Primary Grade Teachers' Perceptions of Integration

Jeanne S. Prestwich


This descriptive/qualitative study examined definitions and teaching examples of integrated curriculum instruction submitted by K-3 teachers. Definitions were classified according to common definitions in the professional literature, and each teacher's definition and example were compared for consistency.

Elementary teachers must cover a broad range of content, estimated by Kendall and Marzano (2000) to average 200 standards and 3,093 benchmarks in 14 different content subjects per school year. Thus they have little time to address each subject area with appropriate depth. Integrating content subjects enables teachers to more efficiently teach all aspects of curriculum within instructional time constraints (Holloway & Chliodo, 2009; Howes, Lim, & Campos, 2009).

Additionally, integration of content subjects can help students think more critically as they increase their knowledge and understanding of the curriculum (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989), recognizing connections and relationships in contexts that more closely mimic real-world learning (Hargreaves & Moore, 2000). However, effective implementation of integration can be difficult (Hinde, 2005).

Many teachers are confused by multiple definitions of integrated curriculum instruction (Czerniak et al., 1999) that have emerged since the late nineteenth century (Hinde, 2005; McBee, 2000). Definitions currently described in professional literature all come from scholars, rather than classroom teachers; thus teachers may not define curriculum integration as the represented in professional literature represents it.


Words used to describe integration include interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, integrated, thematic, connected, sequenced, nested, shared, webbed, threaded, immersed, networked, blended, unified, coordinated, and fused (Czerniak et al., 1999). Many teachers use the terms integrated, interdisciplinary, and thematic synonymously (Lederman & Niess, 1997), perhaps casual in distinction because a common definition hasn't been clarified (Czerniak et al., 1999). Variation in how integration is conceptualized in content areas may be one reason for multiple vague definitions (Beane, 1995).

Definitions in the literature. During the past two decades professional literature has offered multiple descriptions as well as terminology.  Indistinct subject integration attempts to make combined subjects indistinguishable; students don't sense when one ends and another begins. A group of math and science education professionals suggested a working definition to the National Science Foundation: "Integration infuses mathematical methods in science and scientific methods into mathematics such that it becomes indistinguishable as to whether it is mathematics or science" (Berlin & White, 1992, p. 341). This approach was expanded to include using applicable real-world problems for instruction in a study by Lederman and Niess (1997), who similarly defined integration as two different subjects taught together as a seamless whole. Disciplines are not clearly defined with the justification that daily experiences do not occur as differentiated subjects and neither should school curriculum.  

In contrast, integration often occurs as curriculum planned around topics or themes, with combined subjects recognizable though studied together, termed topic/theme integration.Beane (1996) designated four characteristics for this approach: (a) organization around real-world topics of personal and social importance, (b) use of applicable information without consideration for subject lines, (c) learning for study of a current issue, not for a test or grade, and (d) emphasis on assignments and activities applying real-world knowledge and analysis. Since integration developing themes by recognized subjects combines multiple subject areas such as math, literacy, or arts, teachers apply this method through comprehensive planning which enables them to use authentic, relevant learning experiences (Hurless & Gittings, 2008).

Recognizable subject integration canfocus on teaching a central idea, solving a problem, or planning an event, rather than on a topic or theme. The approach purposefully draws together knowledge, viewpoints, and methods of examination from several disciplines to develop a more powerful understanding of a unit's purpose and focus (Parker, 2005). Two integration strategies teachers use most often based on this approach are fusion, which merges multiple subjects to form a new unified idea, and infusion, which brings multiple subject areas together to form a relevant curriculum, inserting parts of one subject area into another subject to help the learner gain deeper understanding of the second. This broad method is the most regularly used practice of curriculum integration at the elementary level (Hinde, 2005). This approach has been expanded to include pointing out to students how related concepts, skills, and values of each subject reinforce each other using interdisciplinary instruction (Farris, 2004).

Hall-Kenyon and Smith (2013) further described integration as "instruction during one lesson that is based on two or more objectives from two or more subject areas" (p. 102). They specified three essential conditions: (a) valid connection(s) are made between skills and/or content knowledge of each specific content area, (b) instruction and learning remain authentic to each discipline, and (c) each objective is directly taught and measured.

The current study. Researchers have acknowledged that "integration means different things to different educators" (Davison, Miller, & Metheny, 1995, p. 226). Unfortunately teachers' use of integration is only as effective as their understanding, and empirical data on their definitions and practices are inadequate in the current professional literature (Beane, 1995; Czerniak et al., 1999; Davison et al., 1995). This study looked at teachers' personal definitions and teaching examples. Three research questions were addressed:

  1. How do K-3 grade teachers define curriculum integration?
  2. How do K-3 grade teachers describe teaching examples of curriculum integration?
  3. Do K-3 grade teachers' submitted teaching examples of integration match their definitions?


Participants and design. Participants for this survey study were a convenience sampling of respondents to an invitation circulated among kindergarten through third grade teachers from four school districts in the Intermountain West. All eligible teachers were contacted by district email and asked to participate in the study by clicking on a link to the survey, administered through The survey was estimated to require 10-15 minutes; because participants completed it individually on their own time, they were able to give thoughtful answers without pressure.

Data source. The survey was divided into two sections: a demographics section requesting participant information (educational level, assigned grade level and years spent teaching) and a section asking teachers to provide their personal definition of integration and to write an example of a lesson idea integrating curriculum in literacy, math, science, and/or social studies.

Procedures. To obtain feedback on the clarity and content of the questions, the survey was piloted with six volunteer K-3 teachers, who were given a hard copy of the survey and the instructions to be given to participants. After completing the survey, each met with the researcher to provide feedback on questions that seemed to be unclear or difficult to answer.  After pilot testing the questions, obtaining IRB approval, and receiving consent from the school districts to distribute the survey, the researcher sought voluntary participants by email with a hyperlink to the survey instrument, as described previously, along with instructions that completing the survey would constitute implied consent. Reminders were sent to potential participants weekly. Survey data gathered within three weeks were analyzed.

Of the 1,301 surveys that were distributed via email, 100 (8%) were returned. Thus the findings from this study should be interpreted cautiously. However, the study can still be regarded as acceptable because of the cross section of teachers across grade levels, years of experience, and education levels.

Data analysis. When surveys including unusable data were excluded, 71 formed the basis for analysis, representing 16 kindergarten teachers, 19 first-grade teachers, 20 second-grade teachers and 16 third-grade teachers.

Survey responses were analyzed descriptively and qualitatively. The teachers' definitions of integration and examples of integrated lessons were analyzed qualitatively to discern recurring themes (Creswell, 2008). The three common definitions of integration described in the literature review—indistinct subject integration, topic/theme integration, and recognizable subject integration—were used as a priori categories. However, the data for the teachers' definitions and teaching examples were examined for other definitions or categories noted in the teachers' responses. Each teacher's definition and teaching example(s) were then compared and examined for connection or lack of connection between definition and application.

Data were coded by the researcher and an additional coder (a K-3rd grade teacher for 37 years with state and national awards). The researcher and coder reviewed all 71 teachers' definitions and teaching examples. After discussion of the three a priori definitions of integrated curriculum, they read each response aloud and determined its category. No new definitions emerged from the teachers' responses, but the additional category vague/unable to categorize was created because some definitions were too vague to code. All disagreements were negotiated until agreement was achieved.


Examining teachers' definitions of integration.  Of the participating teachers, 96% (68/71) defined integration consistent with one of the three common categories found in the literature: indistinct subject integration, topic/theme integration, and recognizable subject integration. The remaining 4% (3/71) gave definitions that were coded as vague/unable to categorize. These three teachers were kept in the study despite the vague definitions because they provided good teaching examples of curriculum integration; some teachers who provided clear definitions gave vague examples. Teaching examples from the participants' surveys are discussed in terms of the three common category definitions.

Indistinct subject integration. This category accounted for 10% (7/71) of the teachers' definitions of curriculum integration. These all specified that subjects should be used in combination without distinct lines between them. A first grade teacher wrote, "Teaching using integration helps kids see the ‘big picture' . . . everything [comes] together and builds off each other rather [than] teaching everything in a bunch of broken segments." Other teachers referred to holistic instruction in their definitions, also interpreted in the indistinct subject category. A third grade teacher defined curriculum integration as "putting [together] a cluster of related curriculum content and teaching them together in a [holistic]approach."

Topic/theme integration.This category included the definitions of 21% (15/71) of the teachers, with references to topics or units of study. A second grade teacher mentioned "the ability the teacher has to interweave multiple curriculum or academic areas into a theme or unit." Similarly, a first grade teacher explained, "It means using the core standards in all different subjects. . . . It brings a more cohesive feel to the curriculum and gives the students a wider range of experience with the material needed." 

Recognizable subject integration. This category was involved with 65% (46/71) of the teachers' definitions, with many discussing the need for more than one subject to be combined in one lesson. A second grade teacher offered the definition "teaching core subjects (science, social studies) during reading and/or math." Some of the definitions in this category described curriculum integration as one lesson in which one subject is used to teach another subject. A kindergarten teacher expressed it as "taking ideas and academic principles from one area of study and inserting them into another area of study." She mentioned "teaching science principles . . . with the use of literature . . . [thus] satisfying core requirements for the science standards at the same time as satisfying core requirements for literacy." Other definitions mentioned the necessity for assessment; a first grade teacher explained that one lesson "must include the meaningful and intentional teaching and assessment of both/all the objectives."

Vague/unable to categorize.The category vague/unable to categorize was created for the definitions of 4% of the teachers (3/71) that were either not relevant to the question being asked or not clear enough to fit into one of the categories. For example, a third grade teacher defined curriculum integration as "all." Another third grade teacher started her definition in the recognizable subject integration category and ended it as a theme integration strategy: "Content areas of the core curriculum are combined [with] other curriculum in teaching to save time and yet cover more areas. Sometimes it is driven by a theme."

Evaluating teachers' examples of integration. Teachers' examples of integration were placed in the common categories described above: Only recognizable subject integration and topic/theme integration were represented. Categorizations were compared to teachers' definitions to determine the level of consistency between their reported definitions (conceptions) and their practice. Some of the examples included aspects of both represented categories, so a new category was created joining the two. The category of vague/unable to categorizewas present in the teaching examples as well as in the definitions, but none of the teachers had both definition and example in that category.

Either the topic/theme integration or the recognizable subject integration category accounted for 77.5% (55/71) of the teachers' examples; the new category combining these approaches included 14% (10/71). Only 8.5% (6/71) of the teaching examples were coded as vague/unable to categorize.

Topic/theme integration.The examples of25% (18/71) of the teachers were consistent with the category of topic/theme integration, generally describing lessons on a specific topic or theme involving multiple subject areas. For example, a third grade teacher's unit on space integrated language arts (space related vocabulary words and writing topics), social studies (NASA, astronauts, astronomers), and art (drawing moon phases, constellations, and sunspots).

Recognizable subject integration.The teaching examples of 51% (36/71) of the participants were in the category of recognizable subject integration, teaching one lesson using multiple subjects. For example, a kindergarten teacher taught simple addition to five along with the social studies topic of seasons. The children made trees with different seasonal symbols on them (e.g., leaves for summer, apples for fall) to practice addition. To include opinion writing, the teacher placed a spring item on each table (e.g., flowers) and had the students write why they liked or didn't like the item.

A few examples in this category involved using one subject to teach another subject in one lesson. A third grade teacher noted, "Music and math—count by songs to learn times tables. We did art and math with ordered pairs and making a secret picture." A second grade teacher combined the science objective of observing/describing "patterns in the night sky" with the art objective of creating depth and using secondary and tertiary colors. At home the students observed and drew the night sky for a week—creating pictures showing both near and far. Then at school they mixed paints in tertiary colors, which they used to re-create their night sky perspectives. Other examples added the requirement that subjects be assessed as well as taught together. A second grade teacher explained, "I do a weekly shared reading that is about the science core we are studying. Students learn a strategy as well as the science. Both are assessed in a weekly quiz."

Both topic/theme and recognizable subject integration.Both categories were included in the responses of 14% (10/71) of the teachers, who described two different lessons, one in each category. For example, a third grade teacher included a lesson coded as recognizable subject integration in which economics was taught using math ("funny money" distributed, saved, and used in a class auction), along with a second lesson coded as topic/theme integration teaching science, math, and writing using the theme of the solar system (powerpoint about favorite planet and model of solar system).

Vague/unable to categorize.Teaching examples categorized as vague/unable to categorize were submitted by 10% (7/71) of the participants. Some of these submissions did not describe an actual lesson (e.g., "I participated in the common core this year. I integrated literacy, social studies and science in my class"). Others described a lesson that did not include curriculum integration (e.g., "When learning about color and how to create secondary colors, we also [used] counting games and color words").

Comparing teachers' definitions and examples. Each participant's coded definition and example(s) were compared to determine the extent of consistency. Definition of integration and example(s) were consistent for 55% (39/71) of the teachers. For example, a second grade teacher whose definition was clearly topic/theme integration gave this example: "During our animal report unit, the [students] researched an animal they wanted to learn more about. They were learning about [vertebrate] animals in science as well. Students also [created] a sculpture and habitat for their animal in art." Of the 39 teachers whose definitions and teaching examples were consistent, 18% (7/39) defined and exemplified topic/theme integration and 82% (32/39) defined and exemplified recognizable subject integration. Definitions in the categories of indistinct subject integration or vague/unable to categorize did not include consistent examples.

Fully 45% (32/71) of the teachers gave examples that did not match their definitions. For example a third grade teacher gave a definition that was coded as indistinct subject integration— "incorporating all subject areas into a unit/lesson so that there are no discernible ‘subjects'"—but gave the following teaching example: "We have talked about . . . graphic organizers and [taking] notes. Then the students read about different Native American tribes and took notes about the tribes' clothing, food, shelter, and family life [using] graphic organizers to compare/contrast the tribes." Of the 32 inconsistent definitions/examples, 21% (7/32) were indistinct subject integration, 25% (8/32) represented topic/theme integration, 44% (14/32) were classified as recognizable subject integration,and 10% (3/32) were vague/unable to categorize. Some teachers may define integration as they have been taught but be more comfortable implementing it differently, or they may be unclear on their definition and/or their practice.


The current literature on curriculum integration is based mostly on theory. More than 10 years ago researchers called for more empirical data to reveal ways curriculum integration is conceptualized and practiced by teachers (Beane, 1995; Czerniak et al., 1999; Davison et al., 1995), but little has been done. The current study provides a small set of empirical data demonstrating that teachers may have a more consistent definition of curriculum integration than the professional literature states. 

Understanding teachers' definitions of integration. The definitions of curriculum integration the teachers provided were consistent with the major definitions in the professional literature: indistinct subject integration, topic/theme integration, and recognizable subject integration. No varying definitions were found in the teachers' descriptions. More than half of the teachers in the study defined curriculum integration consistent with recognizable subject integration, followed by definitions fitting with topic/theme integration; indistinct subject integration was defined by a few though illustrated by none. Ultimately these findings suggest that concern expressed in the professional literature over perceived wide variety in teachers' definitions may not be an accurate representation of some K-3 teachers' conceptions.

Interpreting teachers' integration teaching examples. When the teachers' examples of curriculum integration were examined, indistinct integration was not found, although it had been among their definitions, possibly because a lesson in this category would be difficult to describe. Some examples included two lessons, one using topic/theme integration and one using recognizable subject integration; thus a combined category was created.  This inconsistency may have occurred because teachers see curriculum integration generally as any lesson that involves two or more subjects, whether at the same time (as recognizable subjects)or through multiple subjects woven throughout the day (in a topic or theme). As with the definitions, recognizable subject integration was the most common category for participants' teaching examples, followed by topic/theme integration; the combined category was third.

Connecting Teachers' Definitions and Examples. More than half of the teachers in the study supplied examples consistent with their definitions. More than three-fourths of these consistencies were in recognizable subject integration, the category in which the majority of the responses were coded. Just under half of the teachers' responses showed confusion in alignment of their definition and example, which may indicate lack of a solid connection between method and practice or a tendency to practice integration in more than one way.

It is significant that the three teachers who provided vague definitions of curriculum integration gave clear teaching examples: two with examples coded as recognizable subject integration and one with a plan coded as topic/theme integration. Possibly these teachers could practice curriculum integration but could not articulate a classification for what they were doing. In contrast, seven participants provided clear definitions of curriculum integration (six coded as recognizable subject integration and one coded as indistinct subject integration) but were unable to provide a teaching example matching any of the common definitions. Of the seven teachers, three left the space for the teaching example blank. Possibly these teachers were familiar with general concepts but did not actually practice them.


Implications.  These teachers' definitions of curriculum integration were consistent with the three common definitions found in the professional literature. Considering the professional literature in terms of the ways classroom teachers articulate the definition of curriculum integration should reduce the confusion over whether teachers' definitions are expanding and at the same time strengthen the validity of the existing common definitions.

Most of the teachers in the study were able to articulate the common integration definitions from the professional literature, but some lacked consistency between their definitions and teaching examples. Thus another implication from the study is that professional development would be desirable to strengthen the connection between the theory reflected in the definitions and the teachers' actual classroom practice.

Recommendations. More empirical research might replicate this study in various areas of the country to determine if the participants' responses are typical of K-3 teachers. More empirical research is also needed to increase understanding of teachers' actual practices related to curriculum integration. Future studies should include both teachers' definitions and researchers' classroom observations of teachers presenting lessons they have developed integrating curriculum. Interviews could follow, allowing teachers to provide additional clarification about their definitions of curriculum integration based on their lessons.

Several of the teachers were dropped from the current study because they provided reasons why they might choose to integrate rather than an actual definition. However, it may be beneficial to consider the reasons teachers view integration as an effective strategy, noting how those reasons relate to their definitions and examples of integration. A future study might examine teachers' reasons for choosing curriculum integration as a teaching strategy and then explore whether those goals are being met in the integrated lessons they are teaching in their classrooms.


Jeanne Prestwich taught Grades 1, 2, and 3 for eight years in Utah and Arizona. She recently received her reading endorsement and enjoys teaching her twin daughters how to read.


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