San Diego County Office of Education

Flexible Grouping

What is flexible grouping?

Flexible grouping is a term that covers a range of grouping students for delivering instruction, such as whole class, small group, and partner. The following guidelines can be found in the 2006 updated Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools: Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve:

  • Instruction is provided in flexible groupings to maximize student performance. Whole-group instruction or heterogeneous grouping may be used when the objectives are appropriate for the range of learners in the classroom. Homogeneous grouping may be used to customize specific instruction for assessed student needs.
  • Group size and composition are adjusted to accommodate and reflect student progress and instructional objectives (flexible and dynamic grouping).
  • Tutoring (peer or adult or both) is used judiciously to supplement (not supplant) explicit teacher-delivered instruction. It aligns with classroom objectives and instruction.
  • Cross-class or cross-grade grouping is used when appropriate to maximize opportunities to tailor instruction to students’ performance levels. Such grouping is appropriate when it facilitates teaching students within a similar age span and achievement range. As a general rule, differences should be within one year in kindergarten through grade three, two years in grades four through eight, and three years in grades nine through twelve.
  • Centers and independent activities are used judiciously and are aligned with instructional goals and objectives focused on achieving grade-level standards.

Using common sense when grouping is important, as research shows that what students are taught has a far greater effect on their achievement than how they are grouped (Mosteller, Light, & Sachs, 1996). The first focus of educators should always be on the quality of instruction; grouping is a secondary concern. Grouping is an instructional strategy that should be used flexibly to ensure that all students achieve the standards. Instructional objectives should always be based on the standards and should dictate grouping strategies.

In Flexible Grouping (2000), Catherine Valentino states that teachers who use flexible grouping strategies often employ several organizational patterns for instruction. Students are grouped and regrouped according to specific goals, activities, and individual needs. When making grouping decisions, the dynamics and advantages inherent in each type of group must be considered. Both teacher-led and student-led groups can contribute to learning.

What to consider when differentiating instruction

How and when to group students is a strategy employed to differentiate instruction after reviewing relevant student evaluation information and considering learner profiles. To promote maximum learning, the teacher should ensure that assessment is frequent, that high-quality instruction is always provided, and that the students are frequently moved into appropriate instructional groups according to their needs.

In order to differentiate instruction, teachers can group students who do not understand a concept or skill and find time to reteach the concept or skill in a different way, providing additional practice. At the same time, those students might be participating with a more heterogeneous mix of students in other classroom activities. In another setting, teachers may learn that a number of students in a grade who have mastered the standards for that grade, and are ready to go on to the standards for the next grade, benefit by being grouped together for as long as the grouping meets their needs and to provide the needed accelerated instruction.


Differentiation Through Flexible Grouping: Successfully Reaching All Readers (outside link)
This monograph gives a definition of and rationale for flexible grouping, presents various models of grouping, and provides resources and references.

Flexible Grouping (outside link)
In this professional development article from Houghton-Mifflin, Catherine Valentino places the concept of flexible grouping into a historical context and discusses teacher-led and student-led groups. She provides charts outlining the grouping options, teacher’s role, and activities.

Teaching Reading K-2 Workshop’s Developing a Flexible Grouping Lesson Plan (outside link)
As an accompaniment to Annenberg Media’s video session six on differentiating instruction, this activity helps teachers design a reading lesson that uses a single text for whole-class instruction while grouping students according to their reading needs for each component of the lesson. A downloadable file of Flex-Group Lesson Plan is included.


California Department of Education. (2006). Reading/language arts framework for California public schools, kindergarten through grade twelve. Sacramento: CDE Press.

Mosteller, F., Light, R. J., & Sachs, J. A. (1996). Sustained inquiry in education: lessons from skill grouping and class size. Harvard Education Review, 66(4), 797–842.

Comments (0)