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Teaching Multiple Ages

This paper is published online as an adaptation of notes presented in workshop sessions at our various CHESS seminars. It is intended to be a general outline for the purpose of assisting families beginning or enquiring into homeschooling. Since the individual circumstances of each family will be different, and some factors will be unique, it is not intended to be relied upon for specific guidance. We encourage everyone to seek Godly counsel, taking into account their own situation, before making significant family decisions.

When we need to teach several different students at various levels, we can sometimes feel pushed and pulled in all directions. How can this be minimized?

A. Types of Approaches

1. Separate desks or even rooms, separate work, all written, all independent.

2. Physically near each other, but tasks vary according to age and ability. Some subjects combined.

3. Unit study: all together for everything.

4. Various combinations of the above.

B. Strategies

1. YOUR attitude - the most important factor

  • 2. Chores and responsibilities

  • 3. Sibling relations

    4. Babies and Toddlers

    Often it's not your students that make you feel pulled in all directions, but your preschoolers. Try to remember that, if you sent the students away to school, you would still have all the work with the littlies - but less hands to help!

    Plan in times with them. Early in the day is especially beneficial. Teach them a chore and watch while they complete it, giving praise and gentle encouragement, and you'll find they'll entertain themselves quite well afterwards.

    Observe when the next likely disturbance will occur on average. Plan involvement for them again then eg sitting on your lap whilst you teach, helping you with another chore, or having an older child read to them.

    All days don't have to work as planned, but don't treat your littlies as interruptions. Invest time and love - value them.

    Remember, the little ones multiply the smiles around the home. We can't help smiling at their wonderful ways, their smiles and dimples and loving leg hugs. The smiles keep going round!

    Keep littlies nearby and involved: on knees, playing at feet, listening to reading (even if it's above their head). Allow them to slip away if they wish, but don't keep shutting them out.

    5. Interruptions

    Plan for interruptions, because they will happen! Don't act like it's the end of all order and achievement.

    Teach children what to interrupt for, and how to interrupt, and especially when not to interrupt if at all possible.

    Give children a list of things to do whilst awaiting your help if you are uninterruptable.

    Teach them to concentrate - return quickly to the task at hand when interruptions (pleasant or unpleasant) have occurred.

    Don't expect them to ignore exciting events. If you are doing science experiments or reading interesting passages, invite them to join in if they wish (then quickly return to their original task).

    6. Focus Teaching Time

    When you need to focus-teach one student in an area of need, plan for 20 minutes uninterrupted time (no phone, toddler busy or asleep, other students warned).

    If takes longer than 20 minutes, can be interrupted after that. Focus-student may not cope with much more without a break anyway.

    7. Together Time

    When teaching many ages in one lesson, allow for individual differences. Don't expect the same response from all.

    Allow for multisensory activities - seeing/viewing, saying, hearing, feeling/touching, big movement, fine movements, writing and drawing, singing. This will maximize participation and learning.

    Much excellent "teaching time" occurs outside what you normally consider lesson time, eg over dinner table, whilst driving, family book reading, whilst washing dishes, gardening etc. Recording those valuable lessons will help you feel less pressure to heap on the academics.

    Some lessons may never need formal teaching - they will have been taught/caught since Day Zero - basic hygiene, Australian money and measure, map work, social skills. If the book helps you remember things to teach, fine - but don't feel guilty that you haven't got resources to teach these things.

    Have Plan A, Plan B and Plan X. Plan A is the wonderful creative activities involving everyone including you, your ideal method of home education for this activity. Plan B is for when you are sick, the phone keeps ringing, the baby is teething, or you get visitors (etc). Have something ready that you can just say "Go and do..." and they know what to do independently. Plan X is when you feel you need a total break. Instruct the children to just do anything educational without bad attitudes and supply a list to you afterwards. This only works if they have enough discipline to follow through on interests productively. It is not usually easy or beneficial to do too early in your home educating life. Plan X may also include recording "stored" extras, eg places visited in the holidays, literature shared as a family, health lessons taught daily but not usually mentioned, letters written (creative writing), educational television programs, child's own long-term interests, etc.

    8. Curriculum choice and administration

    Don't clutter the curriculum excessively - all those things which would be "good" to teach may force you to exclude something "great" eg time to wonder, or create.

    Do you really need the children to study Grammar every day for 12 years? We don't think so. Incidental teaching when problems arise, plus a crash course about Grade 5 and again grade 8 is ample.

    What about spelling? Teach rules when young, and remind as errors occur. Keep list of errors - make mnemonics if necessary; check they have mastered them sometimes.

    Rather than several Language Arts subjects in one day (eg reader, grammar, creative writing) think about other ways to organize your schedule. You could timetable different ones for different days of the week, or allow the student to choose each day within certain limitations. Another way is to do one for the start of the year till it is finished to your satisfaction (which may include deleting some lessons), then starting the other subject, etc. Do the same with geography and history, science and health, and similar pairs.

    Can you complete required work in less than five days a week? Maybe you could use one day per week or fortnight differently, eg for chores, garden, projects, sport and/or craft with another family, having grandparents over for a meal and presentation, or some other totally different timetable.

    Maybe Mum feels she could use an Executive Secretary. Allot one day when the child is your personal assistant and confidant, apprenticed to you in everything - chores, helping littlies, shopping, messages. Make sure it's an enjoyable experience that makes the child feel grown up and appreciated.

    9. Cross-age Tutoring

    Still feeling under pressure? You might consider older children teaching younger ones - reading to them, hearing lessons, playing maths games, cooking, settling disputes, inspecting their chores, maybe even correcting written work. Only if older child is patient, helpful and kind. Reward older student for their help. Team up students - a bigger with a smaller. Useful in the car, on outings, at meal times, as a first base for questions when Mum is busy, even bedroom sharing.

    10. Prayerful Problem Solving

    Remember, it's you being home educated - the children are God's tools. Be open to learning!

    If there are stresses and strains in the home, a change in your attitude can be the key. Many pressures are not external at all, but of your own making.

    The very most important problem solving skill you need is prayer, preferably with your husband.

    I can give you ideas for strategies to try, but ultimately only you, the parents, can ascertain your family's needs, goals and solutions. And you don't have enough wisdom, nor strength, to do this adequately! Go back to the source of the assignment - just as you would want your children to do.

    Invest your efforts (prayer, time etc) towards brightening the future!

    C. Examples of Multi-Age Lessons

    Regardless of your basic approach to home education, a few "together" lessons can enhance family life, and reduce workload. Here are just a few to get your creative thinking started. I am using a theoretical family containing six children aged 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 and 2.

    1. Phonics/Spelling lessons

    Teaching the Letter C (or AW or IGH or any other):

    2 year old sits on lap and listens; draws with crayon if wants.

    4 year old tells you the name of the letter ("see")

    6 year old tells you the sounds it can make ("k, s")

    8 year old tells you the rule, if known, or is told by older child or you.

    2, 4 and 6 year olds draw the letter in the air, then on paper, while 8, 10 and 12 repeat the rule aloud.

    10 year old writes the rule (12 year old too if necessary).

    All brainstorm words containing C. Mum writes words in two columns (one for those where C says "k", one where it says "s"). Mum ensures that enough "s" words are found.

    All add to list over the next week.

    2. Grammar

    Play Grammar Songs tape. 2, 4 and 6 listen only. 8, 10 and 12 listen and sing along if poss. 10 and 12 complete an exercise on one part of speech. All brainstorm that part of speech or play a game identifying it.

    3. Foreign Languages

    If all ages are beginners, play the same lesson to all. Practice together. Spend one day per week using only that language.

    4. Geography and Map Work

    Have maps on walls - eg city, state, country, the world. Teach four-year-old what each map is. Refer to all the maps whenever possible eg places you hear about on the news; missionary outposts you are praying for; trips you are planning or have made; setting of books being read; places relatives live; places friends are visiting.

    Teach 6-year-old to identify continents and obvious countries.

    Teach 8-year-old as per 4 and 6, and add more countries and oceans.

    Teach 10-year-old as per younger ones, and add major capital cities.

    As they get older and more capable, add major mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, seas and more cities.

    Children can quiz each other if they restrict their questions to what the other child has learned, eg 10 and 12 year olds might each name a city for the other to find. 12 year old must name a European capital for 10 year old to find; 10 year old chooses any African city for 12 year old to find.

    6. History

    Read a historical novel together. Place on both map and time line (make one or buy one).

    Making a time line - it may not be necessary to have the whole time line on one wall. Just as you might have the world map in a different room to the Australia map, you could have different time periods separated. You will need a simple, bright coloured part for younger students and a more detailed one (maybe in book form on a shelf) for older ones. Add to it with tiny icons representing novels read together (etc).

    Discuss content of novels, cross-referencing to other knowledge (eg, before major inventions such as the telephone).

    Read the novel again in 4-5 years when younger children can assimilate more of the facts.

    7. Geography Project Work

    Have a standard project form for the students researching a country eg draw a map, identify its capital, parts, mountains, rivers, etc. Tell its major language, currency, major exports, religion, climate, etc.

    Have some deeper questions for older students only.

    If everyone is studying a different country at the same time, there will be some interesting comparisons.

    Have a presentation night when the child can tell everyone about the country. All dress up if you wish. Cook an appropriate meal. Discuss how the country has made use of its limitations and resources (eg climate). Pray for its people and any missionary work you know of there. Play a game appropriate to its culture etc.

    Get "Link" worksheets from Voice of the Martyrs, or "Global Digest" or "Operation World". Get the children to create an index to these resources or just to find what they need each time.

    Link International is an eight page quarterly for children published by The Voice of the Martyrs. Each issue highlights a nation where the gospel message is restricted and features news and information about the culture of the highlighted country.

    8. Cookery

    Get an older chef to involve a small assistant whenever possible, to teach skills and help with fiddly bits.

    9. Research Topics

    When you have a major family project you wish to learn about, eg what the Bible says about private property, or who was the first settler in your area, or how something is made, set each member of the family a separate research assignment. Allow a reasonable time and then have a report back session (about a week later). Youngest reports first with the most basic information, and each listens carefully to others. Discuss and set further assignment. Enjoy all learning together (parents too?).

    10. Bible: Sword Drill

    All participants must own a Bible and know the sequence of the 66 books.

    Remove all bookmarks. Hold the spine of the Bible, with the other hand flat on the table.

    Leader says a reference when all are ready, and then "one, two, GO!"

    Participants race to find the verse and read it out.

    This is fun if you make a secret message eg take the third word of this verse, second of that etc until you have a sentence.

    Bible puzzles like the "Hidden Treasure" books from Trinitarian Bible Society are fun to do together too.

    11. Science: Messy Mixtures

    When a student is studying chemistry and the physical properties of matter, make up some messy mixtures for all to enjoy. Simple ones include playdough (physical changes occur when cooked), gloop (a silly-putty type mixture to illustrate the difference between solids and liquids), soap bubble mix, soda modelling clay, and more. Look for recipes in science and cookery books (or ask us).

    Cooking or baking of course also illustrate by experimenting with Lifesavers or boiled sweets, then applied to real life by dissolving soap in the washing machine or preventing dirt from spreading through water. After the older students learn the science behind the mixture, all the children can enjoy playing with it. Add some classical music or other recording and you have science, music and craft all at once!

    12. Anatomy

    Lie one of your little ones on a large sheet of paper. Draw around them (one child can draw around each limb, you do body). Cut out and mount on wall at child height.

    Each week, add a new internal organ. Draw it, and have little ones colour and cut it out. Older ones learn all about that organ and what it does for us, and how to look after it, in varying complexity. Young ones only learn name and position.

    All place the organ properly. Take care to allow room for organs which must be positioned behind. The following week quiz on previous organs and then add a new one.

    Some may be done in more detail by some students than others, eg an asthma patient may need extra work on the lungs, older students on reproductive system.


    Teaching all your different children need not tear you apart! Instead make it an opportunity to enjoy the diversity God has given. Even in a classroom of like ages, there are often vast differences in ability. However we have it easier than a classroom teacher but we don't have bells telling us when to stop, diverse family backgrounds, other authorities to answer to (like parents!), and much more. We can use evenings, weekends, just about any time that happens to suit. We can just go on excursions without having to get them approved by principals and obtaining indemnity forms from parents. We can rethink how things are working with each child and adjust our plans accordingly. We can take "Plan X" days if that is what helps most. We can move on when the student grasps the topic - or give extra practice when they haven't - without worrying about the mythical average. In short we can truly teach more of the time, and it will take less time. We have hardly any administration to do, forms to fill in, etc. We will probably have the same students year after year, allowing you to gear education precisely and follow through properly, again adding effectiveness to efficiency. What's more, our own good attitudes reflected back to us make the whole process so enjoyable.

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