Should My Child Go into a Split Grade?

By Sylvia Hannah, Reading Specialist

A look of panic always comes across parents’ faces when it’s suggested that their child will likely be in a split grade the following year. There are many things to consider, particularly if your child is struggling to acquire basic skills, has difficulty managing the workload, or is easily overwhelmed in a busy classroom. Here’s some things to consider:

  1. Range of Capability

There is always a range of achievement in every classroom.

• In a grade one class I taught, one child was reading at a grade five level and one child didn’t know his last name. In my grade five class, one child read at a grade two level and another at a university level. I have assessed high school students who are reading at elementary school levels.

• So, all grade level classrooms are really split grades! I don’t think that having a child in a split grade will tax a teacher, unduly, because of the range of capability of the students.

  1. Kinds of Split Classes

Schools, usually, have split grade classrooms because they have too many students, or not enough, to fill a classroom with one grade level. They put thought into how they will select children for their split classrooms.

• Sometimes, they’ll pick the independent higher achievers from the lower grade to combine with a smaller group of more needy children in the higher grade.

• Sometimes, they select a smaller number of lower achieving children in the lower grade to combine with a larger number of independent, high achieving students in the higher grade.

• Or, other combinations. By thinking about the combinations, schools are attempting to make the learning groups more workable for the teacher and more manageable for the students.

  1. Grade Level Curriculums

Most parents are worried about whether their child will learn the curriculum in their particular grade.

• Learning is a continuous process. A teacher can “cover” the curriculum, but the more important consideration is whether students have learned what they need to know.

• A child never knows only grade two curriculum, or grade four curriculum, etc. Grade levels are arbitrary. For example, you might say that by the end of grade one, a child should know how to add and subtract up to twenty. By June of grade one, some students know more than this, and some less. The teacher might have “covered” this information but there is always a great range of achievement amongst the children in a grade one classroom.

• In the areas of social studies and science, teachers have a range of topics to choose from. Some are labelled as “grade three” topics, some “grade four”. A teacher could choose a grade five science topic for a grade four-five split classroom, but expect different output from the students, depending on their grade.

• Curriculum always overlaps, but grade levels are arbitrary and lock-step.

• Children’s learning is continuous, sometimes moving faster than day-by-day, month-by-month curriculum presentation, sometimes more slowly.

• I want parents to not worry about whether their children will miss some curriculum if they’re in a split grade classroom. What is more critical is how their child is progressing, as a reader, writer, and mathematical learner.

• Being in a split grade classroom, in itself, will not likely impede their child’s progress.

  1. Teacher Organization

All teachers need to be organized. They need to know:
-what they’re going to teach
-how they’re going to teach it
-have their students learned
-how each student is progressing
-what they need to do to support each learner.

• All of this takes thought and work. I do believe that teachers of split grade classrooms need to be even better organized because there are more things to be done in a multi-age, multi-grade classroom.

• Parents need to know if their multi-grade teacher is highly organized.

  1. Student Organization

All students in classrooms need to learn how to work independently, and there’s always some degree of noise and movement.

• Students have to complete work on their own because a classroom teacher has many students to serve.

• In split grade classrooms, the teacher will expect students to learn how to “ignore” instruction that’s being given to students in the other grade. By ignore, I mean, to keep working on their own while the teacher is busy with children in the other grade.

• In a single grade classroom, this independence is required, as well, but it may be a more obvious requirement in a split grade classroom, and parents will need to consider this expectation carefully.

  1. Level of Split Grade (Early Elementary)

I think that the most difficult grade to teach is grade one. There are several reasons why:

• First, there are now curricular, grade level expectations/requirements placed on the teacher and on the students. The lock-step system has begun.

• Second, this is the grade where children are “supposed” to learn to read. And they’re supposed to learn to read at a certain rate.

• The pressure is on teachers, parents and students.

Sometimes, schools combine a kindergarten and grade one classroom, or a grade one classroom with grade two. This can, and does, work. But, as a reading specialist, I’ve always had some concern about those children who are experiencing difficulty with learning to read, and spell, and write. If your school is suggesting either of the above split grades for your child, ask the following:

o How many students will be in the classroom?
o How many students are at each grade level?
o Does the teacher have any classroom aide support?
o Does the teacher have school resource room support?
o What if my child appears to be learning to read at a slower rate?
o Does the teacher know how to teach children who are learning differently?
o Does the teacher have time to teach children who are learning differently?
o How will my child’s progress be monitored?
o When will my child’s progress be assessed?
o Will I be kept informed?
o Will we have regular progress reports and conferences?

In summary, split grade classrooms require a good deal of teacher skill and organization, and while they may benefit some learners, they may present challenges to others. A split grade classroom, one that is organized to meet the varying needs of children in more than one grade, may be more flexible and could provide your child with learning opportunities directed to his or her unique needs.

Sylvia Hannah is a Reading Specialist, and one of the founding members of the Right to Read Program.

To learn more about early identification and intervention of literacy challenges in children, visit www.rightoread.ca.