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Early Childhood Mixed Age Terms

A confusing variety of terms is used in discussions of theoretical and practical issues surrounding age grouping practices. Sometimes the terms ungraded, nongraded, continuous progress, mixed or multiage grouping are used interchangeably (Willis, 1991). The terms split and blended classes are also used. The mixed age grouping widely practiced in Britain during the so called Plowden years was often called family grouping or vertical grouping. The purpose of this digest is to examine the terms and distinctive connotations of the terms that may have important implications for teaching and the curriculum. Broad definitions are suggested under the following four headings:

Nongraded or Ungraded Grouping

The terms nongraded and upgraded typically refer to grouping children in classes without gradelevel designations and with more than a one year age span. When these terms were introduced by Goodlad and Anderson (1959), the primary rationale was to increase the heterogeneity of class composition and thereby liberate teachers and children from rigid achievement expectations linked to a pupil's age. However, Goodlad and Anderson found that implementation of nongraded or ungraded classes in the late 1950s and thereafter tended to result in grouping children homogeneously for instruction on the basis of ability and achievement level, regardless of their ages. Studies of these programs reveal two significant misunderstandings: The first is the failure to understand that nongrading is a scheme for organizing schools vertically. The second is the false assumption that a scheme of school reorganization automatically changes other educational practices. (Goodlad and Anderson, 1963; Goodlad and Anderson, 1987; Shinn, 1967).

In many implementations of nongradedness, children in a class or across classes are placed in regular or temporary groups for specific instruction in basic skills regardless of their age. In this approach to nongradedness, the main goal is to increase the homogeneity of ability of instructional groups rather than the interaction across ability groups. In other words, the terms nongraded and ungraded refer to grouping practices in which ages are mixed, but the primary purpose is to homogenize groups of children for instruction on bases other than age.

Combined Grades

Combined classes include more than one grade level in a classroom. Such groupings are sometimes referred to as split or blended or double year classes. Combined classes usually include the required curriculum for each of the two grades represented, although some class activities may be conducted with children of both grades combined. This kind of grouping occurs frequently in small schools, and occasionally in larger ones when the number of children in different age cohorts fluctuates. The main goal of these kinds of classes appears to be to maximize personnel and space resources rather than to capitalize on the diversity of ability and experience in the groups with mixed ages.

Continuous Progress

This term has a variety of meanings, but generally implies that children remain with their classroom peers in an age cohort regardless of whether they have met or surpassed prespecified gradelevel achievement expectations. The continuous progress term is usually associated with a strong emphasis on individualizing the curriculum so that teaching and learning tasks are responsive to the previous experiences and rates of progress of each child regardless of age. This practice is sometimes called social promotion The main rationale for the practice is that separation from one's age cohort may stigmatize a child. Like the nongraded and ungraded approaches, programs focused on continuous progress are not primarily aimed at maximizing the educational benefits of children of different ages and abilities learning together. Rather, the goal is to let children progress according to their individual rates of learning and development without being compelled to meet age related achievement expectations.

Mixed-Age or Multi-Age Grouping

This term refers to grouping children so that the age span of the class is greater than one year, as in the nongraded or undgraded approach. The terms mixed-age and multi-age grouping are used to emphasize the goal of using teaching and curriculum practices that maximize the benefits of interaction and cooperation among children of various ages. In mixed-or multi-age classes, teachers encourage children with different experiences and stages of development to turn to each other for help with all aspects of classroom activity, including the mastery and application of basic literacy and numeric skills. However, in mixed-age classes, teachers use small temporary subgroupings of children who need the same kinds of instruction to help them acquire basic skills.