Three Creative Small Group Ideas: Activities for First Graders

Three Creative Small Group Ideas: Activities for First Graders
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Research-Based Grouping

According to the book, “Brain-Based Instruction for the 21st Century, For The Learner’s Sake,” by Judy Stevens and Dee Goldberg, stressful learning environments cause the brain to produce chemicals that interfere with learning. Through the use of small group activities such as the ones presented here, the learning environment is less likely to produce stress for students.

Barbara Gross Davis, author of “Tools for Teachers,” includes information in her book that supports the use of small group learning for increasing students’ learning success, regardless of the subject being taught. Small group activities also encourage healthy social-emotional development of children, supporting appropriate peer interaction as modeled and monitored by teachers. The activities and lesson circumstances presented here support a stress-free learning environment which encourages positive social and emotional development of your first grade students.

Peer Tutoring Trios

By grouping students into peer tutoring trios, high-level students apply newly learned skills by teaching them to others and on level and low-level students observe and collaborate within the group to master that same skill. Using this small group idea for your first graders will move them toward independent application of the newly learned skill while deepening the high achievers’ understanding. To employ this method in your classroom, do the following:

  • Identify a mathematics skill recently taught, but not mastered by the majority of students.
  • Identify the top third of the students who mastered the skill (each of these students will lead a tutoring trio).
  • Place two students with each of the high-end learners to form the trio.

Homework reviews are ideal for this type of grouping. Another option: re-teach a skill through a mini-lesson for the whole group before splitting students into their trios. Following the mini-lesson, hand out worksheets for students to complete within their groups. Helpful hint: to ensure success with this activity, outline specific group expectations on the board such as the following:

  • Use indoor voices
  • Use kind words and actions
  • Take turns speaking
  • Ask peer tutor for help
  • Check your work together

Reminding students of group expectations consistently and posting the expectations in the classroom will assist in establishing the routine for this specific small group activity, making future tutoring trios effortless research-based practice used in your classroom.

Circle Story Groups

In first grade, students identify the beginning, middle and ending of stories. Students’ understanding of narrative structure increases with the use of circle story groups. To conduct this activity, do the following:

  1. Group students into four and provide each student with a piece of paper folded into four separate boxes.
  2. Inform students they will create stories within their groups.
  3. Direct each student to draw a picture of their favorite characters in the first box on their papers.
  4. Inform students that everyone’s story will be about a lost pet.
  5. Instruct students to draw a picture showing their characters interacting with their pets (feeding, washing, etc.) in the next box.
  6. Direct students to draw a picture in the third box showing what happens when the pet goes missing.
  7. Instruct students to raise their left hands (show which is left) and pass their papers to the student seated to that side of them.
  8. Direct students to read the picture stories on the papers and create a picture ending in the last box.
  9. Allow students to take turns telling each other’s stories in the small groups.

By following these simple steps and monitoring students’ behaviors throughout the activity, circle story groups will certainly become a student favorite.

Peer Reading Time

To increase students’ reading fluency, group students on the same reading level together for peer reading time. This small group idea for first graders provides for classroom reading time while allowing for peer interaction. The reading materials selected for each group should be on-level reading text for each group, so grouping students by same reading levels is necessary. Students take turns reading sections of the text. Provide students with a choice of activities to do after the reading. Allow student groups to choose from a list of three activities. Some activities that can be listed:

  • Identify action words from the story by writing words in a list.
  • Draw a picture of your favorite part of the story.
  • Create a different ending to the story in a drawing.

Use the first grade reading series as a resource for finding activities that can follow this group reading activity. Helpful hint: be sure to read the list to the students and include simple drawings next to each item for easy student identification.

Classroom Community

Frequent use of small group activities for first graders assists in building community in the classroom. Using these small group activities supports students’ efforts and encourages positive social interaction within the classroom. Students are more willing to ask for assistance in a classroom where peer interaction is a regular practice and the social climate is positive and supportive. Many names have been assigned to group learning: cooperative learning, literacy circles, shared reading and many others. Though the names may change the purpose and relevance of small group activities does not - these activities increase students’ learning; that alone makes it a useful and relevant practice in your first grade classroom.


  • Gross Davis, Barbara. Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass Publishers.2nd edition, 2009. University of California, Berkeley.
  • Sanoff, Henry. “Research Based Design of an Elementary School,” featured in Must sign-in in order to download this document.
  • Stevens, Judy, et. al. Brain-Based Instruction for the 21st Century: For The Learners Sake. Zephyr Press. 2001.