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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Should We Departmentalize Our Primary Grades?

September 21, 2021

Teacher question: My school district has recently departmentalized first and second grades. The students seem very young to have two teachers and move classes mid-day. It also seems that early literacy should stretch across the school and not only be taught during an ELA block. I’m interested to know your thoughts.

Shanahan's response:

This strikes me as a singularly bad idea.

In fairness, I know of no studies on the effectiveness of the practice (in terms of kids’ learning) at these early grade levels, but this appears to be the result of no researcher thinking this to be even a remotely good idea worth evaluating.

There are several studies of departmentalization with older students (Grades 4-8). At those grade levels there are some arguments for the practice. The major one being that given a burgeoning curriculum, students are better served by teachers who are especially well versed in science, math, social studies, and literature. Teachers can’t be expected to have a sufficient depth of knowledge on all of these topics, so departmentalization allows us to divide and conquer. It’s the same basic argument that supports departmentalizing in the high school and college.

Of course, as one travels down the grade levels this depth of knowledge contention deteriorates.

I’m willing to accept that Ms. Smith knows more about pre-algebra than Mr. Jones, and that he is much more familiar with YA literature than she. Kids would likely be better served if those teachers spent the whole day teaching their expertise and knowledge.

You have another think coming, however, if you think I’d endorse the idea that Ms. Smith knows so much more about counting and 2-place subtraction problems that she should spend her time devoted only to teaching 6- and 7-year-olds arithmetic. In my book if Mr. Jones hasn’t mastered those basic aspects of the number system, he should hang up his spikes and enroll in the best elementary school he can find.

A recent interview study queried 12 primary grade teachers about the attractions of departmentalization (Strohl, Schmertzing, & Schmertzing, no date). Some of them held forth about how it allowed them to focus in areas in which they possessed greater depths of knowledge and to teach better. There were no data supporting these assertions.

Studies of the matter in the upper grades and middle school level – those grades for which I conceded there could be some educational benefit to the approach. Repeatedly, these studies have found no consistent advantage in disciplinary teaching over self-contained classroom instruction for kids’ learning (Baroody, 2017; Chennis, 2018; Kent, 2012; Mitchell, 2014; Skelton, 2015, Yearwood, 2011). Given this lack of benefit, it is hard for me to credit those claims of improved primary grade effectiveness. It seems highly unlikely to me.

Another benefit of departmentalizing that teachers noted was that it reduced their workload. They only had to develop half as many lessons as in the past. I suspect this is the real attraction of the practice. The upper elementary studies suggest some rather modest improvements to lessons but not enough to improve either reading or math achievement (Baroody, 2017). In other words, the saved time isn’t usually invested in the development of more powerful or personal lessons.

But remember, those data are from studies with older kids. Instruction generally has bigger impacts on learning with younger kids (and less so with older ones). There are problems with departmentalizing that appear more threatening with the young’uns.

The most obvious of these drawbacks is the loss of instructional time to transitions. Whether it’s the teachers or the kids who end up moving, it takes time away from teaching – which has been found to have negative impacts on learning in those early grades (e.g., McLean, Sparapani, Toste, & Connor, 2016). McGrath and Rust (2002) reported that transitions in departmentalized settings take significantly longer than within class transitions and that these time differences mattered in the learning of upper elementary students.

Another real caution is the social-emotional aspects of learning. The relationship among teachers and students is an important determinant of learning at all levels, but particularly in the early years (I was called “Mommy” often enough as a first-grade teacher to sensitize me to this issue). Peeling those little ones away from the teacher for several hours a day runs the risk of diminishing classroom warmth and the closeness of the relations between teachers and students; relations research has identified as being important to academic achievement (Bryce, Bradley, Abry, Swanson, & Thompson, 2019; Hughes, & Kwok, 2007; López, 2012; Wilson, Pianta, & Stuhlman, 2007). Not surprisingly, early childhood experts tend not to be proponents of this organizational scheme.

In terms of reading instruction, teachers need the flexibility to provide extra help along the way, to prevent kids them from falling behind.

It takes substantial amounts of time to coordinate information among teachers so that no child slips through the cracks, and because of this such monitoring tends to be suppressed. Monitoring kids learning and providing extra support to meet their varied needs just doesn’t happen much in departmentalized schools.

Even in the upper grades, a major complaint teachers have about departmentalization is the loss of flexibility.

I look at a change like this and ask myself:

1. Will it increase or decrease the amount of reading instruction? In this case, I think the answer is that it will reduce the amount of teaching the students will receive.

2. Will it increase or diminish instructional attention to key areas of reading? My answer is that it won’t likely affect this at all.

3. Will it improve or weaken the quality of the teaching that students receive? My hunch here is that it may do some real harm, reducing the warmth and inclusiveness of primary grade classrooms, and tying the teachers’ hands when it comes to monitoring and responding to children’s extra learning needs.

Given those answers, I’d not willingly adopt such an approach.

If teachers are feeling overworked with too much to plan, I’d be looking at what could be done to support them better (e.g., shared planning times, textbook program adoptions, professional development, reductions in load, administrative analysis of how teachers use their planning time, better routinization, etc.).

Those approaches might help, and they run less risk of lowering reading achievement or limiting possible future gains.

In summary, as far as I can tell, there is no research into the effectiveness of departmentalization in grades K-2. Accordingly, the best I can do is to venture an opinion. For the reasons given, I think it a bad idea. The plan isn’t worth the sacrifices that the children must make. Because there have been no direct studies of the learning outcomes of this in the primary grades, this response is based the generalization of other research (such as studies of departmentalization in the upper grades and studies of positive social environments in the primary grades) and upon my 50+ years in education, including as a first-grade teacher.


Baroody, A.E. (2017). Exploring the contribution of classroom formats on teaching effectiveness and achievement in upper elementary classrooms. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 28(2), 314-335.

Bryce, C. I., Bradley, R. H., Abry, T., Swanson, J., & Thompson, M. S. (2019). Parents’ and teachers’ academic influences, behavioral engagement, and first- and fifth-grade achievement. School Psychology, 34(5), 492-502.

Chennis, S.T. (2018). The impact of traditional and departmentalized classroom instructional settings on fifth grade students' reading achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Liberty University.

Hughes, J., & Kwok, O. (2007). Influence of student-teacher and parent-teacher relationships on lower achieving readers' engagement and achievement in the primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 39-51.

Kent, K.P. (2012). Self-contained versus departmentalized school organization and the impact on fourth and fifth grade student achievement in reading and mathematics as determined by the Kentucky Core Content Test. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Louisville.

López, F. A. (2012). Moderators of language acquisition models and reading achievement for english language learners: The role of emotional warmth and instructional support. Teachers College Record, 114(8), 1-30.

McGrath, C.J., & Rust, J.O. (2002). Academic achievement and between-class transition time for self-contained and departmental upper-elementary classes. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 29(1), 40-43.

McLean L, Sparapani N, Toste JR, Connor CM. (2016). Classroom quality as a predictor of first graders' time in non-instructional activities and literacy achievement. Journal of School Psychology, 56, 45-58. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2016.03.004.

Mitchell, V.T. (2014). Departmentalized or self-contained: The relationship between classroom configuration and student achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California State University, Fullerton.

Skelton, C.R. (2015). The effects of departmentalized and self-contained structures on student achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Mississippi.

Strohl, A., Schmertzing, L., & Schmertzing, R. (No date). Elementary teachers’ experiences and perceptions of departmentalized instruction: A case study. Journal of Case Studies in Education.

Wilson, H. K., Pianta, R. C., & Stuhlman, M. (2007). Typical classroom experiences in first grade: The role of classroom climate and functional risk in the development of social competencies. The Elementary School Journal, 108(2), 81-96.

Yearwood, C. (2011). Effects of departmentalized versus traditional settings on fifth graders’ math and reading achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Liberty University.

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