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Flexible grouping: What you need to know

By Amanda Morin

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Flexible grouping is a data-driven teaching practice. It puts students into temporary groups to work together for only as long as is needed for them to develop an identified skill or to complete a learning activity. The groups change often based on students’ needs, skill development, or knowledge.

If you’re like most teachers, putting students into groups is an important part of your day-to-day classroom life. And that concept of grouping dates back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse, when teachers grouped students by age or ability. 

In today’s inclusive classrooms, we know age and ability don’t correspond neatly across subjects. Students have different strengths, interests, and needs depending on the content area, specific lesson, or even the time of day. Few students engage at the same exact academic, social-emotional, or linguistic level every day. That’s where flexible grouping comes in.

What is flexible grouping?

Flexible grouping creates temporary groups of students in the classroom. Students work together — often with the guidance of a teacher — only for the length of time necessary for them to develop an identified skill or to complete a learning activity. That makes it different from static groups that don’t change based on students’ needs, acquisition of skills, or knowledge. 

Flexible grouping is a data-driven practice. You can use data you already have on hand to group and regroup students so you meet their evolving needs. Sometimes the data that prompts you to create a group may be your observations during a lesson. For example, you may see that some students may need more practice before moving on.

A key component of flexible grouping is that while all students are working toward the same learning goal, the work addresses students’ varying learning needs. The work is engaging and important for all students, but the task or how they show what they’ve learned may look different for each group. 

Why use flexible grouping? 

Flexible grouping is a powerful and effective practice for improving learning. It allows your students to get the right support, in the right way, at the right time. 

When flexible grouping is part of the classroom routine, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about one or more students working with the teacher on a specific project. Students who struggle don’t feel singled out or stigmatized. And because groups change frequently and aren’t based on ability level alone, all students have the chance to get to know and work with each other. In fact, according to research, all students in classrooms that use flexible grouping show academic gains. 

Benefits for students

Not being pigeonholed. Flexible grouping allows for regrouping for different content areas. That’s beneficial to students who learn and think differently because they may have challenges in some content areas and not in others. For instance, a student who struggles with reading but not math can be grouped with other students who have similar support needs in reading. That student can then be regrouped for math.

Feeling valued. Students bring their own skills, talents, and life experiences to the group. In flexible groups, students see that everyone adds value to the learning community. This follows the culturally responsive teaching philosophy of identifying students’ assets and using them to create student-centered instruction. Working in student-led groups means that non-academic strengths, like leadership skills, are important, too. 

Ownership of work. With flexible grouping, students also develop ownership of and responsibility for their own learning. All of this is good preparation for higher education or work, where teams often rely on the differing skills sets of people to manage different tasks in a project. 

Language practice. Flexible grouping is also particularly beneficial to . It gives them more chances to interact with classmates who speak English fluently and to practice both academic and interpersonal language. Students can also be placed in groups with other classmates who speak the same home language. In those groups, they can discuss content or concepts before sharing their ideas in English.

Benefits for teachers

Building a team-oriented culture. Flexible grouping helps build a positive, team-oriented culture in your classroom. Knowledge and practice become more fluid as students are constantly learning from others in the room instead of just relying on you. 

Efficient opportunities for students to practice. Flexible grouping is a way to provide additional support without having to find time or change your daily schedule to pull students aside. In small groups, you can give students practice opportunities at their instructional level and increased feedback. 

The opportunity to collect data. Because flexible grouping depends on data, it also gives you a routine for data collection. When students are working in groups, you can collect observational data, as well as more formalized data. For instance, you may ask students to take pictures of their work at the beginning, middle, and end of the lesson. Or you can have an “exit ticket” for all students, which asks students to do things like:

  • Summarize key points from the lesson

  • Show how they can use what they learned to solve a problem

  • Answer an essential question based on the lesson

  • Identify questions they may still have

All of this data can help you make immediate adjustments to your instruction in the moment. It also helps you tailor your future instruction, which might include switching up your groups the next day. 

What do flexible groups look like?

Flexible groups come in all types and sizes. They can:

  • Include partners, small groups of a couple of students, and large groups of up to six students

  • Be heterogeneous (made up of varying abilities) or homogeneous (made up of the same ability)

  • Be teacher-led or student-led

  • Last for just one lesson or for a few weeks, depending on the purpose of the activity, learning goals, and data

In elementary grades, this might look like students rotating among different learning stations, working in guided reading groups that change from week to week, or engaging in a “turn and talk” with different partners each time.

In middle school and high school, this might look like collaborative learning groups in which students have clearly defined roles, like being the facilitator or timekeeper.

How do I put flexible grouping into practice?

1. Define the learning objective for your lesson to determine what type of groups you need.

Start with a clear idea of exactly what skills or concepts you want students to master by the end of the lesson. (This is your criteria of success.) These are the checkpoints that you use to assess mastery. Knowing them ahead of time allows you to frequently monitor each group’s progress and adjust groups in the moment when necessary. It also allows you to be more intentional about creating groups.

For example, let’s say you’re grouping students for literacy time. Some students are working on learning vowel sounds and you’ve noticed a few are having trouble with /a/, while others are having trouble with /i/. You can target your instruction by creating homogeneous groups based on the tricky vowel. At the same time, you have students who are starting to learn about making inferences. Since this is a new skill, you can use heterogeneous groups so that students can collaborate on the skill and learn from each other. In both situations, you’re able to create a dynamic that avoids the stigma of being pulled aside for small group instruction. 

Tips for planning

  • Schedule time for group work in your lesson plans. 

  • Plan how you and co-teachers (or push-in support staff) will work together during a lesson. You can maximize flexible grouping instruction when you have more educators in the room to lead learning or circulate to support groups.

  • Plan to work with small groups and have work stations during independent practice times. 

  • Try out flexible grouping with your students for short periods of time or to complete quick activities so they can practice. Give them feedback on what went well.

  • Incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practices into your flexible grouping lessons. 

2. Review data to decide which students to group together.

Once you have your learning goal in mind, you can turn to student data to guide your decisions about how to group students. For instance, reviewing the exit tickets from a previous day can show you which students didn’t fully master the learning objective. You can then group them together to practice that skill. Or the responses to an equation on the board can help you form groups for the day. The students who understood it can move on and those who didn’t can be grouped to get more support and practice.

Tips for using data to form groups 

  • Review your students’ learning profiles.

  • Know your students’ interests

  • Evaluate how previous groupings went.

  • Draw on several sources of data, including:

    • Formal assessment data, like information from the most recent standardized testing

    • Informal observations of students

    • Student self-assessments or questionnaires, like exit tickets from the previous lesson

    • Pre- and post-testing around specific skills

    • Universal screening data (such as DIBELS or other reading assessments) 

    • Data from (RTI) programs 

    • Review of student writing

  • Start class with a Do Now and end with an exit ticket. They’re great sources of data for future lessons.

  • Use data to identify student successes or misconceptions to address during upcoming lessons.

3. Set guidelines for how the groups will interact.

Work with your students to create expectations for group work. For example, you might set the expectation that small groups have a timekeeper, a note-taker, and someone to be in charge of the materials. You might also outline only one person in a group speaking at a time and that all group members have a chance to speak during the work time. Clear expectations are critical to effective groups. 

Tips for group work

  • Use prompting and pre-correcting strategies to establish group behavior expectations and student roles.

  • Create a visual of the roles and expectations for each type of group.

  • Post directions.

  • Create visuals to support students with language needs.

  • Create a place for small group materials.

  • Color-code folders or baskets.

  • Determine set times for each group activity and provide time reminders for students to remain on task.

  • Assign a group member to be a materials manager.

  • Arrange furniture so that there is a whole group learning area and specific areas for small group work.

  • Teach routines for transitioning into small group work. 

  • Teach students how to have meaningful conversations with each other (known as Accountable Talk®). Using these strategies provides a framework for interactions as well as prompts and precise language for how they are expected to speak with each other.

4. Prompt students to reflect.

Build in time at the end of a lesson for students to talk about what they learned. Did they meet the learning goal? What lingering questions do they have? How effectively did their group work together? What could they do better next time? Students can reflect in a whole group discussion, via an exit ticket, or as part of the group’s assignment. This debriefing process can help you make decisions for the next groups you’ll form, like which students may have the same unresolved questions or misunderstandings.

Tips for debriefing

  • Use metacognitive strategies to ask students to reflect on their own learning. What advice would they give themselves for next time? What do they need to improve?

  • Ask students to tell you what they want more practice with.

  • Talk through how and from whom students got help when they needed it, and whether they feel they needed more support. 

  • Ask targeted questions to gauge how well your students achieved the learning goal. 

  • Ask students to give you specific feedback about what they may need in the future to be more successful learners. 

  • Have a mechanism for students who need some time to process their thoughts to provide feedback later, like a Google Doc or paper feedback form. 

Family connection

Families may be more familiar with the idea of ability grouping than flexible grouping. If that’s the case, they may be confused when their child comes home talking about moving from group to group. 

To head off confusion, you can explain at back-to-school night or in a class email or newsletter that you’ll be using flexible grouping this year. Emphasize that students will not change groups just when they need extra help — they’ll switch groups as they make progress, too. Let families know that you’ll keep an eye on how students are doing academically and with whom they work well in order to help you put them in groups that help them grow in many ways. 

You can also provide families with an opportunity to help you learn more about each student by providing them with caregiver and student questionnaires. It gives families a way to help you learn more about your students’ interests and to provide you with information that can be helpful as you think about grouping. 


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  • Facebook
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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom