Class size means the difference between one-on-one guidance from the teacher and having to compete with more than 30 other student voices to simply be heard. Educators know that class size matters, and in the core area of literacy instruction, it can be especially beneficial -- or detrimental -- to learning.
The Case for Class Size
For a time, studies revealed conflicting results on the outcomes of small class sizes, according to the National Council of Teachers of English, but more modern and nuanced research and long-term analyses make a stronger case for their benefits. According to research published in the “Journal of School Psychology” in 2006, a significant drop in class size resulted in clear benefits to student literacy learning. The researchers noted that smaller classes are just one tool for literacy teachers, and they may prove most beneficial in targeting and intervening among key student populations at risk for failing to learn basic language skills. The study's authors also called for more formal investigations into the social learning benefits of small classes. For example, engagement, participation, attentiveness and improved teacher-student relationships have been reported in connection with reduced class sizes.
A Boost to Teachers
According to research published in 2004 in the journal “Developmental Psychology,” children in smaller first-grade classrooms demonstrated better literacy performance than those in larger groups. The researchers noted that class sizes are a predictor of literacy outcomes in kindergarten and first grade. Small class sizes are not a magic bullet for learning potential -- this study puzzlingly found lower levels of engagement in smaller groups -- but they do help teachers provide quality instruction and student support. Smaller classes allow educators to focus more on students in their teaching, coming to better understand and adjust their methods to diverse individual needs, according to the NCTE.
Addressing the Challenge
Recognizing that overfilled classrooms are a stumbling block to literacy, school districts such as Philadelphia's seized the opportunity to create specialized learning blocks with smaller classes, according to the the Philadelphia Education Fund. These longer periods of focused instruction reinforce essential literacy skills early in a child’s education. The kindergarten through second-grade students in the program routinely meet the standards set for reading and writing at their grade levels. In many districts, a part-time teacher may be brought in to co-teach core subjects, especially literacy and math -- areas where smaller classes have proven essential, according to a review of research published in 2007 by the “American Educational Research Journal.”
Writing for the Center for Teaching Quality’s TransformED blogs, sixth-grade literacy teacher Jessica Cuthbertson describes the successes of an enrichment series with fewer than 10 students studying and discussing a young adult novel. The group gathered during eight uninterrupted, three-hour sessions, providing ample time for peer-to-peer discussion, individual feedback and even a field trip. All of this equated to what Cuthbertson calls “teaching bliss” -- and a maximum amount of student engagement and excitement about reading and critical comprehension. What’s more, Cuthbertson says, the series left students craving more, so they established an extracurricular book club.