Home                            RED 530


Ability Grouping


Positive ~ Negative










Judith Roberts

Prof. Parsons

Fall 2001

RED 530






                        Children do not all learn in the same way and consequently, approaches

                        with particular emphases are apt to result in some children learning

                        to read, and others not. (Cunningham, 1998)




            Teachers dedicate their lives to teaching children to read and build a strong foundation for them to succeed throughout their school years.  Reading instruction often times takes shape in many forms in the classroom.  Teachers now see that children enter school with different levels of exposure to reading.  Some children have never been read to before yet others may have been read to since they were toddlers.  A child that has been exposed to books and has a genuine interest in what they are reading is very important when they begin school.  A teacher may have twenty students in her classroom but how will she teach reading to everyone effectively? 

When considering this I would have to ask the following:  How does ability grouping affect students?  Does a child progress throughout the year in the assigned group? What alternatives are available to teachers when it comes to grouping students?  How does ability grouping meet the individual needs of students?  Does a child stay in a low group for a short time and move up as the child progresses?  Is grouping student’s necessary when teaching reading?  How do parents really feel about their child in reading groups?

            As educators we are taught the importance of meeting the individual needs of students in a diverse classroom.  Acceptance, self-esteem, and confidence are very important for a child to feel part of a whole group.  Feeling safe in an environment where everyone feels equal greatly effects the way a student learns especially when it comes to reading instruction.

            As educators and parents, children need to have positive experiences in elementary school.  It is during those first few years of education that a foundation is built.  So many students struggle through those years feeling lost in a system that continues for many years. Those students always feel singled out from the whole group.

   My research then leads me to further questions such as:  How does ability groupings really affect a child?  How do teachers deal with students with learning disabilities? Feeling the frustration of what it must be like for the teacher, we should also look at what alternatives are available for teachers.  How will these alternatives work?  Parents often times do not want to challenge a teacher’s decision about their child.  How can a parent break that barrier and communicate in a way to the teacher just how they are really feeling and become more a part of the decision making process? How does grouping effect students at the high school level?  Do teachers still continue to track those students or are they lost in the system?

            My research will also include a father’s perspective on ability grouping.  What I learned from this father’s experience opened my eyes to the affects grouping has on a child.  Although he was a teacher, he provided his daughter with a rich background of literature and she became an enthusiastic pre-schooler.  Entering kindergarten had a drastic impact on this child’s relationship to the world of literacy.  It personally changed the child’s focus of learning and studying right on through the high school years.  Do many other parents share in such experiences and feel compelled to remain anonymous to the field of education?  

            Since I am a parent of three children I can honestly say that my children enjoy reading especially when given a choice of what they read.  Were they placed in ability groups in first and second grade?  Yes, I do recall such grouping but I never felt that they were held back in any way.  In fact, I have always kept the lines of communication open with all content areas of study.  They are now in the 7th and 12th grades.  All three love to read and I contribute that success to the positive experiences at school as well as at home.

            I do not currently have a classroom of my own and therefore have turned to seasoned teachers in the elementary school setting.  I have researched and explored many articles that discuss the points made above.  Data has been collected from many teachers and students on their reflections of the reading process.  I have found that students have been given the opportunity to reveal their true experiences.  Teachers have been given the chance to take a step back and really look at ability grouping and assess the growth that such grouping has in individual students and as a whole group.

            I have also included in my research an interview with an administrator of an elementary building from a local school district.  Based upon his belief system I have a better understanding of the foundation that is necessary for primary level teachers to instill into their students.

            I was also given the opportunity to interview a mother who has a child that has been labeled and low level learner.  The information I learned from this interview gave me a tremendous amount of insight into personal feelings about her daughter.  She reflected both positive and negative feelings towards grouping in school.

            My research is based upon the beliefs of Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who believes “that a child learns best within the child’s zone of proximal development.”  He further professes that “we can’t reflect on what we haven’t experienced and so the crucial first step always has to be the experience.” (Mayher, p.166).



            The following study shows teachers beliefs about ability grouping of students, how it effects their students, and how they incorporate grouping into their reading program.  The data that I collected is from a local school district in Oswego County.  The school has approximately 5200 students with 2577 students in the elementary buildings.  Approximately 35 – 40% of the students receive free or reduced lunch.  The make-up of the school district consists of less than 2% minority although the district is located in a diverse location.  New laws now effect migrant workers in the area, which has created an influx of the Hispanic population. An ESL language program serves one student who is speaks French from the Ivory Coast and the remainders are native from Central America.  AIS (Academic Intervention Services) are offered to students in the elementary schools and junior high to assist students to success in the ELA exam and other state tests.  SAT scores are above the National and State average scoring with a combined score of 1054.  517 on the Verbal and 537 in Math as compared to National scores of 514 and 506 in the State level.   National scores for the Verbal are 505 and State with a score of 510. 

            The teachers selected for this study are all elementary school teachers from grade kindergarten through 6th grade.  There are a mix of answers to the questions asked them regarding ability grouping.  The data provided me with an insight as to teacher beliefs and experiences of ability grouping.  Specific answers to effects on grouping and personal thoughts on grouping were also addressed.

            Students answered surveys on their reactions and experiences to ability grouping while in elementary school.  A total of twenty students from 7th grade through 12th grade participated.  These students were given the opportunity to reflect on their elementary school years as well as their likes and dislikes on reading.  Positive and negative responses were analyzed for the purposes of ability grouping.  Readiness when entering kindergarten will be analyzed based upon reading experiences, which will effect their overall successes during their elementary school years.

            An interview with a parent whose child is a low-level reader will be interviewed.  The focus of the interview will be growth displayed while ability grouped.  How that child feels and how is grouping benefiting or hindering progress for her reading level.

                An administrator will also be interviewed about his beliefs of ability grouping in reading.  Based on these beliefs I will be able to have a better understanding of how these beliefs effect building teachers and their reading program.



            Ability grouping has been a topic of research for many reasons.  Professionals in the area of literacy research have addressed many areas of concern regarding the benefits as well as the effects of grouping.  The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented has analyzed the historical and contemporary perspectives. 

            Kulik addresses the success of ability grouping by stating that “some grouping programs have little or no effect on students; other programs have moderate effects and still other programs have large effects.”  The following are guidelines of Kulik’s conclusions to researching ability grouping. (Kulik, p. 1)

1.      Although some school programs that group children by ability have only small effects, other grouping programs help children a great deal.  Schools should therefore resist calls for the wholesale elimination of ability grouping.

2.      Highly talented youngsters profit greatly from work in accelerated classes.  Schools should therefore try to maintain programs of accelerated work.

3.      Highly talented youngsters also profit greatly from an enriched curriculum designed to broaden and deepen their learning.  Schools should therefore try to maintain programs of enrichment.

4.      Bright, average, and slow youngsters profit from grouping programs that adjust the curriculum to the aptitude levels of the groups.  Schools should try to use ability grouping in this way.

5.      Benefits are slight from programs that group children by ability but prescribe common curricular experiences for all ability groups.  Schools should not expect student achievement to change dramatically with either establishment or elimination of such programs. (Kulik, p. 3)

The findings of this research confirm my belief that schools who adjust their curriculum accordingly use ability grouping.  A positive experience to the world of literacy is the most important.  Bringing the curriculum down to the level of the learner will be successful and boost the self-esteem to those students on all levels. 

            Becoming a fluent reader by the end of first grade “is the key to education, and education is the key to success for both individuals and a democracy.”  (Adams, p.13) Teaching with the traditional basal readers has now changed to integrating more literature than ever before in all the content areas as well as reading.  Grouping patterns have been adjusted based on the content rather than the traditional fixed ability groups. 

            This research states that direct instruction (defines all direct teaching) with small groups has transitioned to a whole-group approach.  The low group of learners was considered the low performers for the rest of the school year.  Most of these students remained in the low group for the remainder of their elementary years. 

            Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development serves as a guide for teachers in literacy instruction.  For the teacher, this means knowing the children’s level of the development and shaping their instruction slightly beyond their development.  The teacher can then scaffold the instruction for the students until they can function independently.

            Phillips writes about a father’s perspective of ability grouping and how it effects his daughter Charlie.  Charlie was given the opportunity to be exposed to many kinds of children’s books providing many positive reading experiences by her father prior to entering kindergarten.  Visiting the neighborhood library was a common outing for Charlie to do with her father.  Since Phillip was a teacher he felt that he had prepared his daughter for a positive experience into world of literacy. 

            Based upon the number of miscues when tested at the beginning of kindergarten, Charlie was placed in a low ability group.  Phillips began to question the teacher’s judgment and was reassured by administration that she would be fine and Charlie would mature and become a better reader.  “Parents, swayed by society, place confidence in those commissioned to teach.” (Phillips, 1992, p. 413)

            Oftentimes parents do not question the decisions made by their child’s teacher.  We go along with the decisions that are made and do not want to question the authority.  I disagree with this.  If more parents got involved with their children, especially when they become labeled in reading, teachers would be more apt to consider that opinion into the final decision when it comes to grouping students. 

            “Labeled unmotivated during these years, she turned from the standard curriculum, developed other interests, paid less attention to school learning, and the conflict led to acceptance of an alternative curriculum. (Phillips, 1992, para. 2)  Charlie suffered negative effects while in elementary years and unfortunately stayed with her throughout her high school years.

            Labeling separated Charlie from her peers.  Singled out and separated from the normal routine of the whole group affected her self-esteem and interfered with her ability to learn to read.  “The motivation for reading was present early, but school erased it through a system of tracking.” (Phillips, 1992, p. 415).  Charlie began to dive into the curriculum of sports. 

            I now raise the question as to whether low achievers are the best athletes.  Many times we encourage students to get involved with extracurricular sports.  We want our children to excel in school with positive experiences.  How often do we really see a student give all he has to the energy required to sports rather than reading? 

The methods of exclusion may be so subtle that none of the actors realized their involvement in the process.  Rist (1970) defines tracking as separation for social purposes, and Rosenthal (1985) calls it the cumulative self-fulfilling prophecy.   Regardless of the label, Goffman’s (1986) stigma of detachment was present throughout Charlie’s school life, a blemish she will carry into adulthood.

            Is ability grouping really legal?  Welner and Oakes explain that the courts can plan an important role in “detracking” America’s schools.  They base their beliefs on the research of Fullwood (1991), that revealed that 53 percent of White Americans felt Latinos were likely to be less intelligent than Whites.  Just how did this perception come about?  We can find the answer to this question on the part of school systems that tract their students based on ability.  “Tracking, in many cases, is just another form of racial segregation.” (Zirkel & Gluckman 1995)

            A considerable amount of research has been done based on the success of ability grouping.  Karen Morrow Durica, a reading specialist, from Littleton, Colorado responds to ability grouping after considering the importance of flexibility of the teacher.  “The ability of teachers to group both flexibly and creatively often not only determines the effectiveness of reading instruction but also assures that all students feel like competent members of the “literacy club”. (Worthy & Hoffman, 1996, p. 656).  Students should be grouped according to their interests rather than their abilities.  If students are locked into a group for a long time.  Being grouped based on needs or similar strengths prove positive with children especially over a large span of time. 

            Linda Maize, an elementary teacher from North Dakota finds that “it is not the ability grouping that affects my students’ ability as much as their attitude about their ability.” (Worthy & Hoffman, p. 656)  Teachers need to believe in their instincts when it comes to a child and their ability to learn.  Every child has the ability to learn and therefore teachers should adjust their teaching accordingly.  A child can and will learn with those adjustments.  I strongly believe with this point.  However if a child senses your doubt he in turn will doubt himself if placed repeatedly in a lower ability group.  It is important to build confidence in grouping and positive results will occur.  Maize also believes in “not permitting any remarks that could cause children to develop negative feelings about their ability to learn.” (Worthy & Hoffman, 1996, para. 7)

            Research was conducted in a first grade classroom located in a Southeastern United States.  First grade classes often times are divided up into four ability groups.  These children are usually placed in these groups and stay there for the remainder of the year and continue on through future years.  (Hiebert, 1983; Shannon, 1985)

            This particular classroom was diverse in ability with the exception of the high group.  At the beginning of the school year there were twenty-four children, twelve boys and twelve girls, who also included seven children of different ethnic backgrounds and one child was repeating the grade.  During the first six weeks of the year the class was divided up into three groups with nine in the high group, five in the middle group and ten in the lower group. 

            Four major approaches occur in beginning reading instruction.  The basal approach is used when a teacher relies on a published reading series where the level of instruction can be increased.  A phonics approach with the main emphasis on letter-sound relationships; a literature approach when the children are allowed to select their own books and teachers provide them with help right from the beginning.  The writing approach in the beginning is reading and sharing their own writing with their classmates.  Instruction consisted of a five-minute lesson in writing a basal block was a lesson in guided reading instruction with use of the teacher’s manual.  The most difficult part about this block was how the instruction was to be paced.  “When children are ability grouped for reading the teacher normally paces instruction according the needs of the group.” (Cunningham, p. 568)

            In this study by Cunningham, it was impossible because the entire group was reading from the basal as a whole group.  Instruction was paced in order to finish the whole school year.  Six weeks of readiness, four weeks in preprimer, nine weeks in primer, and the first reader was completed by the last nine weeks of school. 

 Incorporated into the day was also a real books block where the children were given the opportunity to choose from a variety of books:  trade books, big books, books they published and basal stories.  Verbal interaction was encouraged with the children.  Two major activities took place during the daily work with the words block—Word Wall and Making Words. (Cunningham, 1991).

Testing was done at the end of the preprimers.  Five students were not able to read at the instructional level.  These children continued to read in the primer with the rest of the class, but adding a fifteen-minute small group activity in which the children read through several sets of preprimers from other basal programs helped to make modifications.

This study sought to find out how to organize a classroom to meet the needs of diverse children.  At the end of the year an IRI was conducted.  Of the eight students in the lower group, three scored in the second grade reading level with one in the primer and one in book one.  The remaining three stayed in the preprimer level.  The high group advanced to the third grade level with one going to the sixth level, and the middle group advancing to the second and fourth levels.

Based on the results of this research success was confirmed by the progression of the students.  This program continued into the next year.  Why did it work?  The four blocks provided a variety of ways to approach reading and writing.  Adjustments were made based on observation and assessment data.  The children spent almost no time on traditional seatwork.  And lastly, all children were given the same meaning based reading and writing instruction.

What makes some students find success in reading while others find only failure?  Do students receive the best instruction available?  Children that receive the same attention from the teacher no matter what ability level will pay attention to school materials and learn to read. (Wuthrick)

Research has been conducted on just how reading groups are treated.  Patterns do exist from classroom to classroom.  Overall, patterns exist and ultimately effect the learning process of the students. 

A study was conducted at a middle school in Ohio.  A reading teacher questioned the results from standardized testing of reading achievement.  Questions occurred when analyzing the scores and each year the same children demonstrated the fact that they can’t read as well as their classmates.

These children apparently learned how not to see, or, more specifically, learned how not to see, or, more specifically, learned how not to look in order that they might not see.  Reading apparently became a call for inattention, and they submerged the skills essential for a successful attending to reading materials.  (Wuthrick, p. 553)

This middle school classroom was divided up into groups: the Blue Jays and the Crows.  Characteristics existed with each group.  The teacher met with the Blue Jays first.  Children are usually more alert earlier in the day and therefore more eager to learn.  There was a lot more smiling, looking students right into the eye and leaning towards their direction.  The Blue Jays spent 70% of their time reading silently with an error rate of 3% completing one lesson per day.  Discipline consisted of warnings rather than harsh words.  Criticism would be softer using a friendly tone.  Comprehension was the focus of group time.  If there were a difficult question asked, it would be rephrased in order to allow the Blue Jays to answer correctly.

                The Crows experiences were very different.   They met for shorter sessions, as their reading was slow.  They generally read orally rather than silent reading that the blue jays often did.  The teacher would call out each word of error and then make the correction.  When a child is reading, the others would follow along I their texts—without being actively involved.  This type of behavior invited distraction, which became repetitive in nature.  The teachers corrected the Crows three times more than they did of the Blue Jays.  The teachers asked literal questions to check to see if the Crow was paying attention.  Because this group has difficulty with simple decoding, forces the student to read word by word making frequent mistakes.  Some of the behaviors of the Crows become characteristics of because of their status as a Crow.  The use of facial expressions used by the teachers were usually frowns, glares, shaking of the head, finger pointing, and sitting erect and away from the attention of the Crows. 

            The Crows engaged in half the time spent on reading in context and engaged in non-reading activities during their reading lessons.  The Blue Jay’s spent one-third of their time.  These behaviors of the Crows may have contributed to their low achievement, because developing the ability to read fluently depends on having opportunities to read.  The Crows feel that their failure in school is beyond their personal control.  “Their inability to achieve in school influences their attitude toward reading: because they don’t read well, they avoid reading.” (Wuthwick, p. 555)

            The segregation of the groups affects social interaction within the class, as well as teacher physical contact and closeness.  The Crows sit farther away from the teacher and may affect their hearing.  This distance can also effect the progress of the lessons.  Student initiated questions are often rejected by the teacher because they may come at inappropriate times. 

            The implications of this research suggest that teachers should not participate in any patterns of classroom management that prevent any of their students from reaching their potential for learning.  The Crows should be allowed time for pleasure reading and let them have some of the control over their own reading.  Their feelings of hopelessness will become eliminated.  “Every teacher must see the potential Blue Jay in every Crow.” (Wuthrick, para. 5)

            How do tracking effect students that are of other ethnic backgrounds?  Grouping by ability has had a long lasting effect.  What it has caused is a split among social classes.   The Crows stay with the Crows and the Blue Jay’s stay grouped with the Blue Jay’s and so on.  Many schools have adopted philosophies focused around heterogeneous grouping.  Instead schools should adopt a school philosophy that promotes diversity within the classroom and enriches the learning environment for all students. (Feeney, p. 39)

            Research suggests that there is a progressive lag of low achieving students and those students continue to fall behind as they continue in school. Taking a look at alternatives available for teachers and students with ability grouping offered many suggestions.  Flexible grouping, grouping by subject area, heterogeneous grouping are a few.  Cooperative learning plans are also suggested as a substitute for grouping.

            Slavin’s plan explains that the teachers carefully group children to ensure a mix of abilities, cultural differences, socioeconomic backgrounds and gender. (Barbour, p. 66)  Slavin (1990) advocates carefully structured strategies for organizing the groups and follow-through so that all children meet the goals and objectives of the lesson.  This strategy suggests that a good part of the time be spent on peer tutoring. 

            Flexible grouping succeeds with a teacher who is willing to accommodate diversity in her classroom.  No one is locked into an ability group.  Groups are formed for specific purposes and projects.  Once the goal is achieved, the children are reorganized again for another lesson or project.  The advantage to flexible grouping is that a teacher is able to accommodate many diverse interests.  Learning styles are adjusted accordingly and children work together based on their interests in a particular area.  Grouping this way encourages interest and enthusiasm of learning, which I see is a positive approach to an alternative to ability grouping. 

            Heterogeneous grouping is a way of grouping students with a mixture of abilities.  Children have the opportunity to work with all abilities and teachers tailor the environment based on the individual needs of the group.  This type of grouping will eliminate the labeling that often occurs with homogeneous grouping (Ricco, 1985).

            Regrouping by subject area allows students to remain in heterogeneous groups for part of the day then they regroup for other subjects.  Usually they are mathematics and reading (Slavin, 1987b).  This particular form of grouping has three advantages: labeling is reduced, students are grouped on the basis of ability on a certain subject, and lastly this is the less disruptive of grouping that changing back and forth in certain areas. 

            Whole group instruction meets the needs common to all members of the class.  Teacher-directed activities tend to promote on-task behavior.  Effective teachers will use whole-group and small-group instruction.  Only one set of materials is needed and supervision is for one group.  Private help can be provided to some students while others continue to work.  Students that need extra time to learn do not feel singled out by being identified as lower ability learners.  This is a very positive alternative to ability grouping.

            Research was also conducted to gain understanding of general and special education teachers’ perspectives of grouping for reading and the types of grouping patterns that are used in classrooms.  A study of forty-nine third-grade teachers (29 general education teachers who had students with learning disabilities in their class for a portion of the day and 20 general education teachers) participated in the study.  This research was conducted in a diverse urban school district in southeastern United States. 

Interview guide questions were developed for these teachers with reference to ability grouping.

1.      Tell me about your grouping practices during reading and language arts.

2.      What made you decide to choose this particular grouping practice?

3.      Could you describe how you teach reading/language arts?

4.      Did you have any difficulties or concerns about your grouping plan as you got it

      rolling this school year?


5.      How do you think grouping, both mixed and same-ability, affects students of different achievement levels (including students with LD) academically?


6.      How do you think grouping, both mixed and same-ability affects students of different achievement levels (including students with LD) socially?


7.      If you could group your students for reading instruction any way you wanted, how would you group?


Moody, Vaughn, & Schumm, Figure 1,  p.351.


Data was also gathered from a focus group, which consisted of interviews broken down into three categories in an effort to summarize the teachers’ perspectives of grouping practices.

General and Special Education Questions

1.      What approach to grouping have you used this year for reading?


2.      What initiated your decision to use the type of grouping pattern that you chose?


3.      Should grouping patterns be uniform across the county?


4.      Have you changed your grouping during reading this year?


5.      What type of training do teachers need in grouping practices to meet the range of student diversity we have in this district?


General Education Additional Questions


6.      How are students with LD grouped for reading in your class?


7.   What do you think of the ideal grouping arrangement for students with LD in general

       education classes?

Special Education Additional Question


7.      What do you think is the ideal grouping arrangement for students with LD in general education classes?            Moody, Vaughn & Schumm Figure 2, p. 351.



All of the general and special education teachers stated that they use small groups and student pairs at least occasionally for reading instruction.  One the special education teacher referred to individual or one-on-one instruction as a “grouping practice” for use in reading instruction.  There was also one special education teacher that taught based upon the students’ IEP.

            A majority of the general education teachers stated that they preferred mixed-

ability grouping, five stated that they prefer to group students who are reading at the same level, one indicated that they would prefer grouping by level and working at that particular level.  Another general education teacher stressed that it would not be beneficial to distinguish between the groups because the low groups would feel inadequate and the higher students more like the role of a tutor, which would have a negative impact on those students. (Moody, Vaughn & Schumm, p. 353)

            The special education teachers expressed concerns that scheduling influences their grouping arrangements.  There may be several grade levels in a classroom at the same time for instruction, which become individualized based on individual need. 



            The following data shows teachers beliefs about ability grouping, positive and negative experiences, and what they would like to change in the area of reading education.  The discussion is broken up into two sections: the interview results and the survey results.  With both I indicate whether ability grouping is based upon an administrator’s decision or by individual choice.

            Two kindergarten teachers where asked whether they ability grouped while teaching reading to their students.  One responded by stating “skills needed, not necessarily based on ability” and the second one stated “no”.    When asked whether this was an individual choice or an administrative decision both replied “individual.”  Interestingly, when asked whether growth was seen, both replied “yes”. 

            Four first grade teachers were interviewed and the responses varied depending upon teacher experience and philosophy of teaching reading. They will be referred to as teacher Smith, Jones, Jackson, and Dexter.  When asked the question as to whether they ability grouped in their classroom teacher Smith answered “I think that it is very helpful to group students based on ability during guided reading groups as it allows each group the freedom to work at its own pace at the students’ instructional level.”  Teacher Jones answered by saying, “In a positive way, it helps readers learn more.”  Teacher Jackson responded by saying, “I think we can’t assume the lowest kids are “getting it”.  Different strategies need to be used. Children know themselves, just by watching and listening where they fall in reading.  That’s why I’m somewhat flexible.”  Teacher Dexter replied “It allows them to be confident readers at all levels and they are able to be taught at their instructional level, not frustrational level.  First grade teachers have a tremendous responsibility when it comes to reading.  Based on these responses one could conclude that these teachers focus their attention to the individual needs of their students and concerns as to whether those children in the lower groups are really grasping what is being taught.  My question about whether children are entering school with experiences in reading becomes very important to these teachers at this grade level.

            Two second grade teacher’s will also polled.  When asked whether growth was seen one responded by saying, “Yes” and the other stated “not necessarily”.  One might consider with the second response that the children have stayed in their group from first grade and haven’t been challenged enough at the first quarter of second grade.  Either way growth is very important or teachers strive for success in their students. 

            Four fourth grade teachers were polled and referred to as teacher Anderson, Biltmore, Castle, and Denny.  When asked whether they believed in ability grouping for reading teacher Anderson responded “Children need to be taught on their level, but they also need to read with students above and below their level to experience good models and feel successful, plus enjoy reading.”  Teacher Biltmore stated “Ability grouping is necessary at times but it cannot exist as the sole reading model.  Children also need to be exposed to grade level appropriate content, especially in light of the fact that state tests are not administered on a child’s instructional level!”  Teacher Castle said, “Yes, ability grouping can take many different forms.  Anytime you put students who are roughly on the same level in a group (even temporarily) you are ability grouping.”  Teacher Denny responded “At grades k-3 only, after that it is to emotionally upsetting.  They need role models in 4-12.”  Once again varied responses to ability grouping.  I perceive these responses to reflect the fact that grouping is an individual choice and teaching styles and beliefs come into play at this grade level, more so than kindergarten and first grade teachers.

            Three fifth grade teachers were polled.  When asked how grouping effected their students, teacher Aston responded:  “I know that the students in the lower group feel less able, as a reader.”  Teacher Battles responded:  No response.  Teacher Cantor:  “It will help!”  Based on the information gathered in this grade level one might feel that grouping is not practiced in this grade level, at least not to the extent of the lower grades previously discussed.

            Only one sixth grade teacher was polled.  When ask the question Do you believe in ability grouping when teaching reading?  Explain.  This teacher replied by saying “Yes, but it all depends on the abilities of the classroom.  If there were a big range from low level readers to high level readers it would be to their advantage to be grouped. 

            I was able to collect data from a special education teacher who teaches lst and 2nd grade inclusion.  When asked Do you divide your class based upon ability when you teach reading?  She replied “Mine are because I pull out all of my special education kids.”  Is this an individual choice or is it required by your administration?  She replied, “ To meet their IEP I have to do this so I guess you could say it’s the State’s choice.”  How do you feel it affected your students?  “She replied, “ With most of my students it works very well because they are so far below the other students.  My students who are almost on level I do not think it benefits.”  How do you feel the students felt being in-groups?  Positive or negative?  She replied, “My students actually love the group.  I think they feel so separate in the classroom that they relax and are taught at their level.”

            I was also able to interview a principal in an elementary school.  I asked him what his beliefs were on ability grouping in classrooms in reading?  He replied, “I feel it is important to meet the needs of individual students.  If it means dividing students up based upon ability when tested, I ask my classroom teachers to do so and plan lessons accordingly.”  I also asked him if growth was seen after an academic year with low level students.  He replied, “Depending on the circumstances of the child even a small amount of progression is viewed as a positive experience.  I encourage my teachers to provide direct instruction to their students and do what it takes to get through to their students.  I am very supportive of my teachers.”

            I also interviewed a mother who has a daughter who is referred to as “Sara”.  Sara received AIS services in reading and math.  This child has been a low-level reader and has struggled with reading and math since she entered school.  She is now in the 5th grade.  I asked her How does your daughter feel about being placed in a low level reading group?  She replied, “Sara has struggled for so long that it helps for her to be with other students with the same ability.  She feels more comfortable with those students.  However, she does feel like she misses out on activities that occur when she has to leave the room.”  I also asked Do you see your daughter Sara moving up into another ability group in the future?  She replied, “Sara tries very hard to do her work.  Getting the help from AIS services has been wonderful.  Do I see her moving on to another level?  Not right now.  Every day is a struggle and getting the extra support in school makes a big difference when she comes home.”

            I was able to collect data from students in grades 7 through 12. What I learned was that out of twenty students, over half of them were placed in the higher reading groups when in elementary school.  I had asked What do you enjoy reading the most?  Many replies included historical fiction, mysteries in which they could try to solve the question as they read the novel, fiction—you write/read what you think without controversy, and newspapers for a student who likes to keep up on sports news on the local and national level.  When asked If you could change one thing in your elementary years when it comes to the area of reading, what would that be? Some replies were “I would have liked to been able to pick books to read myself, based on the subject, etc., I think that the groups should be high, middle and low, but go out of the same book and give the advanced kids more to do. Read more to prepare us for Middle School and High School, also make it more fun somehow., Maybe I wouldn’t have read so much—now I think I would have participated in recess instead of sitting in the corner with a book.” 

            By pursuing students beyond elementary school, I was able to get a history of their opinions on elementary school and reflect on both positive and negative experiences.  This information was very interesting to me and I learned that there was a genuine interest in reading and many wanted the opportunity to choose their own books to read.  Several students’ felt that they were able to work at they’re own pace working in-groups and many felt important being in the higher reading groups.



            I feel that I learned a great deal from the methodology.  The methods that I chose for gathering data provided me with the information needed.  By analyzing the data provided in the questionnaires, I was able to see both positive and negative opinions on ability grouping students in reading.  Allowing junior high and high school students to reflect back on their experiences in elementary school provided me a history of experiences that they were willing to share.  Too often we do not look to the students for answers to our questions.  Rather than rely solely on classroom teachers and administrators, I felt that the information gained from those students helped me as I enter my own classroom in the future.  Student choice in reading was very important to them. Having more time and making reading not a solely literature based block of time but an opportunity to read trade books which students at these ages would find entertaining as well as interesting.  I also came to the conclusion after analyzing student responses is that most students are very much interested in reading as young adults.  Since these students are from a local school district whose philosophy statement emphasizes literacy in preparation for the adult world, I believe that these students have been successful in admitting their likes and dislikes with a noticeably positive response to literature.

            My interview with a parent was very informative.  She was able to tell her story about her daughter who has struggled ever since entering kindergarten.  The school her daughter attends provides this child with services and opportunity to learn at her own pace especially when it comes to the area of reading.  Her daughter is well adjusted and has many friends and has not felt segregated from her peers.  I was not surprised to here that the child does not like to miss what the rest of the class does when she goes off to her reading group.  Children do not like to be left out of activities. 

            Talking to an elementary principal was a great opportunity to express their beliefs on ability grouping.  Reaching every child individually was very important and being supportive to teachers was great to hear.  Being in tune to a child’s needs is very important especially in the first few years of elementary school.  Dedication and success are very important for teachers as well as for the students.  Administrators have a tough job and providing the support necessary for everyone is essential to the success of the student population in a building.

            Being able to hear from teachers in grades kindergarten though sixth was a fantastic way to get their feedback.  Philosophies have changed over time but having the student’s best interest at heart is so important.  I learned about different strategies that they use in the room for reading instruction. 

            Overall, my data provided me with both positive and negative feelings towards ability grouping.    By allowing students to be grouped with other peers in that same ability level, success is achieved with teacher instruction focused on higher level thinking skills.  The students are able to express themselves orally as well as in written form, which is important especially when they reach junior high, and high school.    On a more negative note, I can see how two different groups such as the Blue Jay’s and the Crows are treated in two different ways from the teacher’s standpoint.  Unfortunately, this situation occurs all too often.  Students do not like to be singled out from the group.  Ability grouping isolates socialization from the whole group and sometimes the students in the higher level ability group do not want to be associated with the students of the lower group.  That is why when I hear criticizing remarks in any classroom that I teach in, I immediately put a stop to it.  I feel that all children should be treated equally and not allow negative remarks that may impact student performance.   A positive attitude and enthusiasm for learning will generate hard working students.  Success is achieved in a positive classroom setting.

The literature that I reviewed during this research process indicated both the negative and positives results of ability grouping.    With any approach to teaching children it is important to keep in mind the needs of the children.  Will we reach everyone?  That is a tough question to answer.  Teachers do their best for their students.  Dedication and hard work are the keys to success.  Remembering to allow student choices in what they read is important and include everyone when possible is also a great way to create a sense of a classroom community where everyone is equal no matter what the subject maybe that they are studying.

            I strongly feel that grouping students based on ability can prove to be positive and negative. Children do not like to be singled out.  Fairness and sensitivity to children is important.  In the case of the special education teacher and the fact that she pulls out her students is very beneficial.  Being able to work in a group of peers on their level is important and self-esteem plays a big part in that picture.

            It should also be noted that there was a noticeable lack of response from teacher responses based on cultural and political implications.  Even though one teacher said her building principal required that grouping it was her choice also.  Culturally speaking many teachers group based on ability and did this as a teacher choice.  Culture is not the issue here.  Perhaps if the district that I chose had more diversity, grouping culturally would have had more of an impact and would have reflected on the responses that I gathered. 

            If time permitted I would have liked to track some students over the next couple of years to see if they do in fact move forward and progress to the next reading group level.  The fact that research states that children have a tendency to stay in a low group throughout their school years is very unfortunate.  I also feel that students need to be challenged more in the area of reading and pulling everyone back together in a whole group can be very positive to everyone.  Using the same novel but provided different levels of instructions and with follow-up activities would be a great way to keep unity in the classroom.  Students know who the low-level students are and the higher students don’t always want to feel that they are the brains of the class either.

            Many of my questions were answered through this research process.  Learning to code my data proved to be a positive way to get a feel about the history of students as well as they teachers and their beliefs and experiences.  The personal interview with the parent and her willingness to trust in me to express her daughter’s experiences was an opportunity to get a parent’s perspective of a child who struggles in school.

            I would like to end by quoting from Vygotsky, who had a major influence on research in child development and to his beliefs that I based this research on.  “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and then, later, on the individual level; first, between people, then inside the child.” [2001, para. 5].  It is important for a child to receive positive experiences in social settings and then later on with adults.  The child will process the information within his own zone of proximal development.

            Choosing to group or not to group is an individual choice and still researchers are in disagreement.  Educators need to be aware of diversity in classrooms and have effective strategies to meet the needs of students.  If grouping proves to be positive, then it should be used.  However, if it causes a negative impact with students, teachers need to be sensitive and choose alternative methods suggested above rather than ability group for instruction.

Appendix 1 – Teacher Survey Results


1.      What grade level do you teach?  1 special education teacher grades 1 & 2, 2 kindergarten,  4 first grade, 2 second grade, 4 third grade, 1 fourth grade, 3 fifth grade, and l sixth grade (two teachers requested not to be included in the final results).


2.      Do you divide your class based upon ability when you teach reading?

Special Education teacher responded “Mine are because I pull out all of my special education kids.”

Kindergarten #1: “skills, needed, not necessarily ability

Kindergarten #2:  “No.”

First #1:  “Yes”

First #2:  Yes, I match books to students (leveled books)

First #3:  “Initially I have ability groups and then they become more flexible.”

First #4:  “Yes.”

Second #1:  “Yes.”

Second #2:  “For part of the daily instruction.”

Third #1:  “Yes.”

Third #2:  “Yes, for some reading instruction.  Children are also grouped in interest groups and there are sometimes when whole group instruction is appropriate.”

Third #3:  “Yes.”

Third #4:  “Yes.”

Fourth #1:  “Yes.”

Fifth #1:  “Yes, but they are doing the same type of activities except on a different level.”

Fifth #2:  “No.”

Fifth #3:  “Yes.”

6th #1:  “No.”


3.      Is this an individual choice or is it required by your administration?

9 responded “individual choice”

5 responded “both”

1 responded “our building administration requires it.”

1 responded “philosophy changes. I’ve seen everything cycled over 20+ years.”

1 special ed. responded “to meet the IEP I have to do this so I guess you could say that it’s the States choice.


4.      If you answered yes to either question 2 or 3, how do you feel it affected your students?

Special Ed. responded:  “With most of my students it works very well because they are so far below the other students.  My students who are almost on level 1 do not think it benefits.”

6th grade:  “Working with children at their instructional level is essential but for the instructional situations, there are opportunities for growth when other children provide positive examples.  Children also need to be exposed to grade level appropriate content, especially in light of the fact that state tests are not administered at a child’s instructional level!”

1st – “I think we can’t assume the lowest kids are “getting it.”  Different strategies need to be used.  Children know themselves just by watching and listening where they fall in reading.  That’s why I’m somewhat flexible.”

1st – “In a positive way.  It helps readers learn more.”

1st--  “It allows them to be confident readers at all levels and they are able to be taught at their instructional level, not on their frustrational level.”

2nd—“I think that offering children both, or all variations of instruction is a benefit to their learning and self-esteem.”

2nd—“They’re able to feel successful in their groups—not having to struggle with too difficult material.”

2nd—“I think they do realize they are grouped by ability eventually but I think they are more comfortable.”


3rd—“It is a positive separation for students reading at a first grade or lower level.”

4th—“I haven’t had much difficulty with this being a negative situation.”

5th—“I know that the students in the lower group feel less able-as a reader.”

Kind.—“They like it.”

1st—“I think that it is very helpful to group students based on ability during guided reading groups as it allows each group the freedom to work at it’s own pace at the student’s instructional levels.”

5th—“It will help!”


5.      Did you see growth from your students regardless of what group they were placed in?

12 responded “Yes.”

6th—“Many students work together to help in understanding with what we are reading.”

3rd—“I didn’t see much growth when students were all taught at the third grade level!”

2nd—“Not necessarily.”

3rd—“You cannot say regardless.  Different grouping happens for different instructional purposes.”

1st—“Yes, unless LD or other related.”



6.      How do you feel the students felt being in groups?  Positive or Negative?

9 responded “Positive”

1 responded “Neither here nor there.  They don’t really have any idea.”

1 responded “Negative to lower group.”

Special Ed. responded “My students actually love the group.  I think they feel so separate in the classroom that they relax and are taught at their level.”

1 responded:  “Both, they feel good because they are successful and may feel a bit negative, because they may not read as well as the other students in the class.”

1 responded:  “Both, the highest kids somewhat felt upset when others were invited into the group, the lower kids were somewhat confused.”

1 responded:  “If children are solely in ability groups—lower ability children tend to feel inferior and often above level children feel superior.”

1 responded:  “Some of both.”


7.      If you could change one thing when it comes to teaching reading, what would that be?

I received a mixed response to this question.  Some of the responses are as follows:

“I would teach reading with only my homeroom kids.” 

“Flexibility.  There needs to be flexibility in all models.  We’ve learned as education that there is no one correct way!  We need a balanced approach and we need to alter/adjust according to our children’s needs.”

“Children are coming to school less ready, poorer listeners and many have no self-direction.  Learning to read is hard work.  Parents need to read daily and talk to kids.”

“Allow teachers to use their professional judgment concerning the best methods/materials to use.”


8.      Do you believe in ability grouping when teaching reading?

13 responded “Yes”

1 responded “Yes and no.  I think I covered it above.  The lowest child needs “direct instruction” and different teaching techniques.  We can’t assume they will discover the “key to reading”.  There are times groups can be integrated.  It depends on the objectives of the lesson.”

1 responded:  “Sometimes.  As long as you use it very rarely to teach different skills, and students can’t determine ability level.”

1 responded “No.”

1 responded “Only if it is a part of the instruction.  Benefits:  Same level learning, peer mediation: comfort level.  Cons:  Amount of challenges, individual reading rates.”

1 responded “Yes, ability grouping can take many different forms.  Anytime you put students who are roughly on the same level in a group (even temporarily) you are ability grouping.”


Appendix 2 Student Survey Results


20 (twenty responses from students in grades 7 – 12)


1.      When you were in the primary grades, kindergarten through second grade, were you placed in a reading group based on your ability?


18 responded yes, 1 responded no, and 1 did not remember


2.      If you answered yes, do your recall what group you were in? 


15 responded “high group”

4 were in the “middle group”

1 was not grouped at all


3.      How did it feel to be grouped with other classmates in the same level?


7 negative responses

  1. “Even though I was in the “smart” group, I felt stupid.”
  2. “Well, I was quite the lazy person so I felt like I was dumb out of the smart people.”
  3. “I felt all right but I hated the people above me because they were so far ahead.”
  4. “Pressured to stay on top.”
  5. “I was very afraid that I was going to mess up and get bumped down to a lower group.”
  6. “I felt that I had to compete with the others and stay with the top.”
  7. “I didn’t like it because I didn’t see all of my friends.”


11 positive responses

  1. Cool, because we read faster than the others, and I loved to read, I liked being with others that liked to read as well.”
  2. “I felt important.”
  3. “It was the best.  It’s easier because all the kids are at the same level.  It’s easier to understand.”
  4. “It was comfortable to read with people that read at the same level.”
  5. “Better than the rest.”
  6. “Yes.”
  7. “Good, wasn’t embarrassed.”
  8. “It felt good because you could all work at the same pace.”
  9. “Like we were all equal.  It was easier to read because we were all on the same level.”
  10. “Felt like we were part of the group.”
  11. “Kewl.”

2 responded “Fine.”


4.      Did you feel that you learned just as well or did you feel held back from the rest of the class?


10 responded “Just as well.”

1 responded “Better than the rest.”

1 responded “I felt that I learned more in a higher reading group.”

1 responded “I felt I learned more because you would learn one thing then the top group was given a special activity including the class activity.”

1 responded “I don’t remember.”

3 negative responses “Held back.”

1 “no response”


5.      Were you read aloud to in elementary school and at home?


16 responded “both”

1 responded “no”

1 responded “Sometimes in school, but mostly I read myself.”

1 responded “Yes, until 1st grade.”

1 responded “in school”


6.      If you could change one thing in your elementary years when it comes to the area of reading, what would that be?


3 responded “I would like to pick what kinds of books I wanted to read.”

1 responded “I think that the groups should be high, middle and low, but go out of the same book and give the advanced kids more to do.”

1 responded “I would have read myself.”

1 responded “I don’t think I would change a thing.”

1 responded “More novel reading.”

1 responded “Read more to prepare for middle school and high school.  Also make it more fun some how.”

1 responded “Be able to do it at my own pace instead of going along with the class.”

1 responded “Have more interesting stories, maybe about us.”

1 responded “Have more time for reading.”

1 responded “I would make more groups, creating a better teacher student ratio.

1 responded “Maybe I wouldn’t have read so much—now I think I would have participated in recess instead of sitting in the corner with a book.”


7.      What do you enjoy reading most:  books, newspapers, magazines or journals?  What is your favorite genre?  Why?


2 responded “historical fiction”

“I love historical fiction.  It gives me something I know about, and expands on that with a story that is fiction.  It’s the best.”

“I like interesting things about the past.”


1 responded “books because they are very relaxing.”

1 responded “poetry” because “I enjoy analyzing it.  Probably my favorite genre is young adult literature.  I rarely read newspapers—its too many words from too many different stories.”

1 responded “newspapers, sports because I’m an athlete and I like to know what’s going on in the sports world.”

1 responded “magazines, sports because I like sports.”

1 responded “newspapers and magazines.”

1 responded “adventure and drama books because they are the most interesting.”

1 responded “fiction—you write/read what you think without controversy.”

1 responded “Everything, I love to read!”

1 responded “books—Tom Clancy.  I like it because of the historical facts and realism.”

1 responded “I enjoy reading books and magazines the most.  I love to read horror stories because of the thrill, but I also like reading young adult literature, because I can relate to the topics and problems.”

1 responded “magazines and mysteries, I like trying to figure out the mystery before the end of the book.”

1 responded “books, I like books that have a lot of action, suspense and make you think.”

1 responded “books, because newspapers, magazines and journals are boring.”

1 responded “books and magazines. Fiction. Because I don’t like reading about true life.”

3 responded “mysteries”.


Many of the questions in this survey were open ended intentionally to allow the student to reflect back on reading and their experiences.  I feel this self-reflection was an interesting way to view their opinion on reading as a young adult, a more historical perspective.




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