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Sarah Slater
Barrett, The Honors College

A Multi-Age Curriculum for Elementary

I graduated from a multi-age elementary program in a public school in Tucson, AZ. The

grades were separated into one 1st-3rd grade classroom and one 4th-5th grade classroom. The multi-

age program was implemented by the 1st-3rd grade teacher, who had developed a curriculum for

multi-age classrooms and was approved to implement it into her own classroom by the school

district. I had a wonderful experience each year and believed that I benefited from the structure

of the classes, not just through my understanding of the content, but I also developed strong

organization, critical thinking, problem solving, and leadership skills. While not every child may

succeed in a multi-age classroom, I believe many children would benefit from its structure

because it allows the teacher to scaffold learning in each subject level for each student based on

the students ability, rather than grade level. Scaffolding individualizes instruction whereby a

child may extend their learning in one subject area and is provided extra help in an area of

struggle (Wormeli, 2007)

In recent decades, multi-age learning has lost its momentum due to poorly implemented

programs and improperly trained teachers (Grant, et al., 1996, p. 31). One approach to

addressing the lack of multi-age curricular materials available is to create one that will assist

teachers with information on how to set up a classroom, with examples of how students may be

grouped by levels, and provide sample lesson plans for working effectively with students. In so

doing, teachers may be more apt to try to implement the multiage structure in the classroom and

feel more prepared (Grant, et al., 1996, p. 31).

Through this creative project, a curriculum based on thematic units for a multi-age

classroom for 4th-6th grades will be developed. This project will give a basic structure of a daily
schedule and different teaching strategies to keep a multi-age classroom organized based on

published research. However, the main focus of this project will be on the development of one

thematic unit (that incorporates multiple content areas including: social studies, language arts,

and science) to exemplify how a teacher can implement a thematic unit in a multi-age classroom

and scaffold the learning effectively depending on the students level and ability.

What is Multi-age Education?

Multi-age education is known by numerous titles, including: multiage, non-graded, split-

level, combination, and ungraded classrooms (Pancoe, 2016). For the purpose of consistency,

this project will refer to this type of education as multi-age. By definition, a classroom that is

considered multi-age is comprised of two or more grades and taught by the same teacher.

Multi-age education dates back to the one room schoolhouse, where one teacher taught

students of different ages. In fact, Pancoe (2016) states that single grade classrooms were not

introduced into American education until 1843, when the secretary of the Massachusetts Board

of Education visited Prussia and decided to borrow their single grade classroom system. This

separation of grades allowed teachers to specialize in certain areas of education and allowed for

more efficiency. It was not until the 1960s that the multi-age classroom began to resurface in the

United States due to budget cuts (Pancoe, 2016). One teacher educating several grades was

certainly beneficial to the educational budget, but without providing teachers with proper

training in multi-age structure and philosophy, there were negative results (Pancoe, 2016).

However, Pardini (2005) argues that with proper implementation and a strong classroom

structure, multi-age classrooms have shown to increase: pro-social behavior, higher language

development, and higher cognitive development. In addition, a multi-age classroom allows a

teacher to group students based on level and ability, rather than age (Pardini, 2005). Students

that excel in one or more areas will be able to thrive and students that need the extra support will

not be left behind or inhibit the rest of the students for moving on (Pardini, 2005).

In 1990, the state of Kentucky passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which

mandated all public elementary schools to implement a multi-age program for kindergarten to

third grade (Pardini, 2005). However, in 1998 Kentucky abandoned its mandate due to parents

and teachers protesting for more flexibility and the option to have students in a single grade

classroom. The Council for the Chief State School Officers said that these protests may have

been due to a lack of understanding and an increase in stress on administration to drastically

change the school system in a short time period (Pardini, 2005). The Michigan State Board of

Education began providing grants in 1994 to implement multi-age programs in schools. Just one

year later, 1 in 5 of Michigans public schools used multi-age settings and three years later, half

of all of the Michigan schools were multi-age. However, the funding ceased in 1999 and the

multi-age initiative lost its support (Song, 2009, p.3). Many argue that the state standards and

graded national testing implemented in 2001 by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) caused further

difficulties for remaining multi-age classrooms across the United States because of the strictness

of separate standards for each grade level (Pardini, 2005). While Kentucky and Michigan are the

only states that actively endorsed multi-age education into all mainstream public schools, there

are still many schools (public and private) that individually elect to implement multi-age

education (Pardini, 2005).

The multi-age setting is an organic stage for learning because it mimics the integration of

ages in society. Teachers of single grade classrooms can find themselves in a monotonous rut as

they focus on teaching the same curriculum each year with the same textbooks. This focus on
curriculum, rather than the student, can have detrimental effects. In fact, Pardini interviewed

Anderson, a Harvard Graduate studying multi-age education, who stated that "many teachers go

with what the manual says. They follow the script." But when schools do away with a grade-

level designation, he adds, "It forces the teacher to look at the individual needs of each child."

(Pardini, 2005). In addition, multi-age structure implements a variety of beneficial teaching

strategies, such as: cooperative learning, thematic units, and flexible grouping based on ability.

These elements foster a more natural mode of learning for students because the older students

can assist the younger students (or the more advanced students can assist those that are

struggling), which allows the struggling students to progress at a faster rate and the advanced

students reinforce their own learning simultaneously. Consequently, multi-age classrooms

produce a variety of perspectives from students of different ages and abilities that is not found in

a traditional classroom. Since the curriculum is focused on individual student learning, students

are encouraged to explore topics themselves and share their thoughts and ideas with one another.

Essentially, the learning process is emphasized, rather than the outcome or going through the

motions to meet state standards (Pardini, 2005).

Benefits of Multi-age Education

There are many proven benefits of multi-age education. One study conducted by

researchers McClellan and Kinsey (1999) indicated that multi-age students showed a higher level

of pro-social behavior and less aggressive behaviors. One of the two schools analyzed by the

researchers had multi-age classes for all but the third grade. The researchers discovered that the

third grade students who had previously been in a multi-age setting still exhibited less aggressive

and more pro-social behaviors than the students who had been in a single grade classroom for

their previous education (McClellan, 1999).

Thompson (2015) found that studies have also revealed that younger students in mixed

age settings have higher language development skills because they are interacting with older

students with higher language development. Other studies have shown lesser behavioral issues

compared to single grade classrooms (Thompson, 2015). While studies have proven an increase

in academic progress in comparison to single grade classrooms, studies have shown that students

in both classroom settings test the same. In addition, there is some evidence to support that

students in multi-age classrooms reach a higher cognitive development level at a faster rate

(Thompson, 2015).

One of the benefits of a multi-age classroom setting is the increased time a student has

with the same teacher. Since the students spend 2-3 years with the same teacher, the teacher

becomes familiar with students needs and learning styles. The additional years in the same

classroom and with the same peers can also create a stronger classroom community.

Children placed in a multi-age environment learn to model behavior from one another. A

student that enters a multi-age classroom will go through several modeling stages. As one of the

youngest group of students, he or she is the follower, taking advice and being guided through

complex assignments by the older students (Merrick, 1996). Once he or she is promoted to the

middle grade, the student will still retain some of the following tendencies as he or she looks to

the older students, but he or she will now begin to assist the younger students. Finally, in the

highest grade the student will be the main leader of the younger students and will act as a role

model and take higher responsibility roles in group work. In the cognitive conflict theory

developed by Piaget, students of different ages that work together on a project will learn by

resolving a dispute on their different points of view. In order to resolve conflicting viewpoints,

the students must articulate their reasoning. Younger students are consequently exposed to higher
levels of thinking and older students solidify their mastery of the subject or concept by

explaining themselves to the younger students (Merrick, 1996).

Unfortunately, due to the lack of prevalence of multi-age classrooms in the United States,

many studies are only done on one or a handful of classrooms. In addition, most studies

regarding the topic of multi-age education occurred in the 1990s due to its popularity and little

research has been conducted on the subject since. This project intends to give teachers who are

considering implementing a multi-age setting the tools to set up their classrooms and a sample

curriculum to model in their own classrooms.

What is a Thematic Unit?

A thematic unit is a method that implements an over-arching theme across multiple

subjects or areas, rather than teaching each subject separately (Shriner, 2010). This encourages

students to make connections between different subjects and ideas, while allowing them to learn

in-depth on a particular topic. A thematic unit can be covered in a short time period, such as a

few days or as long as an entire quarter of the school year, depending on how length of time the

teacher wants to spend on that topic.

Teachers can collaborate with their co-workers to create a thematic unit that spans in all

classrooms, or create transitions to similar sub-units between the subject areas. An example of a

thematic unit in a single subject would be the theme of mortality in literature for a ninth grade

English classroom. Students could read and analyze a variety of texts that bring up issues of

mortality throughout the unit. If a teacher wanted to have a single theme for several subject

areas, one might choose a historical time period like Ancient Rome. Students could read books

about Rome, learn about Ancient Roman culture and geography, and discover the scientific
advancements of that time period. This theme could be implemented into the language arts,

social studies, and science areas. A teacher could even implement the theme into mathematical

word problems so that the thematic unit would span all four of the main subject areas. This

approach to thematic units (spanning across multiple subject areas) is also referred to as

integrated instruction or integrated curriculum because a common theme or idea is used to tie

multiple areas together (Shriner, 2010). This project will implement a thematic unit approach

across three subject areas (language arts, social studies, and science) to allow students to

investigate the thematic unit and reveal the relationship between the traditionally separated


Benefits of Thematic Units

Thematic units have been shown to have many benefits to student engagement and

content retention. Research comparing student engagement during thematic units, inter-

disciplinary instruction, and traditional instruction in a multi-age classroom of 3rd and 4th graders

revealed that student engagement increases when using thematic units. In fact, Yorks (1993)

found that there was a 10-17.9% increase in student engagement across the subjects of social

studies, language arts, and math (34). The students levels of self-evaluated engagement also

increased 2.3-13.5% (Yorks, 1993, p. 35). The researcher recommended thematic units in

particular to multi-age classrooms because it allows for an effective way to teach whole group

lessons, which increases student engagement across the grades (Yorks, 1993, p. 34-40). In

addition, a study conducted at two different elementary schools that compared reading scores

before and after using thematic units, found a 20% and 34% increase in reading scores in a three

year period (Yorks, 1993, p. 34-40).

A study was also conducted on the efficacy of thematic unit instruction for struggling

early learners. The study created by Cunningham (2010) used 24 students that were considered

struggling readers in seven different first grade classrooms in East Texas. The students were

given a pre and post-test on identifying sight words and written expressions. The students were

randomly assigned to the control group and the group receiving thematic unit approaches

(Cunningham, 2010). The thematic unit group received mini lessons focused on receptive

vocabulary, expressive vocabulary, letter recognition, sound symbol identification, phoneme

segmentation, oral reading fluency, syllable identification, auditory memory and written

expression over a period of twelve weeks (Cunningham, 2010). All of the students reading

levels and sight word scores increased significantly (Cunningham, 2010). However, the test

scores of the students in the thematic unit group had a greater increase in test results than the

control group (Cunningham, 2010). While a larger population would have been preferred, this

study reveals that thematic unit approaches can increase reading skills for struggling students

(Cunningham, 2010).

Classroom Organization and Structure

One way to nurture this role of follower-leader is by placing the students in groups

throughout the room with one older student, two-three middle grade students, and two-three

younger students. During group work the students will work together, taking on the leader and

supporting roles as needed. Another way to remind students what makes up a good role model

and evaluate the students is through class discussions. Teachers can also take advantage of

opportunities when students exhibit good leadership skills and reinforce the good behavior.
A person may wonder how a multi-age teacher is able to address the needs of different

groups of students that are working on different levels of a subject. One method that multi-age

teachers may find useful is what Rick Wormeli (2016) refers to as the The Football and The

Anchor methods. The football method is broken into three sections. The first section has the

teacher instruct a general lesson to the class as a whole for the first 15 minutes. The students will

work on the same activity and gain the same content knowledge. Next, the teacher will split the

students into groups based on levels and assign them similar tasks that will allow the students to

understand and retain the knowledge at their own pace. Finally, the teacher assesses the students

as a whole to gauge learning. An alternative is the Anchor method, which allows the teacher to

instruct the students as a whole and give them something substantive to work on independently,

while the teacher pulls groups of students into small groups to give mini-lessons. The teacher

then sends back the small group to finish working on the main lesson and then pulls another

small group out to teach (Wormeli, 2016, p. 5-6). Both of these methods allow the teacher to

teach a whole group lesson while giving students individualized attention and the ability to

scaffold activities and mini-lessons to students based on their levels.

A multi-age teacher can implement thematic units into the classroom by creating a cycle

that repeats every two to three years. This cycle allows every student that completes the entire

program to receive instruction from every unit and eliminates the issue of the students being

taught the same unit multiple times or forcing the teacher to create an entirely new set of units

each year (Mcgee, 2000, p. 56). A multi-age teacher can implement thematic units into the

classroom by creating a cycle that repeats every two to three years. This cycle allows every

student that completes the entire program to receive instruction from every unit and eliminates
the issue of the students being taught the same unit multiple times or forcing the teacher to create

an entirely new set of units each year (Mcgee, 2000, p. 56).

While there are numerous ways to create an effective multi-age classroom schedule, this

project will be centered on the daily schedule below:

Sample of a Daily Schedule

Bell-work 15 min

Class lesson and assign group work (science or social studies) 30 min

Small groups-math and group work 1 hour

Silent reading 30 min

Arts- at/music, technology, library- 45 min

Lunch and recess 1 hour

Small groups-reading and group work 1 hour

Journal time 30 min

Closing activity (science or social studies) and assign homework 1 hour

This schedule was created to ensure that students will have integrated whole group

instruction and small group work. During small group time, students that are not with the teacher

will work silently or quietly in groups to complete their activities at their own pace. The schedule

also allows daily time for reading and writing, in order to ensure that students are able to read

and write based on their preferences. This encourages independent learning and creative

expression. The teacher can choose to allow students to share their writings with the class for

peer feedback to introduce the idea of constructive criticism and editing ones works.
Sample Thematic Unit Cycle Structure for Grades 4-6
Semester 1: Ancient History
Sub-unit- Ancient Greece and Rome
Guiding Questions:
Who were the Ancient Greeks?
What makes Greek culture different from our own? How has their culture influenced
todays culture?
The Trojan War
Who were the Ancient Romans?
The Fall of Rome
Sub-unit- Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt
Guiding Questions:
What was Mesopotamia? Who were the Mesopotamians?
How do natural resources influence a region?
What was Ancient Egypt like?
Semester 2: Weather Around Us
Sub-unit: Natural Disasters
Guiding Questions:
Volcanoes- Mt. Vesuvius, Mt. St. Helens
Earthquakes- Why do they occur? How can we be prepared?
Sub-unit: Humans Effects of the Environment
Guiding Questions:
Why is recycling important?
What is global warming?
What is sustainable energy?
How can we help the environment?

Semester 3: Renaissance and Middle Ages

Sub-unit: Renaissance
Guiding Questions:
What defined the Renaissance time period?
Who were the major figures?
Sub-unit: Middle Ages
Guiding Questions:
What made the Middle Ages different from the Renaissance?
Who and what defined the Middle Ages?

Semester 4: Man and Machines

Sub-unit: Industrial Revolution
Guiding Questions:
What was the Industrial Revolution and what caused it?
Who were the major figures that influenced the Industrial Revolution?
What were some of the inventions and their side effects?

Sub-unit: Engines, generators, and solar/wind/wave powers

Guiding Questions:
What is energy?
How do we create/transfer energy?
What are types of renewable energy generators?

Semester 5: Early American Settlers

Sub-unit: Native Americans
Guiding Questions:
Who are the Native Americans?
How did the European settlers interact with the Native Americans?
What is the Trail of Tears?

Sub-unit: Founders of America

Guiding Questions:
Who were Americas founders?
What were the early settlements like?
What was the American Dream?

Semester 6: Earth and the Solar System

Sub-unit: Earths formation
Guiding Questions:
How did the earth form? What are the earths layers?
How did the continents move?
How are islands created?
Sub-unit: The Solar System
Guiding Questions:
What makes each planet unique?
What are the requirements to classify a planet?
What other types of material are found in space?
Could there be life on other planets?

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