves. After their discussions, Elisa and Alejandro drew on Fabiola and Charles’ ideas in their written responses. However, I worried that they were not doing much grappling in the group (see my previous post) and that their academic status as “low” readers was being reinforced.

For our next round of lit circles in the winter, students read three different novels and I grouped them almost entirely by novel choice. Elisa read The Hunger Games and met in a group with another boy who read below grade level according to the SRI and three students who were stronger readers but had low academic status for different reasons.

In January, I listScreen Shot 2014-09-16 at 1.49.01 PMened to a recording of Elisa with her group and was shocked at how often she participated, for the most part asking factual questions about things she didn’t understand and doing a little clarifying for her groupmates. Throughout all of 7th grade and during her Animal Farm group, Elisa participated minimally in reading groups. Something about this group seemed to be a safer space for her to ask questions, offer ideas, and get support. Most of her questions and the discussion focused on getting the plot down, but this did indeed serve our goal of having discussions that helped everyone reach a better understanding of the text.

In contrast, Charles read Kindred by Octavia Butler with a group of stronger readers. Their discussions included much more analysis–which I defined as moving beyond recounting and clarifying to using evidence from the text to make a point. For example, his groupmate Karina asked if one character, Alice, believed Rufus, the man who had enslaved and raped her, when he said he would allow their children to attend school in the North. Charles referred to a previous event, when Rufus did not send letters he had promised to send, and explained how Alice’s knowledge of that event would cause her to doubt that Rufus would follow through on his promise. Here Charles was able to make an original claim about a character’s perspective drawing from multiple events in the story as evidence.

While I was pleased to see Elisa’s active participation, I was concerned that her group was not engaging in the same level of analysis as Charles’ group. While one of her groupmates did try to ask questions and offer more analysis, they were not taken up by Elisa and the others. I realized that many students needed support getting to this next level of analysis and that this sometimes required multiple reads–first to get the basic plot down, then for analysis.


I tried different strategies to push students into analytical thinking, providing models of text-based analytical discussion questions and explicitly pointing out the format of my questions–often a quote with a question about what it meant or why the character said it.

Over the Winter and Spring, I tried different strategies to push students into analytical thinking, providing models of text-based analytical discussion questions and explicitly pointing out the format of my questions–often a quote with a question about what it meant or why the character said it. We also talked about what made a good quote for a discussion question, and students recognized that they were quotes where the reader had to “read between the lines.” Finally, students debriefed their discussions and decided which of their own questions had most pushed their comprehension.

For our last round of lit circles in the Spring, students again fell into more homogeneous groups, with Elisa and Alejandro together in a group reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. Here they were active participants and moved beyond asking factual questions and getting support with the plot to doing more of the analysis Charles did in January. The chart below contrasts Alejandro’s participation in a group with stronger readers in January to his participation in the group with Elisa in May.

Alejandro in January Alejandro in May
  • Asks questions, but groupmates respond without referencing the text
  • Doesn’t analyze
  • Asks questions which drive discussion and lead to the group going to the text to clarify
  • Uses the text for analysis 3 times

Seeing their growth made me confident that more homogeneous groups could support the needs of lower students and that taking them away from their stronger classmates wouldn’t deprive them of the opportunity to do higher level analysis. Students across the wide range of reading levels in my class were able to have analytical discussions about their texts grounded in evidence.


Don’t miss Laura’s third post in her seriesWhat’s a “Strong Reader”?: Looking Beyond Assessment Numbers