Success in small numbers

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
In the third part of her series on teaching children in the foundation stage, Ruth Merttens looks at working with a few pupils at a time

Last week's article showed the value of large-group activities in the foundation stage. But it is only through working with groups of three, four or five that early-years teachers can help transfer to individual children the ownership of skills taught and concepts introduced "on-the-rug". It is the personal, eye-to-eye contact, combined with the conversations between the pupils themselves, that enables children to take control of a skill or to adopt a concept as their own.

As with teaching "on-the-rug", working with children in a small group serves a dual purpose: we are addressing specific curricular objectives in learning and simultaneously helping children to learn how to learn independently in this context. Children start by engaging in an activity in which the teacher has set the agenda, but where they will dictate both its development in practice and the learning outcomes.

There are three types of small-group activity which we can consider: repetition, practice and creation.


Teachers often introduce a skill or concept when teaching children "on-the-rug". They might demonstrate how to count, matching the spoken to the written numbers, or show how we can feel the weight of heavier and lighter objects by passing round a teddy and a book. In the small group context, the teacher can repeat this demonstration, but the children can take ownership of the actions - modelling what is to be done by themselves and for each other. In the large group, the teacher's actions are larger-than-life - as I described last week, a performance. In the small group, the actions are the children's, with the teacher monitoring and adjusting as required. Control of the action passes to the child.


Sometimes, in the context of the large group, we instruct children in a skill which will need a great deal of further practice on the part of individual children if they are to acquire a personal competency. For example, teachers frequently spend a few moments demonstrating how to form a particular letter with the whole class.

This is usually - and properly - linked to work on sounds, and sometimes follows the reading of a book or the singing of a song.

The teacher has read The Tiger Who Came to Tea. She moves on to phonics: "I want you all to wave if I say a word with the 't' sound in it. Tiger, shark, cat, tea, butter...", followed by: "The letter we often use to write this sound is 't'. We write 't' like this - start at the top, down, and round. Then draw the line across, like this." This demonstration will be large, done in the air or drawn very big and bright on a flip-chart. The children will imitate, drawing the letter perhaps in the air, or on each other's backs or on the carpet with a finger.

This sound-to-letter activity can be great fun and very productive, but only if it is followed up by work at the level of the small group. No child will learn to write from watching and imitating in the whole-class situation. But as they practise this action with a few others in a small group, matching the letter to pictures of tigers and tea, and identify the letter in the initial (tiger), medial (butter) and final (cat) position in words, they will make this knowledge their own and become individually competent in letter-formation. They must produce the correct sequence of actions for themselves. Some children are given this type of skill-repetition at home - others are not.

If we do not provide the small-group activities in which this can occur, we stand no chance of levelling the playing field where equality of opportunity is concerned.


Small-group activities allow children to move on from the stimulation of the whole-class session to engage in their own creative work. After reading Dear Zoo, the teacher models writing a letter with all the children, asking the zoo to send them a pet. She shows how to set out a simple letter, and what to begin and end it with. Later, working in threes and fours, the teacher provides attractive animal writing paper and envelopes.

Children are supported in writing their own letters, taking as imaginative an approach as they want. Some children are asking for snakes, some for spiders and one for a koala.

The teacher's role is to "scaffold" the children's activity, offering help only as required on an individual basis. Children, following the inspiration of the "on-the-rug" session, are taking the task into their own lives, peopling it with their own interests and passions, and making it their own. They are moving towards independence.

One major advantage of working with children in small groups concerns the ways in which this context enables the teacher to withdraw for a few minutes at a time, increasing the ability of children to continue the activity with no adult presence. Setting up the activity, helping children to engage positively and productively with the task, and then allowing the group to get along on its own, means very young children develop the confidence and social skills to work with their peers independently.

For example, a teacher sets up an activity involving Plasticine, suitably warmed on the radiator. The objective is to create Plasticine "snakes" to match a specified length - for example, that of five interlocking cubes.

The teacher demonstrates how to roll the Plasticine to make the snakes. The children start doing this, and some snakes are made. The teacher matches the snakes to the line of cubes. Which ones are too long? Too short? The same length? She leaves the children to make several more snakes of this length. On her return, she gives praise to those who have not only learned to match items of equal length, but who, perhaps more importantly, have also learned to work independently and successfully in a small group doing an activity devised by a teacher.

Small-group activities follow the inspiration and stimulation of "on-the-rug" teaching. Children are inspired to "do it myself". They practise skills and produce imaginative work, all with as much or as little support as they require from the teacher or other adult. It is a "process" rather than a "product" approach, where the main endeavour is to enable the child to take ownership of the activity. Whether working with dough, up to the elbows in papier-mache, or using individual white-boards, it is the child who is in the driving seat. They are the leading actors - the teacher has only a supporting role.

Small wonder, then, that most children immensely enjoy working in this context.

Ruth Merttens is co-director of the Hamilton Projects

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