Peter Brunn's picture

Split-Grade Classrooms

(update - Peter posted a follow-up blog on split-grade classrooms here—ed.)

I am going to meet with a bunch of principals a week from Friday. One of the things they want me to talk about is advice for supporting teachers with split classrooms. Some districts call these rooms multi-age classrooms. I like the term, but I only use that label when the decision to combine two grade levels into one classroom (like mixing first- and second-graders in one classroom) is done intentionally—for clear instructional purposes. This is not usually the case.

Most decisions to combine two grade levels into one classroom are made because of enrollment. These decisions are done out of necessity—not instructional design. Most teachers I know avoid split classrooms if at all possible. Splits present lots of instructional challenges to us. Because of this, the principals I know try to vary the person assigned to teach splits each year. I suppose this is good—because the challenge is so hard. But it seems like just when a teacher figures out how to teach in such a complicated situation, the year ends and all of that good experience goes out with them. The new teacher starts from scratch.

So, in order to prepare for this presentation, I thought I would ask the blogosphere your thoughts on this.

  • What are the biggest challenges you or your teachers face teaching a split classroom?
  • Being a Writer and Making Meaning users—How do you decide which grade level to teach?
  • How do you support the varying levels of learners in you classroom?
  • How can principals best support teachers who are faced with split-grade classrooms?

Please post your comments below or sign up to receive more information. I would love to hear what folks think. If I get enough interest, I will post the presentation I come up with here in a week or so.

[We have published another blog on split grade classrooms from a school-wide approach.]

Peter Brunn is the vice president of organizational learning and communications at Center for the Collaborative Classroom (CCC). Previously at CCC, he was the director of professional development, director of staff development, the assistant director of CCC’s Reading Project, and a staff developer. Before coming to CCC, Peter was a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and worked in New York City public schools helping teachers implement reading and writing workshops in their classrooms. Peter received his master’s degree in curriculum and teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University, and his undergraduate degree in history from Marquette University. Peter is also the author of The Lesson Planning Handbook: Essential Strategies That Inspire Student Thinking and Learning, published by Scholastic. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pdbrunn.

Read more blogs by Peter Brunn

Comments (35)

Peter -  I taught a 4th/5th

Peter - 

I taught a 4th/5th combination for most of my classroom teaching career.  I grew to really love it, and I'll try to summarize the *best* things about it here.  I taught in a bilingual program, where the goal was for students to emerge bilingual and biliterate.  The model we used was a looping model, so I kept the same kids for two years.  First, they were my incoming, wet-behind-the-ears 4th graders, and the second year they became my smart, know-it-all 5th graders.  

I used this aspect of the split to my advantage:  After a year of "training", my 5th graders knew all the classroom routines and expectations and were wonderful models and leaders for the 4th graders.  Likewise, since I knew them, their strengths and needs, both academic and social, I could really focus my attention on those who needed it, and give LOTS of attention to the 4th graders.  Socially and in terms of classroom management, this was a boon to me.

Academically, I had a few strategies:  First, since I knew I would have my students for two years, I taught some content in a rotating fashion.  For example, I might teach more of the 4th grade social studies curriculum one year, and more of the 5th another.  It didn't really matter which order a particular student experienced them, as long as s/he got both.

Second, much of my content instruction was driven by interest.  Students could cluster around a topic they cared about, which would often mean 4th and 5th graders working together.  I could also cluster them based on certain skills, particularly in relation to their Spanish and English oral and written skills, which, again, did not necessarily all along grade level lines.

In other words, I taught whole-class when I could, and small-group when needed, and organized those small groups in a variety of ways, depending on the subject and nature of my class.

Finally, lesson were often structured in such a way that there was room for each student to go as far as they could with it, for the 4th graders to understand it at one level and the 5th at another.

I believe that principal can best support teachers who are teaching split level classrooms by helping them think and plan intentionally, working to the potential strengths and encouraging flexibility and innovation, as well as extending extra resources, especially classroom assistance, for key parts of the day.

I hope this is helpful and I look forward to reading what other say, and your presentation.

Peter, I taught multiage K-2

Peter, I taught multiage K-2 for several years and K-1 for several years. Ours was truly a multiage classroom born out of the belief that this was a more natural way for children to build community and learn and grow. We kept our children for several years, which as Noam stated above, is a incredible advantage for students and teachers alike. We were a family. We planned this multiage classroom intentionally, not out of a need based on enrollment numbers but rather because we thought it was good for children.

I was fortunate enough to team teach with a fabulous woman who I still call a dear friend. We "shared" our children and taught every student based on their developmental needs and interests rather than grade level curriculum. We had 60+ students in two classrooms with a half wall between them. We were REALLY busy!

Whenever we taught whole group we made sure that we intentionally designed our lessons to be multi-level. We had centers based on need, interest, and content that children spent time in several times a day. We had literacy centers in the morning while we conducted guided reading. We had math centers after lunch while we pulled small groups for math instruction. And we had free choice centers in the afternoon after writer's workshop. On Wednesdays we had Wonderful Wednesday which included content area hands-on center activities all day long. At the end of Wonderful Wednesday every student wrote to their parents and described their learning that day. We had SQuiRT every day - Sustained Quiet Reading Time - during which time we conferenced with students. We started our day with free choice journal writing. Kids were actively engaged from the minute they walked in until the minute they left.

The biggest challenge was really time to plan and prepare everything to meet the needs of all of our learners. I think we did a really good job meeting the needs of almost all of our children. The most challenging for me was meeting the needs of the very highest achieving students in our classroom.

I always say if I ever went back in the classroom, it would only be for the principal that was my principal during that time when we taught multiage. She provided us with the resources and training that we needed to become confident teaching multiage and she believed in us and let us teach.

Our district is working on

Our district is working on implementing multi-age classrooms in our schools.  We are not going to have a year or two to get ready for this so I would appreciate any help or advice you might have on classroom management, room set-up, scheduling, centers, etc.  i will probably be teaching a K-1 or 2-3 classroom. 

Hi,  Ms. Tabatha

Hi,  Ms. Tabatha Scharlach:

Thank you for sharing.  The tips are very useful.  I am Rui Schroeder, and I am going to teach a split 4th/5th grades class in my first year of teaching.  I would really appreciate it if you could kindly  share some materials/worksheets/plans that you used to run those centers.  May I know more about how you ran the literacy center, the writer's wokshops, and the math center?  Do you have specific procedures that students know? What are they?

Thank you so much!  Wish you a great summer!


Hi,  Ms. Tabatha

Hi,  Ms. Tabatha Scharlach:

Thank you for sharing.  The tips are very useful.  I am Rui Schroeder, and I am going to teach a split 4th/5th grades class in my first year of teaching.  I would really appreciate it if you could kindly  share some materials/worksheets/plans that you used to run those centers.  May I know more about how you ran the literacy center, the writer's wokshops, and the math center?  Do you have specific procedures that students know? What are they?

Thank you so much!  Wish you a great summer!


Hi,  Ms. Tabatha

Hi,  Ms. Tabatha Scharlach:

Thank you for sharing.  The tips are very useful.  I am Rui Schroeder, and I am going to teach a split 4th/5th grades class in my first year of teaching.  I would really appreciate it if you could kindly  share some materials/worksheets/plans that you used to run those centers.  May I know more about how you ran the literacy center, the writer's wokshops, and the math center?  Do you have specific procedures that students know? What are they?

Thank you so much!  Wish you a great summer!


Hi,  Ms. Tabatha

Hi,  Ms. Tabatha Scharlach:

Thank you for sharing.  The tips are very useful.  I am Rui Schroeder, and I am going to teach a split 4th/5th grades class in my first year of teaching.  I would really appreciate it if you could kindly  share some materials/worksheets/plans that you used to run those centers.  May I know more about how you ran the literacy center, the writer's wokshops, and the math center?  Do you have specific procedures that students know? What are they?

Thank you so much!  Wish you a great summer!


Peter - Difficult question,

Peter - Difficult question, as I suspect you are right about so many schools using multiage or split-grade classes as a short-term fix for class size concerns.  We did have true multiage classrooms (1st/2nd and 4th/5th) for several years in our school and I was thrilled with the results.  We had excellent teachers in these classrooms who truly believed in and embraced the academic and social opportunities offered within a multiage setting.  They did an outstanding job and kids/parents loved it. 

My sense, however, was that our district and our school were at the time very grounded in a "continuum of learning" methodology, with a belief that students were somewhere along a continuum of growth for each subject/concept and our job as teachers was to meet them there, differentiate accordingly, and help them get to the next "step."  We didn't have programs or teachers guides to direct our instruction, just a big-picture idea of where we wanted kids to get.

We are in a very different place now, as a district and thus as a school.  With a focus on standards-based grading and adopted programs to match our curriculum, I think it would be much, much more difficult for teachers to meet the needs of multiage learners and still meet instructional expectations and even obligations in our standards-based environment.  There isn't time to teach both the first and second grade lessons, for example, and I suspect we might compromise the fidelity of a program such as Making Meaning by teaching them "out of order," which you'd essentially have to do for at least half of the students each year.  Even our best teachers would go crazy trying to do this, in my opinion.


Thanks to Brian, Noam, and

Thanks to Brian, Noam, and Tabatha, for their quick responses. As Brian points out, in this day and age of testing and standards teachers are rightfully worried that, with two different grade levels, they won't be able to cover all of the content they are held accountable for. But we know splits are not going away.

This is very true this year because of all of the budget cuts districts are having to make. One of the results of all of the gutting of our staffs is going to be more and more split grade classrooms. 

So what advice should I give schools who are burdened with this? What is the best way to help the teachers feel supported and confident they can meet the varied needs of their students?

Thanks all. 

I'm late in joining this

I'm late in joining this conversation, but some of my experiences in the last 3 months are pointing me to investigate this challenge of supporting teachers in multi-grade classrooms.

I'm finding that there are many teachers who have the mind set that the adopted curriculum must be followed in order for the students to "learn everything they're supposed to learn to meet the standards." The standards-driven mindset has added additional worry and fear into teachers that they don't have time to cover everything. My concern is, the adopted curriculum is usually not strong enough to follow.

I'm starting to look at the content standards in a different way, but I have a lonngg way to go. I have found that many adjacent grade level have standards that overlap in many cases, thereby allowing teachers to teach one lesson to multi-grades, and plan for specific areas for differentiation. Thoughtful planning of a lesson intentionally allow for differentiation anyway, even in one grade level. So my aim is to know, compare, and prioritize the key standards and plan lessons according to what the students can do and to teach toward attaining the standard. The common core standards may be helpful in this process.

On another note, while grade level standards are always on teachers' minds, many teachers overlook the necessary skills needed in order for all students to learn the standards (i.e. can students actually read?). The mindset is "they're supposed to know how to read by now." While reading fluently and easily (so that comprehension can take place) is not an intermediate grade standard, all teachers must teach students so they can become independent learners rather than dependent on scaffolds for life. Teaching students to decode can be easily taught in a multi-grade classroom regardless of grade level. Students are grouped according to decoding needs (not by grade level), and DSC's SIPPS program can address those issues.

These are a few thoughts. All the responses in this blog have been immensely helpful! Thank you.

I am a first year teacher who

I am a first year teacher who will be teaching 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade in a rural school. I am very excited to teach in a multi grade classroom but I am also nervous. What advice and tips could you send to a "rookie".

This is exciting. It is a

This is exciting. It is a great opportunity but also a great challenge. You only have so many hours in the day so my suggestion is that you really get to know your students at the beginning of the year. Do lots of teambuilders. Find out what kinds of books they read–what they like and what they don't like. See how they write. By doing this you will then be better able to know what kinds of lessons can you do whole class and what you will have to do in small groups. Also don't be penned in by grade levels. You might have a first grader who reads as well as your third graders. You may also have a Third grader who reads at a first grade level. It is one class and you can have multiple flexible groups.

I hope you have lots of fun and feel free to come back and post some questions or challenges when you get them.

Peter, Though I have not


Though I have not taught a multiage classroom, per se, as a reading coach, I needed to be familiar with each child's developmental level within all realms (academic, social, emotional, mental).  A great resource for me was Chip Wood's book Yardsticks.  My mentor introduced me to it and I still find myself referring to it often.

First and foremost with all children, no matter what the age:  they will only care if the know you do.


Sorry for the typographical

Sorry for the typographical error: they (children) will only care if they know you do.

Alexis - you are right Chip

Alexis - you are right Chip Wood's Yardsticks is a classic.  Thanks for your comments


I am a doctorate student in

I am a doctorate student in Education:  Leadership and Management.  I am using a research site that uses multiage classrooms BUT they stick strictly to grade levels.  They have multiage classrooms only due to space constraints.  They teach a 2nd grade curriculum to the 2nd grade while the 3rd grade does busy work, then a 3rd grade curriculum to the 3rd grade while the 2nd grade is doing busy work.  This often causes a problem with classroom management.  The students doing busy work misbehave often - they are doing busy work for upwards of 30 minutes per subject.  What suggestions can I give the principal to help with this problem. 

I am currently working on my

I am currently working on my masters in Reading and I believe if the teacher takes a writers workshop approach to learning the students will always have something worthy to work on.  Once a routine is established the students will know what to do and just do it.  Takes care of the busy work.

I totally understand why a

I totally understand why a teacher might be inclined to teach each grade level separately. They get pressure by the district to make sure they cover all of the standards for each grade level. They also get pressure from parents who want to make sure their third grader is not getting second grade content for another year. Unfortunately I think this is a mistake. What I advocate is designing lessons so they are accessible to multiple levels of students. I spend time helping teachers structure their instruction  in a way where there is a whole class lesson accessible to all students followed by the students applying what they learned independently in materials at their level. I do this in all content areas at the primary grades (K-3) except Math. Math requires some differentiation to the different grade levels. 

The most important lesson I learned in my work with split level classrooms is that grade level is arbitrary anyway. In a 2-3 classroom we have third graders who read at a first grade level and second graders who read at a fourth grade level. Teaching to the students level is what thoughtful teachers do - not teaching just to a grade level. In my book I write a bit on the lesson structure in chapters 2 and 3. You might find them helpful.  I will also write another blog post on this. I know split grade classrooms are hard to manage. 

Dear Peter,    I just wanted

Dear Peter,

   I just wanted to let you know that I started a blog.

Hopefully I can share the ideas that I've learned about teaching split level classes with others.


Your old friend from U-46

Deborah - Thanks so much for

Deborah - Thanks so much for sharing. We will be sure to let folks know.

Thanks for the advice. I am a

Thanks for the advice. I am a new teacher and I just got a job teaching a 1st/2nd grade split level class. The split is about 50/50 1st and 2nd graders but I am nervous about my classroom being a split for my 1st year of teaching. 

Mel - I can only imagine how

Mel - I can only imagine how nervous it is to contemplate a split level class in your first year. The great thing to remember is that kids will be at all different levels developmentally. The grade level designation is really arbitrary. You will have first graders who are farther ahead and second graders who might be struggling. The great thing is that we teach kids not grade levels. That distinction is critical. Good Luck - let us know as you move forward if we can help.


We just found out that our

We just found out that our son's current 2nd grade class (year round school and his track start 1 month ago) is now going to become a split grade class 1st/2nd.   They are having an information meeting witht he parents in a few days.  Can you give me any advice on question I should ask or what I need to listen for to make sure his educational needs will still be met?

I too am starting to teach

I too am starting to teach for the first time in a split grade classroom at a private school. I have very small numbers but am struggling as to where to start as I develop my lessons. I have both 5th and 6th grade books to use. If I could figure out where to start, I think it would be much easier to develop my lessons.

Dear Guys, Reading- Teach

Dear Guys, Reading- Teach with small guided reading groups based on their reading levels. Making Meaning- teach the higher level of the two grades.  Use the alternative books suggested in the manual. If you need more help leave a comment on my blog. Spelling-  We use "Words Their Way" which is individualized according to spelling level. Social Studies-  Individual packets with you meeting with different grade levels on different days. The 1/2 can be taught more whole group since it is usually about community helpers and developing communities. Math- Teach 2 separate grade levels. See my blog for more ideas. Look at the posts titled Multigrade on the right hand side. Being a Writer- Teach the higher of the two grade levels. Deborah Devine  

Thanks Debra! Your comments

Thanks Debra! Your comments are really thoughtful and you have a nice blog post that will help folks get their heads around the complexity of split level classrooms.  Thanks for contributing. peter

Your post above reflects my

Your post above reflects my exact situation. I got offered a position as a 5/6 split classroom at a private school. I too think the numbers will be low as far as enrollment but seeing that your post is from 2012, I was hoping to hear from you and see what resources you used to further your teaching for the past 2 years. How did it go? I hope to hear back from you soon and thanks for your time!  

my child's school is

my child's school is implementing a k/1 split program. My child is currently a 1st grader with 29 other kids in her class and the principal is doing 12 kids in K and 12 kids in first at all levels of understanding and not just top k and low 1st. I am concerned because both programs are now operated on a full day program and the standards are higher for those children in terms of what they need to learn. The k class operates on a totally different schedule and my concern is that if my child is forced into this classroom that she will not get the education she needs. They just made the decision to open a k/1 split class last week and the teacher who will be teaching the class has really no time to prepare. My husband likes the idea and is pushing to get our child into the new class but i am very concerned and dont feel this a good fit. Any advice would be appreciated.

Jodi, I very much empathize


I very much empathize with your predicament. This is not a great situation for any of the parties involved. As parents we worry that our child's academic and social needs won't get met. Teachers, are worried they won't be able to support all of the different levels of studnets in thier room (Not to mention all of the additional preparation this may require). The principal never wants to make this kind of a decision at such a late date but is often forced to because of distruct budget decisions. Everyone I am sure is concerned.  

While this is hard - it does not mean it will neccessarily be bad. It may be a bit rocky at first but often, once routines are established and relationships are built it may turn out just fine. A good experienced teacher will do her best to support all of the students. My guess is that it will be run closer to a first grade curriculum than a K one. If you look at the Core Common Standards at both grades you will see that the curriculum is actually not a ton different. (Some argue that it is too hard at K anyway.) Also - If the teacher has had experience with split grade classrooms or has experience at both K and 1,  I would give her the benefit of the doubt. If however, she is brand new or does not have K-1 experience, I would be more concerned. 

At such a late date you may not have the ability to opt out of this class. If you have no choice, my suggestion is that you voice your support for the teacher, volunteer as much as you can, and be patient for the first month. My experience tells me that most of the time, things go pretty smoothly and your child will still thrive.

Love to hear back how it goes.

Hi Peter, I teach English to

Hi Peter, I teach English to 11th and 12th grades, and I have a different situation requiring a split classroom.  Students are not split by grade, I simply need to find a way to implement various whole-group graded discussions in order to help students meet new standards.  I really want all stake holders involved in the discourse, but I've learned through research and personal experience that in classes of more than 16 students, class wide discussion quickly degenerates into splinter groups as all students seek a more immediate audience for their ideas.  I'm not giving up, though.  I hope a split classroom format with evenly distributed ability levels in both groups will be a viable strategy to help me implement round table discussions.  I hit upon this page because I want to anticipate and circumvent, if possible, any behavior issues that might arise and because I want and need to incorporate a variety of discussion models to foster learner ownership, high engagement levels, and critical thinking. That is where you and experienced elementary teachers come in.  Usually, only advanced placement students get the advantage of this type of student-centered learning, but I want all students to have this positive experience.  Again, I'd like to hear from you and any teachers experienced in managing split classrooms. Best, Lou Ann