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.
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