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The Effect of Instructional Grouping Format on Reading Outcomes

Teaching Reading-Reading Teaching Strategies

A Meta-Analytic Review (Executive Summary)

Background and Purpose

American schools are educating an increasingly diverse student population. This diversity is present in students' cultural and linguistic backgrounds, behavior, and learning abilities. One of the greatest challenges that teachers face is to provide appropriate reading instruction for all students, including students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders.

For decades, schools assigned students with disabilities who needed specialized reading instruction to a part- or full-time special education classroom. The 1997 Reauthorization of IDEA provides support for opportunities to educate students with disabilities in the general education classroom to the extent appropriate and also to ensure these students' access to the general education curriculum. This raises the question of how best to organize the classroom and group students for instruction so as to maximize student achievement.

Traditionally, students in regular classrooms were divided into several groups according to reading ability and were provided reading instruction within these groups. In the last twenty years, there has been considerable criticism of same-ability grouping on the grounds that this practice lowers self-esteem and motivation among students with reading problems and often widens the gap between high and low achievers. At the same time, there has been an increase in the popularity of alternative grouping practices such as cooperative learning and cross-age tutoring that are designed to accommodate individual differences while avoiding social stigmas.

As a result of inclusion and other reform movements in special education, increased collaboration between general and special educators, and the rise of new methods of grouping for reading instruction, educators need a comparison of the effects of different ways of grouping students with disabilities for reading instruction.


This study, a meta-analysis of 20 studies conducted from 1975 to 1995, examined the relationship between reading outcomes of students with disabilities and the grouping formats (i.e., pairing, small groups, multiple grouping formats) used for reading instruction. Most studies compared students who received instruction through one of these grouping formats with similar students who received "traditional" instruction delivered to the whole class. The researchers found that students who were taught in one of the alternative grouping formats had greater reading outcomes, on average, than students in a comparison group (nearly half a standard deviation higher). Thus, this research supports the use of alternative instructional groupings for teaching reading to students with disabilities.

What are the results of students tutoring each other?

Researchers found clear benefits to tutoring both in cases when the students with disabilities acted as reciprocal tutors-tutees and in cases when they were only tutees. Acting as a reciprocal tutor does not appear to diminish the effect of peer tutoring, and may offer the additional benefit of boosting students' self-esteem through the teaching role.

The average effect of cross-age tutoring was very high for cross-age tutors but negligible for cross-age tutees. In the cross-age tutoring studies, tutors were in some cases students with disabilities and other cases regular education students. Hence, the lack of an effect for tutees cannot be explained entirely by the hypothesis that tutors who are students with disabilities lack the content knowledge or teaching skill to help their tutees.

Outcomes for students with disabilities varied depending on the particular focus of the reading instruction that was provided (for example, whether the focus was on word recognition or reading comprehension), as well as on how these outcomes were measured (for example, whether the test that students were given following the reading intervention was a test of decoding skills, oral reading of passages, reading comprehension, etc.). Future research is needed to clarify these issues.

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