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close this bookMulti-Grade Teaching - A review of research and practice - Education research paper No. 12 (DFID, 1994, 63 p.)
close this folderChapter 2 - Lessons from developing countries
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentZambia: Teacher education and support for multi-grade schools
View the documentPeru: Indigenous schools
View the documentSri Lanka: Approaching multi-grade via multi-level teaching
View the documentThe impact system of mass primary education
View the documentConclusion

Sri Lanka: Approaching multi-grade via multi-level teaching

Sri Lanka has a highly developed system of education and enrolment in the primary cycle is near universal. However several types of social and economic disadvantage remain and multi-grade schools are associated with some of these. Multi-grade schools are most likely to be found in remote rural areas where access is difficult, population sparse and the living conditions for teachers unattractive. They are to be found in both the Sinhala-speaking and Tamil-speaking rural areas. In some types of disadvantaged areas, for example, the Tamil-medium schools in plantation areas, shortages of qualified teachers mean that multi-grade teaching is the norm. The government policy of a minimum of 3 teachers per school, however small, is sometimes not implemented. Even then, with a five-grade national curriculum some grades will be treated as multi-grade. Although the percentage of one-teacher schools has decreased from 5.6% in 1986 to just 2% in 1991, the percentage of schools where there are multi-grade classes will be far higher estimated to be 24% in 1986 (Abhayadeva 1989). Many small schools cover more than the five grades of primary, sometimes six, sometimes eight. A UNICEF report, written in 1987 commented

such schools generally cater to disadvantaged populations in rural areas whose earnings are low and unstable... In addition to paucity of teachers, such schools have inadequate physical facilities, equipment, books and are neglected by the education system in regard to maintenance, repair and supervision. They remain in a state of suspended animation. They are charged with providing education to over a quarter of million children. Since there are only one or two teachers per school of five grades, no teaching occurs for many children over large portions of the year

(Ratnaike 1987)

The national primary school curriculum in Sri Lanka is oriented towards mono-grade schools. A number of changes have been introduced recently to the content of the grade 1 and 2 curriculum, in recognition of the low levels of basic number and language skills with which many children in disadvantaged areas enter primary school. However, these changes continue to be framed within the assumption that primary schools are organised on mono-grade lines. The organisational realities facing the multi-grade teacher are not readily addressed in the formal guidance of the primary school syllabus, teachers' guides, textbooks, pre-service and in-service training. The following notes from the author's field diary illustrates the problem

an unannounced visit to a tea estate school. The school has 163 children enrolled in grades 1 to 6 and two female teachers. The principal teacher has nine years experience and followed her formal training through the distance mode. She lives in the estate. The other teacher travels daily by bus from a small town ten miles away. The bus is infrequent and usually late. Already it is 8.30 am and the school has been in session officially for one hour. Grade 1 children sit quietly outside the one-roomed school under a shed-like construction with no roof The morning sun forces them to take shelter on a lower ten-ace under a roughly constructed thatched enclosure. None of the grades has been set any work and the children sit expectantly, their unopened books in neat piles in front of them. The enrolment register has been checked. This morning one hundred children have turned up for school, an attendance rate of just 61%. Although we wish to spend fifteen minutes or so with the teacher discussing a recent inservice training which she attended recently, we suggest that the students be set some work before we do so. The teacher moves quickly around the grade groups crammed inside the single classroom and grade 1 outside, giving instructions, opening books, writing exercises on the blackboard. Three male monitors, apparently self-appointed, dart around the six groups, distributing verbal punishment here, physical punishment there. A grade 3 girl takes an envelope out of her satchel. It contains small picture cards of animals and flowers. Two boys snatch one each, a squabble ensues, the monitor intervenes, peace is restored and they await more attention from the teacher. The grade 2 children have been set language work. One child reads out one or two words from the set book, the others repeat in unison. All the grade 2 children have a language book, distributed as part of the government's free text book scheme. Although all participate in the chant, and although all are holding a copy of the relevant book, not all are reading the words. It is enough to hold the book and repeat the chant.

The male kangani stands outside looking in. He is an elderly man paid to shepherd the children one and half miles from the estate line-room where they live, through the tea fields to the school, and back home each day. He is paid Rs 250 (£4) a month by the parents for this work. His stick is poised, ready to intervene should the classroom become too unruly.

By 9.00 the bus arrived and the second teacher joins us. We discuss various activities and suggestions made during the recent in-service seminar on health. Both teachers had also attended an in-service training course for teaching methods in the lower primary grades. One two hour lecture had been devoted to multi-grade teaching. What could they remember from it? They remembered a discussion about introducing a topic common to all grades. For example the topic could be fruits. After introducing the topic different grades of children could be asked to engage in different activities based on this common theme For example grade 1 children could talk in small groups about the fruits they eat; grade 2 could write out single names of fruit and compare fruits in different ways; grade 3 could compare fruits for their vitamin value.

Although it was clear that the in-service seminars had generated ideas in the minds of the teachers it was more difficult to judge whether these were being transacted at the classroom level. The teachers had made a large number of learning and teaching aids at the in-service training sessions and were able to produce these from the store cupboard to show us. But none was in use during the one and a half hours of our visit.

Teachers may be encouraged at in-service seminars to experiment with multi-grade teaching methods in their classes. However this expectation is paradoxical. Those teachers who find themselves in schools which force them to adopt multi-grade methods are not only teaching in the most disadvantaged economic and social conditions, but they are themselves the most disadvantaged teachers in terms of education, level of training, status and, often, social background. Professional support from the central curriculum and administration authorities is based on an assumption of mono-grade organisation Curricula are developed with an image of a relatively well-educated and trained urban teacher in mind. The adaptation of national curriculum materials, the reorganisation and structuring of timetables and groups, the creative use of space and the management of time are challenges which the lesser educated and lesser trained person is expected to confront and master. The more educated and trained teacher simply works within the norm and is not expected to make major intellectual adaptations.

In recent years, two developments, one stemming from the National Institute of Education, and the other from the Ministry of Education, have acknowledged the pedagogic value of multi-grade organisation However, their approach has been via the needs of mono-grade teachers and the recognition that there are multiple levels of ability within single grades.

National Institute of Education: the development of multi-grade and multi-level teaching strategies

One approach to multi-grade teaching is to link it with the ideas of multi-ability or multilevel teaching. The general idea is that, even within a grade in the dominant mono-grade structure, there are wide differences in competency in the basic skill areas of language and mathematics. In a useful paper on the development of multi-grade and multilevel teaching strategies developed at the National Institute of Education, Abhayadeva (1989) underlines the point that the multi-grade teaching strategy should be

a feature even in regular situations with a teacher per grade... (and that) a single grade with multi-levels could be conceived as operating in a multi-grade context

(Abhayadeva 1989)

Abhayadeva supports her case with reference to data on language and mathematics competency at entry and exit from grade 1. Using data from a large-scale survey of competencies she constructs a distribution of competency in writing movement coordination and concepts of quantity for a class of 40 students. Competency levels are assessed at five levels of mastery. Table 3 suggests that there is a wide distribution in both skills among those who enter grade 1. Although the range of variation reduces a little as children reach the end of their first grade of schooling, in the sense that larger numbers approach mastery on this particular skill, the variation remains marked. In principle the majority of children who reach the end of grade 1 should have achieved mastery or close to mastery in these skills. In practice less than half are doing so in the basic concepts of quantity.

Abhayadeva (1989) suggests that these data have several implications for organising or grouping children:

for example there are 32 (24+8) halfway to mastery at entry to year I and at exit... and there are 30 (10+20) at close to mastery level and another 16 (4+12) who have mastered (writing movement). According to the data those at halfway to mastery would be struggling to copy shapes of letters while those who have mastered would copy (or write) letters with ease.

Competency levels in quantity show that for more than half... learning activities should be geared at a lower level... a multi-grade organisation would be beneficial... some of these students would need more than one year, 18-24 months or perhaps even longer to attain competency in a given grade specific curriculum. Sri Lanka has approached almost full enrolment at Year 1. However grade repetition is found at each grade level with year 2 having the second highest rate of repetition... The cumulative effect of learning problems mostly caused by the necessity to adhere to a grade-wise curriculum is revealed by continuing repetition rates which has reached its highest in primary for year 4. Grade repetition and the accompanying sense of failure leads to early school dropouts. It becomes difficult to maintain the momentum reached by achieving full enrolment at school entry.

Perhaps a non graded approach where all children need not necessarily be transferred to the next grade at the end of the year, will help certain children to overcome some of the learning problems encountered due to competency level... a flexible approach which reaches out to different and parallel competency levels in adjacent grades would require reorganisation of the graded structure at least in the first two or three years of the primary school

Table 3: Distribution of competency in writing and mathematics, grade 1, Sri Lanka

Competency level

Writing movement


at entry

end of Gr. 1

at entry

end of Gr. 1

not started mastery





started mastery





halfway to mastery





close to mastery










It is clear from this that a multi-grade approach is being advocated for children at the beginning of the primary cycle. In other words, teachers in mono-grade schools are being urged to reorganise their work along multi-grade lines, rather than the reverse.

The practical steps which have been taken to date to effect some of these ideas include the establishment of a pilot project in 20 schools carried out by the Primary Education Project of the National Institute of Education in schools under the UNICEF-assisted programme for quality development of primary education, the long term objectives of which include exploring the possibility of using multi-grade teaching in "normal" classrooms and in large mono-grade schools and incorporating the experiences in a guide for teachers, and to introduce multi-grade teaching as a component of pre-service and in-service education.

The Ministry of Education's Plantation Sector Education Development Programme (PSEDP): Self-Study materials and Graded Learning

Since 1987 the Ministry of Education in Sri Lanka has run a programme of support to primary education in the tea and rubber estates. Until fairly recently estate schools had been managed and "owned" by plantation companies. They were connected with the National Ministry of Education through a grant-in-aid system in which schools were subject to an annual inspection and award of grant based on academic achievement. During the 1970s these schools and their teachers began to be "taken-over" by the state and incorporated fully into the state system. In 1984 there were 558 estate schools, with a total of 63,389 students and 1,148 permanent teachers. Thus the average student-teacher ratio was 55: 1. A large proportion of the schools had only one teacher.

A programme initiated in 1987 was designed to upgrade the estate schools, most of which covered the first six grades. The objectives were to increase enrolment and to improve the quality of education. Although the majority of schools are in fact multi-grade, the student population in many of the estate catchment areas warrants a mono-grade structure were universal enrolment is to be achieved. Hence priority attention was given to stimulating enrolment and attendance among the school-age population, stimulating the supply of teachers to teach in the Tamil medium and upgrading teacher performance through inservice training and on-site support from teacher educators. To have started from the multi-grade reality would have been unwise, for it would have distracted attention away from the more fundamental problems facing children in the estate community large numbers of children dropping out from primary, too few teachers and too many untrained teachers. Gradually, and as some of those problems are being met, more attention is being given under the programme to appropriate pedagogy for groups of 40-50 children, (i) through the development of self-study materials and (ii) the encouragement of a graded and individualised approach to the learning of reading. Both strategies can support multi-grade teaching as well as multi-ability teaching within a mono-grade structure.

Self study materials

In 1993 PSEDP embarked on a programme of development of self study materials in the Tamil language for use by students in years 3-5 of the primary cycle. The idea for this programme arose out of concerns expressed by the teachers and teacher educators of PSEDP

shortage of teachers, lack of additional learning material and variation in comprehending ability of the learners, especially in the primary cycle, are a few of the reasons of slow achievement in language and mathematics. Also due to these factors slow learners or low ability groups were generally left behind and at the other extreme the leaning needs of fast learners or high ability groups are not catered for. This situation leads to the necessity of identifying and developing learning material which would make learning interesting and encourage the learner to face challenges in learning.

(PSEDP workshop report 1993)

The development of the materials involved a number of well planned steps and a methodical built-in evaluation of the materials before their mass production. The steps were as follows:

Step 1: A 5-day workshop was held at a school, organised by a teacher educator from the Ministry of Education and a resource person from the National Institute of Education. The other resource persons were the teachers themselves who identified problem learning areas in language and maths, designed preliminary materials, tried them out in the school in which the workshop was being held, revision and grading of achievement level.

Step 2: The materials were then tried with a large sample of children in plantation sector schools. An assessment format for the try-out was devised, experienced teachers trained to conduct the try-out and data collected is analysed by and with the teachers who have conducted the try-out. The analysis was conducted in terms of the percentage of children who gained correct answers, plus a listing of the different types of error made those who gained incorrect answers.

Step 3: On the basis of the analysis the materials are revised by the teacher educators and teachers. After revision the materials are typeset, mass produced and laminated for durability of use. Several hundred self study "cards" have been produced to date.

A Graded Approach to the Learning of Reading

The second example within the PSEDP is the development of a graded approach to reading. A teacher educator involved in the scheme described the idea and the follow-through

We had been talking for some time about reading skills... All the teacher supervisors in the group agreed that the reading ability was low. When we discussed the problem with the teachers they always said, simply, "children are not interested, they do not have the ability". Teachers never seem to acknowledge that they can improve their practice.

We decided to send formats to every school and asked them to do compulsory evaluation of reading... each child was graded A-E. We specified the criteria. We then asked the teachers to use the Tamil reader and other story books. We discovered, after the first assessment, that there were some children in the upper classes who were extremely weak in their reading. The teachers had not been giving them any remedial activity. We suggested that they should ask these children to go back to the year 1 and year 2 reader.

When asked whether she thought that the testing per se was responsible for the improvement in reading standards or whether the intervention comprised a number of elements the teacher educator explained

As supervisors we showed an interest in the reading and showed the teachers how to do their own evaluation using the criteria. We started the evaluation in June (1993). Some teachers have done the evaluation three times, others four times by now (February 1994). We believe that if change is coming about it is because of several things. We are helping the teachers become aware of the individual difference in levels of reading skill. We think that the testing itself may be having a motivating effect on the students and the teacher. We are suggesting that story books as well as the official book be used with the children. We are supplying schools with extra reading material through our mobile library. And of course we ourselves are showing an interest in the reading abilities of the children. All of these things are happening at the same time. We cannot say which is the most important factor. But we are using the teachers' assessments of the levels judged against the criteria.

Although the teacher-educator and her colleagues requested all the schools in the areas for which they were responsible to do the compulsory testing, they decided to "study in a systematic way the improvement in 10 schools, selected randomly".

Some of our results are as follows: In school I there have been three testings. The percentage with A grade increased from 0% to 21%; the percentage with E grade decreased from 35% to 7%. In a second school there were five year 5 children who could not read at all. We started them off with the year 1 book. After 6 months two of the five got their promotion to year 6; they were able to read at the year 5 level. The other three did not reach the level and will repeat the year... but they will catch up. In another school we found that when we tested in March there no D's and quite a few A's, but when we retested in June, we used a different book but of about the same level, not the set Tamil reader. This time there were no A's. We felt that the children had been memorising the set book and were unfamiliar with reading anything that was outside the set book. We recommended the use of story books as well as the set book. We are helping them find the extra books through our mobile library.

This is a grassroots example of teachers and teacher educators working together to identify differences in the pace at which children in the same grades are learning. Traditionally, reading is taught through whole grade groups reading out aloud from the same text; the set text is often the only book available in the classroom and the home. The identification of individual differences in reading has been an eye-opener for many teachers, especially those who are untrained. The realisation that additional reading materials can be developed at low or no cost and that supplementary story books can be made available on loan is transforming the work of the teacher and the learning experience of the student.

Although neither the self study materials nor the reading project arose primarily out of a need to find solutions to the problems facing the multi-grade teacher, clearly the materials and approaches being developed are appropriate for both the multi-grade and the mono-grade teacher.