Join thousands of high school seniors from across the country in Friday's College March!
Header image

Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 3

  • Date

  • Author

    Casey Schultz

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.


Question: How can I manage students and materials during differentiated small groups and independent rotations in the K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block?


What is the K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block?

Any teacher can tell you that summer break isn’t just two months of lounging leisurely by the pool. We certainly hope you’re taking full advantage of your time off, but we know that preparations for the coming school year are likely infiltrating your summer plans. That’s why we’re sharing a series of blog posts throughout the summer that will help you prepare to teach each strand of the EL Education Language Arts curriculum: The K-2 Modules Lessons, the K-2 Labs, the K-2 Skills Block, the 3-5 Module Lessons, and 3-5 Additional Language and Literacy (ALL) Block. This post will focus on the K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block (Skills Block).

For those of you new to the Skills Block, it’s the structured phonics portion of EL Education’s comprehensive K-2 Language Arts curriculum. The block is one hour, beginning with about 20 minutes of whole group, on-grade-level instruction. This is followed by 40-45 minutes of teacher-led differentiated small group instruction. While the teacher works with each small group, the rest of the students are working on purposeful independent work, tailored to their learning needs (see Implementing the K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block video to see this in action).


Throughout the pilot year (2016-17) and launch year (2017-18) of the curriculum, some of the most common questions from teachers had to do with planning differentiated small groups and independent rotations and managing all the materials that go along with it. So, we’ll focus on this portion of the hour rather than whole group instruction, answering the question: How can I manage students and materials during differentiated small groups and independent rotations in the Reading Foundations Skills Block? If you’d like to learn more about the whole group instruction in the Skills Block, you can check out lessons for your grade level here or review the Scope and Sequence: Year at a Glance document for whole group instruction for each grade level here: 

Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2

Kindergarten students from Lead Academy in Greenville, SC working independently in the Word Work rotation.

Managing Materials and Students During Differentiated Small Groups and Independent Rotations

Let’s start with materials because you can start working on those even before you have your class roster in hand.The curriculum does not prescribe a certain way to organize materials, but we will share some suggestions, specifically for independent rotations, based on what we’ve seen work well in schools. You’ll likely notice that many of your existing systems and structures will fit right in with the recommendations.

Organizing rotation materials

In the curriculum guidance, we suggest the following independent rotations (see Independent and Small Group Work on pages 1-26 of the K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block Resource Manual for more information). This is what students will be working on independently while you pull small groups for differentiated small group instruction:

  • Word Work
  • Fluency
  • Writing Practice
  • Accountable Independent Reading (AIR)

One way to organize the materials for a given rotation is a binder system. You can keep all of the materials needed for a given rotation in one binder, with materials organized by microphase, to ensure that the work is differentiated for the needs of each group (see Phases and Microphase on pages 53-58 of the K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block Resource Manual for more information on microphases).  

An example of a kindergarten Word Work binder from Lead Academy in Greenville, SC. Open the link to the following slides for more examples.

In these slides, you’ll see an example of a binder system from a kindergarten class. The binders are kept in a designated area for each independent rotation (e.g., a “Fluency” table) and each group travels to 2-3 rotations throughout the independent work time. Each student travels with their own notebook (or you could use a folder) to use for any writing that goes along with a given independent rotation.

On page 7 of the slides, you saw an example of a “cycle word list.” The teacher created this list based on the cycle word list from each Skills Block Cycle Overview (see Grade 2 example below). These lists can be used for a variety of differentiated independent and small group activities.

      Example of a Grade 2 cycle word list. 

As you prepare for the coming year, consider downloading this comprehensive collection of all the K-2 Cycle Words Lists (in a student-friendly format). This resource is a model based on materials created by teachers implementing the Skills Block. You can make a master copy of each and use for independent rotations and small group work based on microphase needs (see ideas for how to use on the first page of the document). 

If binders are not an option, containers such as rectangular plastic bins or book bins, can also be used to hold the materials for a given rotation. Within the container, folders or baggies, possibly color-coded, can be used to hold the work for each group.


This teacher from UPrep Mark Murray Campus in Detroit, Michigan includes all the materials needed for the Fluency rotation in a plastic tray. She includes a pencil case to organize the highlighters and folders underneath with decodable student readers and other fluency passages.

Organizing individual student work

As students travel to each rotation (or even if the rotation materials are moved and the students stay in one place) they will need a folder, notebook, or binder to hold their paper. If folders are used, consider color-coding by group. If notebooks, consider using sticky notes as tabs to separate sections for each rotation (see example below). And if you choose binders, consider using some sort of tabs or dividers to organize materials for each rotation. Not only will these systems help you and the students stay organized, but will also help students take responsibility for the work they do in each rotation.

This kindergarten student from Lead Academy in Greenville, SC travels with his notebook. His teacher uses sticky notes to separate each independent rotation section.

Managing and Preparing Systems for Student Success

Setting behavioral expectations

We know it can be difficult to let go and allow students to work independently, but trust us—they can do it! And, because the success of the Skills Block is so dependent on differentiated small group work, it’s crucial that they learn to work independently so you can focus the bulk of your time and energy on differentiation.

Before you begin to plan and prepare systems that will make this time run smoothly, it’s helpful to ask yourself some questions like: How long should each transition take? Will I use a song or a timer for the transitions? What steps will students need to take to clean up each activity? Will I allow students to talk during the transition? Once you’ve answered these questions for yourself, backwards plan how you will prepare the systems and then teach them to your students.

You don’t need to roll out every independent rotation on Day 1; once you’re ready to start introducing them, you might only have one rotation open for the first week or two. We suggest that you take plenty of time to launch each rotation, possibly as a whole group first, to ensure that all students are clear on the appropriate behaviors for each one. Possible steps:

  • In whole group, model the appropriate behaviors using real materials from the rotation (e.g., ABC magnets for the Word Work rotation). Consider modeling non-examples, too (the kids love this!)
  • Call on students to practice modeling appropriate behaviors in front of the whole group (and possibly non-examples). Consider using a “fishbowl” protocol to do this (see page 16 of Appendix: Protocols and Strategies).
  • Allow students time to practice in their rotations with the actual materials they will be using
  • Give feedback (and invite students to give feedback) on how it went

Once the behavioral expectations have been established, post a visual representation such as a co-created anchor chart or poster to use as a reminder when students get off track.



Expectations in a kindergarten classroom for voice level during independent rotations.

See this video, Management in the Active Classroom: Volume and Movement for more ideas for managing transitions during independent rotations.

Setting expectations for independent work time

When teaching a whole group or small group lesson, teachers usually identify a learning target, for that lesson as a way to keep instruction focused and everyone clear on the ultimate goal of the learning experience. In the same way, identifying learning targets and tasks for each rotation can help keep students on track for independent work. Here are few examples of structures teachers have used to identify learning targets for independent rotations. For more more information about learning targets you can look refer to this chapter from Leaders of Their Own Learning about learning targets or this video.

Here, the teacher identifies the learning target for a particular group each day. She uses an erasable surface so she can rewrite each day.

In addition to learning targets for each rotation, consider using task cards to guide students’ work in each rotation throughout the week. See some examples of task cardshere  (based on materials created by teachers implementing the Skills Block). If using with kindergarteners or students who are not yet able to read the instructions, consider adding visuals or photo examples. 

Putting it all Together

Creation of all of these systems and materials can feel overwhelming at the beginning. For materials, you will certainly need to find or create some new material, but you don’t need to go overboard. Think about how you can share the load with teammates or invite parents to help. You can also re-use some activities from differentiated small groups once students are familiar with the game and can do it on their own. And, it’s OK to use materials that you already have! If you have spelling pattern sorts you already created a few years ago or maybe some word building blocks or tiles, definitely use them. Just remember that this is a time for students to practice skills that you know they need work on, based on their microphase. So the materials you choose should align with those needs, even if they’re not from the EL Education curriculum.

As for systems to manage students, this bears repeating: go slow to go fast. Take as much time as you need in the beginning to ensure that students are very clear on what is expected of them so that they can be successful and so you will have the space to work with small groups with minimal interruption.