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What are the Pros and Cons of Grouping Kids for Reading Instruction Based on Test Results?

 | Sep 13, 2013

Robert Slavin
by Robert Slavin
Johns Hopkins School of Education
September 12, 2013



What is the research related to the practice of grouping kids for reading based on test results of some sort and then sending them to classrooms for reading instruction based on this grouping? What are the pros and cons of this practice? I believe it is a current practice similar to the Joplin plan. I can find the research about the Joplin plan but is there any more recent research?

Response from Robert Slavin:

There is remarkably little research on grouping children for reading instruction, but I'll tell you what I know about.

As you note, there is a good bit of evidence supporting use of the Joplin Plan, and for this reason we use Joplin Plan in our Success for All program. In Joplin Plan, students are grouped based on their reading levels regardless of their age, so you might have a 3-1 (third grade, first semester) reading class composed of second, third, and fourth graders. In Joplin Plan, there has to be a common reading time across the school, so kids all go from their homerooms to their reading classes at the same time.

A key aspect of the Joplin Plan is that children are assessed in reading (on curriculum-specific assessments, ideally) every 6-8 weeks, so that as children make exceptional progress, their groupings can change. If children are not keeping up with their group we recommend tutoring or small-group assistance, not moving children to a lower group.

As you note, the research on the Joplin Plan (Gutierrez & Slavin, 1992) is supportive but quite old. I wrote a review with Roberto Gutierrez that included Joplin Plan, but I’m not aware of any additional studies in the 20 years after that.

There are several attributes of Joplin Plan that would make me cautious about using “very similar” grouping schemes. First, many teachers test and assign children to reading groups within the same grade (producing high, middle, and low fourth grade reading classes, for example). This can create several problems. First, it sets up reading classes for which teachers may have low expectations (e.g., low fourth grades). Second, it may not reduce heterogeneity enough to allow teachers to avoid ability grouping within classes. The major gain from Joplin Plan is the opportunity to teach all children together, without having to assign a lot of seatwork while the teacher is teaching one reading group. This greatly expands time for teaching. Grouping within grades but maintaining reading groups within each class would not provide this benefit.

Another key factor in Joplin Plan is the use of regular reassessments and regrouping. This ensures that students are at just the right level and enables teachers to correct any errors in initial grouping, which can be considerable. If grouping is done only within grades, it may be hard to find another appropriate group if children are doing very well.

In addition to grouping by reading level, it is commonplace for educators to recommend to teachers that they group by skill need (all the students who need work on drawing inferences) or by interest (all the students interested in butterflies).  Sadly, there is even less research available to guide us on the effectiveness of these plans for grouping than there is for the Joplin Plan.  About the best we can say is that in a good implementation of the Joplin Plan, individual differences can be accommodated by supplementary tutoring or small group work.

I wish I had more evidence or wisdom to share on this important question. You’d think there would be a lot more research on such a question that every elementary teacher has to face!

Robert Slavin is currently Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University.


Gutiérrez, R., & Slavin, R.E. (1992). Achievement effects of the nongraded elementary school. A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 62, 333-376.

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