How Reading Outcomes of Students with Disabilities Are Related to Instructional Grouping Formats: A Meta-Analytic Review

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 15 describes the following:

Title | How Reading Outcomes of Students with Disabilities Are Related to Instructional Grouping Formats: A Meta-Analytic Review

Authors | Elbaum, B., Vaughn , S., Hughes, M.T. , Moody, S.W., & Schumm , J.S.

Source | In R. Gersten, E.P. Schiller, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Contemporary special education research: Syntheses of the knowledge base on critical instruction issues (pp.105-135). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Year Published | 2000

Only since the late 1980s has there been sufficient special education research published that meta-analyses and syntheses can be conducted. In this volume, seven sets of authors grapple with synthesizing the knowledge base on an array of critical topics in the field of special education. Anyone who has attempted a meta-analysis or a comprehensive research synthesis is aware of how formidable a task it is. Issues that seem relatively easy or straightforward when described in a textbook are usually extraordinarily intricate and perplexing when put into practice. Every decision, from defining the target population to exclusion criteria for studies, invariably opens up a can of worms. Where one expects many studies, often there are few. And where relatively few are expected, there are often far too many to be able to synthesize properly. Each of these chapters represents years of work and, often, struggle.

The authors state that they believe the effort and the occasional agonies are reflected in the depth of insight provided in each of the chapters. Four of the research teams use meta-analysis as their major analytic tool. Three of the meta-analyses deal with learning disabilities.

  • Batya Elbaum, Sharon Vaughn, Marie Hughes, Sally Watson Moody, and Jeanne Shay Schumm synthesize what we now know about effective instructional grouping practices for reading.
  • Doug Fuchs, Lynn S. Fuchs, Patricia G. Mathes, and Mark W. Lipsey examine differences between students classified as learning disabled and other low-achieving students on a range of academic performance measures. They also discuss policy implications.
  • H. Lee Swanson reviews the entire corpus of instructional research on learning disabilities in order to discern underlying principles of effective teaching and instructional design. (From the Preface of Contemporary Special Education Research)

For decades before the special education law now known as IDEA was passed, and even for the first couple of decades after it, the most common model of educating students with disabilities was to assign them to a special education classroom for part or all of their school day. However, educators and parents of children with disabilities became concerned that this “pull-out” model socially isolated children with disabilities and failed to educate them in the least restrictive environment promised by the IDEA. In the last decade of the 20th century, the tide in special education grouping practices turned towards inclusion of students with disabilities in the regular classroom and away from pull-out programs.

Grouping practices in regular education classrooms were changing at about the same time as the shift towards inclusion occurred in special education. In regular education classrooms, the norm for decades had been to group students by their ability levels. There has been an ongoing debate in education about whether or not ability grouping helps or harms student achievement. The argument in favor of ability grouping is that it allows teachers to challenge high achievers, while providing remediation, repetition, and review for low achievers. The arguments against ability grouping usually focus on its two-fold negative impact on low achievers. When separated from high-achieving peers, low achievers not only lose the positive example of their peers but also work under the lowered expectations from their teachers. In addition, some researchers believe that low-achieving groups are likely to receive lower quality instruction than high-achieving groups, further increasing the achievement gap. These concerns about the negative impact of ability grouping on some students lead to a search for alternative grouping formats.

This meta-analysis examines the link between reading outcomes and grouping format. The following grouping formats were investigated:

  • Cooperative Learning: mixed ability groups work together on class assignments.
  • Student Pairing: students work together in groups of 2.
  • Peer-Tutoring: Originally peer-tutoring usually meant an older or higher ability student tutoring a younger, disabled, or low-achieving student, but studies have shown that children with disabilities benefit from being the tutor as well. Reciprocal tutoring, where students take turns leading the group, has also shown to be effective for both regular and special education students.
  • Small-Group Instruction: this within class grouping practice can be done either with homogeneous or heterogeneous ability groups that are either led by the students or the teacher.
  • Multiple-Grouping Formats: many classrooms use a variety of the grouping formats listed above instead of limiting themselves to just one.

Research Questions
To what extent are the reading outcomes of students with disabilities related to the grouping format used during reading instruction?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 18
  • Number of Subjects | N/A
  • Years Spanned | 1978-1997

Research Subjects
Students with disabilities who participated in a particular grouping format for their reading instruction. Children who were in ESL classes or considered at risk were not included.

Age/Grade of Subjects
The majority of participants were in elementary school from 1st to 6th grade.

Specified Disability
Learning Disabilities (LD)

Reading instruction using a grouping format such as student pairing, small groups, cooperative learning, whole-class, or multiple grouping formats.

Duration of Intervention


  1. Grouping children instead of teaching the whole class at once significantly improves the reading performance of students with disabilities.
  2. There are not many studies on the effect of small-group instruction for teaching reading to students with LD, but the studies that exist imply that groups of 4 or fewer are better than larger groups, and reciprocal teaching is an effective strategy to use in small-group reading instruction.
  3. Being paired with another student was beneficial for students with disabilities regardless of whether the student with a disability was in the role of the tutee or acting as reciprocal tutor.
  4. Cross-age tutoring has a positive impact on older students with disabilities who tutor younger students. However, younger students with disabilities do not benefit from being tutored by older students with disabilities.

Combined Effects Size
The average effect size for all grouping formats used in the reading instruction of students with LD was 0.43.

Note that effect size (ES or d) is a statistical calculation, often represented as ES or d, that measures the impact of an intervention. An effect size below d = 0.20 suggests that a treatment did not have a significant effect. An effect size of d = 0.20 is considered small or low; an effect size of d = 0.50 is considered moderate; an effect size of d = 0.80 or above is large.

Effect Sizes by Type of Grouping Format

  • Pairing = 0.40
  • Small Groups = 1.61
  • Multiple Formats = 0.29

Mean Weighted Effect Sizes by Type of Pairing

  • Peer-Tutoring = 0.35
  • Cross-Age Tutoring = 0.50
  • Cooperative Partners = 0.0

Grouping formats such as small groups, reciprocal tutoring, and peer-tutoring positively impact the reading performance of students with disabilities. However, the authors point out that some grouping formats are easier to implement than others. Small-group instruction has been shown to be especially difficult for many teachers to implement, while peer-tutoring tends to be easier. Since peer-tutoring is likely to be used in the most classrooms, the authors offer some suggestions to successfully implement student pairing:

  • Tutors need to be familiar with both the content they are teaching and with procedures for managing the tutee’s behavior and the instructional
  • Tutors need to be instructed in how to give positive feedback to the tutee and how to correct the tutee appropriately.
  • Teachers must consider whether peer-tutoring will benefit both the tutor and the tutee.

Peer-mediated instruction such as peer-tutoring and reciprocal tutoring can benefit children not only in terms of their academic performance, but also by improving their social skills.

Future Research
Further research is needed on small-group instructional formats, cooperative learning groups, and multiple grouping formats.

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