Success or Survival in the Multigrade Classroom: Part 3

by Sandra Wright Smith1

Part 3 — Instructional Approaches

This is article three in a four-part series on teaching in a multigrade classroom. Article one is Success or Survival in the Multigrade Classroom: 1 — Crossing the Cultures.


“What makes you you is the root of what you do.” What is it?

A couple of weeks ago I was challenged with the task of presenting the definition of culture to family groups with ages varying from three to adult. I began with this riddle, then gave each group a plant to repot. Any culture, including the culture of the multigraded classroom, is very much like those repotted plants. The part of the plant that is seen is not the whole of the plant. The plant is stabilized and fed through the root system, the unseen part. The part of culture that is seen, what we do and say, is “fed” and “supported” by what is not seen—our beliefs, thought processes, assumptions, and values.

As we begin to look at the parts of the multigrade culture that is seen, we must keep in mind the underlying principles and values that establish its distinctive. As the stem grows directly out of the root system, so the teacher’s approach to instruction grows out of his/her understanding of learning and teaching.

Instructional Approaches

Four basic instructional approaches may be used in the multigrade instructional format: segregated instruction, combined-level instruction, mixed-level instruction, and the distinctive approach of the multigrade, multilevel instruction.

Segregated Instructional Approach

The segregated instructional approach gives individualized lessons to a class in a particular subject or concept area. The lesson is planned primarily to build a single new concept for areas that will require in-depth instruction for some levels but not necessarily for others. This approach gives special attention to individual needs across or within grade levels.

For example, the segregated approach may be desired for leveled reading instruction. The class, divided into reading groups (not necessarily grade levels), may focus on specific reading-skill practice or reading-difficulty level. The teacher would then work with each different group separately while the rest of the class worked on independent study, cooperative projects, or learning centers.

When I first started teaching multigrade, this was the approach advocated by the curriculum producers. My first years were frustrated with a virtual labyrinth of six to eight lessons per grade for all six grades. No matter how I ran the stopwatch, it just didn’t work. This approach should only be selectively used and thoroughly pre-planned.

Combined-level Instructional Approach

Another approach, which should be cautiously used, is combined instruction. This approach teaches two or more grade levels using the same material on the same level. For example, the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades may all be studying geography from one text. Other areas of social science may be taught in rotating years. As such, this approach may be used for areas in the science, social science, and specialized concepts of other subjects.

Care must be taken when choosing texts, noting the reading and concept evaluation (study question) levels. They will not be good “tools” if the vocabulary or comprehension levels are too difficult for the majority of the students. Choose a median reading level appropriate for the students in the grades being taught.

Mixed-level Instructional Approach

The mixed-level instructional approach brings together all the students regardless of grade level and introduces a concept not restricted to levels. The concept may be taught to the class as a whole with similar evaluative expectations.

This approach allows students to step out of level expectations and participate in the learning process purely on an individual basis. Each student may learn the basic concept on the same level, but application of the concept may be individualistic. This is effectively used to teach unleveled concepts in subject areas such as science, social science, physical education, art, or music.

For example, the teacher may teach the mixed group of students the same basic principles of music writing, but what the student makes out of the notes and rests and the level of skill used to apply the principles may be unique to each student.

A modification of this approach may be used in a mixed reading exercise. In this exercise, different stories on different reading levels are read orally by the students. Students reading below their instructional level are given opportunity to read without pressure, practicing expression, smoothness, clarity, and speed. Students reading above their instructional level are given opportunity to reach beyond expectations.

The teacher will need to be aware of each student’s abilities and choose sections that can challenge but not defeat the younger reader. Through this exercise older students are encouraged to exercise their depth of mastery, and younger students are encouraged to succeed beyond their grade level of accountability.

Multilevel Instructional Approach

The multilevel instructional approach is the distinctive approach of the multigrade, like the main stem of the plant out of which the other approaches grow. Rather than viewing the spiral of concept learning horizontally by levels, this approach slices the spiral vertically pulling out one topic of concepts on all the levels. Different concept levels of a topic are then combined into one lesson, which is taught to the multi­graded class as a whole.

The following example of a lesson will help to visualize this approach.

Grades 1-4

Grammar Lesson: Nouns I

In teaching each lesson, the teacher highlights the critical concept of the content, critical vocabulary, and critical skill for each level of accountability. As each lesson reviews and presents new concepts, students see the learning objectives in a broader framework. This provides for a very solid foundation of conceptual understanding as the child progresses through the grades.

The basic concept foundations are reviewed each year for the entire class as new students are added to the lower grades. This method also enables students to add new concepts at an accelerated pace. The students are provided the freedom on any given day to reach a higher level of skill. Consequently, this approach provides both foundational and accelerated learning with the freedom to work at an individual level.

By using the multilevel approach as a primary choice of instruction, a teacher can efficiently teach to the different age levels and learning styles within one lesson. Planning time is reduced, and focused instructional time is increased. However, the other approaches will also need to be used selectively throughout the day.

The choice of which approach to use will be determined by your principles and values. These are your “roots” from which you decide the content to be taught, determine the student needs, and assess time availability for instruction. The instructional “stem” (teaching method) used will result in a more effective process of instruction.

Those of you currently teaching multigraded classrooms know that most curricula are not designed for the multilevel approach. It becomes a requirement of the teacher to adjust the curriculum tools and materials. In the next article, we will look at how curriculum planning can be done to facilitate the instructional approaches needed for a successful multigrade.

Go to Success or Survival in the Multigrade Classroom: 4 — Planning a Multigrade Curriculum Design (article four).

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