What about cross-grade or cross-class grouping?

  • 25 October, 2010

One of the most difficult challenges facing teacher is the issue of differentiation. Matching the reading difficulty of texts and curriculum coverage with student proficiency and knowledge is complicated and its benefits can be subtle (that is, it can be difficult to attribute learning gains to such adjustments). When I look at studies of differentiation and grouping, it is evident that such arrangements can facilitate greater interaction and can allow instruction to proceed more efficiently (since students tend to make faster gains when they are working at levels that don’t differ by too much from their own proficiency levels). But these arrangements pose some real problems for teachers, too, so grouping isn’t the answer to everything. Frankly, I see schools that don’t adjust enough to meet student needs, and others that adjust too much to do a good job.

  Cross-grade and cross-age grouping has a mixed history. The so-called “Joplin plan” generated positive research results in the 1970s. The idea of the Joplin plan is to have multiple teachers sharing their children for grouping purposes. And, more recently, programs like Success for All have used this approach with success (albeit with a tweak or two), and there are school districts, like Montgomery Co., MD, that have their own version of this kind of arrangement (with all of the adults in the school helping to teach kids).

  The basic idea is this: It is difficult to meet students’ needs given the great diversity of proficiency evident in a single classroom, so grouping students for reading ACROSS classes increases the possibility of teaching students at their level. Thus, if the three third-grade teachers each have two or three students reading at Grade 1 level, those can be grouped together across the classes, and then only one teacher has to focus on finding appropriate materials for such low readers. On the face of it, that’s a great idea.

  But as I told you, there can be drawbacks to these schemes, too. For instance, many teachers don’t make levels adjustments once this kind of arrangement is in place, which can be problematic both because it reduces the amount of interaction, and because there are still likely to be substantial learning and proficiency differences in these re-arranged groups. In my previous example, I suggested that a teacher might get 9 students at a grade 1 level, but what if the three teachers are sharing 90 children? That 9 group will likely be supplemented by others (perhaps the low second-grade readers). That teacher still needs to group within class, though the differences won’t be as big as they would be if these three teachers were not working together.

  I never liked to share my students for reading, as I was never as connected to those children as I was to the ones whom I taught. Teachers often follow up with their kids on reading throughout the day, but this is hard to do if the students are taught reading by someone else. This means that teachers have to work much more closely together to ensure that teachers are able to dynamically respond to student needs.

  Cross-class grouping makes more sense in schools where it is easy and quick to swap kids. The more stairs there are to climb and the farther apart the similar classrooms, the more instructional time that will be wasted.

  So, by all means group students across classrooms if the amount of within classroom diversity is too great for one teacher to address. But, understand that such schemes rarely do away with the need for within class grouping (either to adjust student-text matches further or to increase interaction of teacher and students), and they require greater connection among teachers and management capable of moving students with a minimum of kerfluffle.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Fun Books Jul 02, 2017 12:23 AM


You didn't mention Montessori teaching as an option. How do you thing it compares with other ways of grouping kids when it comes to reading?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 02, 2017 12:24 AM


Montessori does not have a system for determining text difficulty, so its cross-age grouping is more about book interest across age levels than it is about helping students master reading skills. I certainly have no complaint with the success of Montessori teaching (their kids appear to do very well), but the diversity of Montessori kids is much more limited and one wonders how generalizable the results would be to a wider range of schools. I would not suggest, particularly in the early years, selecting materials and matching them to students strictly on the basis of interest.

Anonymous Jul 02, 2017 12:24 AM


When using the cross class grouping model, what about core instruction? Should students receive all of their literacy instruction in a homogenous environment, or should cross class grouping only be used for a guided reading portion of literacy?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 02, 2017 12:25 AM


There is no research on which to answer this question. One of the big purposes of such instruction is to give students teaching at their level, so swapping for core subjects is what they have in mind. If I were doing such swapping, I would definitely do it for more than just the guided reading portion of my lesson--especially, if like me, you provide explicit decoding/spelling instruction, oral reading fluency work, reading comprehension instruction, and writing. I would want all or most of that to be part of what the students get.

Anonymous Jul 02, 2017 12:25 AM


I am writing to ask your current thinking regarding this practice.
My question is in regard to 1st grade reading instruction.
Background: we are a Title 1 targeted school with a diverse population having over 30 different languages represented.
2. We serve pre-Kindergarten - 2nd grade. The cross-classroom reading groups occur in first grade where 7 classroom teachers 5 ELL teachers, and a reading specialist each take a different group of children for approximately 40 minutes per day. The groups vary in size from 2-3 children to 25 children. The children are grouped by a triangulation of data (CBMs, Fountas and Pinnell leveling, NWEA scores, teacher observations, etc.)
3. The cross-classroom grouping does NOT occur across grade-levels.
I am going to teach 1st grade next year. I would like to keep my students with me for reading instruction. I believe that I need to work with my own students to best "see" learning through their eyes.
I also feel that in 1st grade I could have a much longer block of time for Tier 1, Core ELA instruction if I did not need participate in the 40 minute reading group switch.
Can you shed some current best practice light on this model?

Karma Tshewang Sep 12, 2017 10:45 PM

Cross grade grouping is specifically appropriate for reading activity in the class or when two or more grades are taught the same subject with similar objectives/activities. For example, each grade may work on a different topic or sub-topic related to the same subject. In the theme on ‘Human Health’ all learners work on the sub-theme ‘Food and Nutrition’ with a focus on ‘Personal and Food Hygiene’ for grade 3, ‘Food Nutrients and the Need for a Balanced Diet’ for grade 4; and ‘Special Nutritional Needs’ for grade 5. In this case, each grade works on the same or a similar topic but with differentiated activities. For example, all groups may work on ‘Soils’ but the activity for grade 3 will be to investigate the composition of soils, grade 4 will carry out an experiment to compare the way seeds grow in different kinds of soil; and grade 5 will prepare a paper on soil conservation. This kind of activity happens in multi-grade classrooms with typical situation to teach more than two grade combinations. If the teachers lack such skills and experiences of teaching combined classes, it is not going to work in handling multi-grades teaching.

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What about cross-grade or cross-class grouping?


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