Friday, February 13, 2009

Split Grade Classes II

I was asked about this topic by a journalist. I haven't reflected on it for a few years. I wrote an article, Split Grade Classes (Jilks, 2000), when teaching a delightful gr. 4/5 class, and it was published in The Ontario Action Researcher. Action Research is a process whereby a teacher looks at issues in her classroom, identifies barriers, does research, creates some solutions, and tests the results, then repeats the process in an upward spiral of improved curriculum delivery. Here are some of my current thoughts...

What does the research say about the impact of split grades on students?

-there is little, as I wrote in the article, previously posted in this blog, since there is no value for anyone to pay for such.

If you look for the reasons split grades are created: number of teachers divided by number of students, mandated smaller classes in primary levels, you realize we have no choice. For something with little choice, you make the best of it. That said, I had the best time with a gr. 4/5 split the year I wrote the article. I also did a gr. ½, and 5/6. It is no problem!

Based on your experience, what are some of the benefits -- and what are some of the drawbacks of combined grades?

• If the teacher, students, parents all go in with the attitude, “Yes, we can!” then you will.
• All stakeholders must be supportive: especially the principal, to allow the teacher to take risks, and try new things
• Colleagues can be creative in supporting the delivery of specific curriculum, i.e., group all gr. 4’s, while another teacher works with gr. 5’s.
• Principals can incorporate a rotational curriculum: gr. 4/5 do gr. 4 science curriculum one year, rotating the next. It truly does not matter what curriculum one follows, it is the learning process that is important. What do you remember about your gr. 4 science class?
• This is a huge myth, perpetuated by text book publishers and principals, more is gained by vertical knowledge in a topic, rather than touching simple basics when the teacher divides her time between grades.

With a good teacher there is no problem. It *is* stressful for the teacher. For the students, it depends upon them and their needs. I had some dynamic students do some wonderful things. We did Reading Buddy work with the kindergartens, which gave me time to work with half of the class. Getting in a student teacher helps, too.

It benefits the students, if they have the right attitude. You can appoint team leaders, create small groups, and encourage them to work together more closely.
The younger ones benefit socially by observing the older ones. The older ones have more respect, which the teacher models, for those less socially, emotionally, or intellectually able.

How important is age (i.e .a child born in January vs. December)?
You want a mix of kids in a class: social, emotional, independent, and I haven’t seen any research on this topic but form my own perceptions the less mature children, who come from families with no siblings, have a hard time learning to receive less attention from one teacher. This, of course, is a good lesson. Maturity is much less chronological age than emotional age.

What emotional and social factors have to be considered?

Considered by whom? Usually it is the teachers who put together class lists in June for September. They look for more mature students in the higher grade, and try to create a split with mature, independent, more able kids for that. They often will create classes, due to numbers, that have 3:1 ratio of younger to older kids. There are limits on class size by school, district, provincial, and this is part of the process.

The parents always think their kids are the smartest, most independent, bright learners, but also deserve NOT to be in a split grade class. You can’t have both.

What models work best for split grades?
Adopting some of the Ministry split grade curriculum, in which similar topics are grouped, is ideal. Using more of a multi-grade model, in which learning doesn’t focus on just one strand per grade, with flexibility and independent projects works with kids.
There are groupings of topics.- the ministry OCUP curriculum has a ton of info on them.
Having adequate materials texts, hands-on materials help a great deal. Parents can fund raise for this.
Mostly, the teacher can adapt in all areas. When you are doing regrouping in math, gr. 4 does one digit, gr. 5 does two. You are building layers of curriculum on top of one another. To reinforce it does not hurt as Gr. 5 attend to a review lesson that teaches a concept fresh to gr. 4.

There are no models, only an Instructional Repertoire, a bag of strategies from which the teacher selects – skills the teachers must adopt and master:

• Integrated Pedagogies
• Instructional Concepts, Skills, Tactics, Strategies and Organizers that assist them in creating curriculum.

They must be good teachers, willing to aim for great.

Parents worry needlessly. This is a way of life in Ontario schools. They must be as supportive as they can be: volunteering, offering assistance and understanding. It can be so much fun in such a class. You have one grade doing an experiment, the other (theoretically) doing reading, or research, while they all watch the exciting experiments. The kids can’t wait until next year when they can do them, too.

I had a great phone interview with the journalist, it helped me reflect on my views from the perspective of parents. Many worry needlessly, since their child was chosen for a split grade class, it reflects the abilities of the child as being strengths that lead teachers to believe that s/he is the best candidate for such a placement. Parents must go in with the attitude that each teacher has strengths that a child can benefit from, rather than being negative towards such a classroom. A straight grade class often has a number of special needs students, which further complicates and/or benefits a classroom community. Each class is a complicated mix of curriculum, environment, student attitude and teacher behaviour.

The article is to come out in the September edition of Today's Parent magazine.

Split grade classes - Today's Parent


Katharine said...

My son is a 4th grader in a 3/4 split class. Our school also has split 4/5 class as well. My son no longer has recess and lunch with his 4th grade peers. Socially, this can't be good. It will stunt his growth; then sex ed is this year. Will he have to wait?... And if split classrooms are such a bonus, why aren't they the norm? I am not at all happy with this concept.

Anonymous said...

My son just started grade 2. He has been placed in a class with 18 grade 1's and 3 other grade 2's. He has not had this teacher before and does not know anyone in his class, not even the 3 other grade 2's. I have very serious concerns about this and doubt anyone's ability to teach a grade two class in this situation, is this what the author is referring to when they say 'Parents worry needlessly' ?!? My son has been placed in a grade 1 class and I shouldn't worry about this??

Yes I was told that my son was chosen because he did very good in grade one and works well on his own. So that tells me my son is being punished for being a good kid.

Ok, I realize split classes are unavoidable but this is not a split class, it is a grade 1 class with a few left over grade 2's thrown in, can I worry now?

There is not much written on split class ratio's but from what I have read it should be 1:1 or at most 3:1 (younger:older). His class is 5.5:1 … not good.

I have spoken to the principle of the school about this and so far my options are to suck it up or transfer to a different school. Who do I thank for this fiasco?

Jenn Jilks said...

I am reminded of the adage: If you are given lemons, make lemonade.

You are both quite upset.

There is no need. Learning isn't restricted to specific grades. Children learn no matter what. They learn from the kids around them, the learn from all of the adults around them. They learn whether in a split or straight grade. My children all had split grades, the strong kids are usually put in these classes. You should suck it up! I think you should thank your lucky stars that you have a school, and your children do not have to go without.

Many parts of the world do not have schools. Children go without food, let alone an education. In war-torn countries, or those in refugee camps they are desperate for schooling.

Anonymous said...

It's 'Better than nothing' is not exactly a ringing endorsement for an 18-4 split class.

I could use a little sugar for that lemonade. ;o)

Jenn Jilks said...

"It's better than nothing" was NOT my point!
Children face trauma, large classes of 45 students, they go to school when facing the death of a parent, when in foster care, all of these things test their ability to learn.

Learning in a split-grade class is the least of the challenges of getting an education. I am shocked with the fear and anger with which parents regard split-grade classes.

I had a blast with mine. We developed an understanding, we learned to work in community, we learned cooperation, to help one another, we learned to honour differences.

With shrinking populations, it is a reality of Canadian schools.

Anonymous said...

Fear: I do not have confidence that my child will get the same quality of education as those in the regular grade 2 class. I fear he will fall behind.

Shock: Yes it was a shock since there was no communication from the school on this at all, and there continues to be no communication from the school … nothing … no information on how this is supposed to work, not even an acknowledgement that he is in a split class. When I tried to speak to the teacher, she immediately threw up her hands (literally) and refused to talk about it and directed me to the principle. The principle was also dismissive and told me to wait 48 hours as there is sometimes class adjustments or I could transfer him. 72 hours later, no adjustment and no word from the school. I just called but was unable to speak with the principle, I left a message to call me back. I want to try and get him out of that class or failing that, have a meeting with the principle and teacher to find out exactly how my son is supposed to get a grade two education in a room with 18 grade 1's.

I am not against split classes but I am certainly not getting that warm fuzzy feeling thinking about this particular split and how it is being handled. The school has done nothing to help alleviate my shock and fear.

Are you familiar with Jeff Kugler, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto? He is pro split classes but has also been quoted as saying (link:

Kugler also said when combining classes, the number of students in each grade should be as close to even as possible. "It should never be three kids" in one grade in a class of 20, he said in response to a parent's question about her daughter's lopsided class.

My son is in a class of 22 with 4 grade 2's and 18 grade 1's.

It sounds like you know what you are talking about so help me out here, if I do manage to get a meeting with them what can I ask them to help us feel confident with this set up. What kind of communication should I expect from the teacher and principle, so far it has all been one sided with me asking questions and them stone walling me.

Anonymous said...

What is your advice to me as a parent of a grade 4 student in a split grade 4/5 class where all students are taught the exact same curriculum (grade 5 material) with the exclusion of math?

I am finding that my child is acedemically able but finding homework just a bit harder then necessary. His vocabulary isn't as robust as a grade 5's and he is finding some english homework challenging as a result. As it's still the beginning of the school year I'm afraid that later on he will begin to be discouraged and no longer be as confident in his abilities. My other concern is if he's doing grade 5 material this year, what in the world will he do next year when he is in grade 5?

When I asked the principal what the schools reasoning was in teaching all students the same grade level material I was told it was my concern with the teacher and to take it up with them. Doesn't the school administration have any part in deciding the curriculum in a split class?

Katharine said...

My advice would be to ask the teacher in writing. If her answer is not satisfactory, then escalate from there to the principal, school superintendent, local congressman. I have not had to go past the principal but because it is in writing, my point, goal and concern are not misconstrued and the responses are always timely.

Good luck for you and your student!..

Katharine said...


Thank you for the passive advice, but no thanks.

After acknowledging that she is only doing what she is instructed to do and I that I don't fault her for the decisions, I asked my child's teacher if grade split placement was based on STAR test scores and last year grades. Then I ask if isolating 4th graders from peers was really the intention. she thanked me for an organized email and sent it to the principal. The next day, my son came home and said he and the other 4th graders were allowed to start having recess with their peers; and when there were openings, my child moved to the 4/5th grade split where he would be adequately stimulated to learn at a pace I know he likes.

So, I too am reminded that "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the oil."

Jenn Jilks said...

I would like to caution my critical readers that I am writing from the perspective of a CANADIAN teacher. Things are different above the border.

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