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‘Spiral curriculum’ may be a term that you haven’t heard before, but you certainly have learned from such a curriculum in your own student life.

This lesson will provide a definition of spiral curriculum as well as some examples of the educational tool in action.

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What is a Spiral Curricula?

If you have ever said to your students, ”Pay attention, this is something important that will come up again later in the year!”, chances are you’ve taught from a spiral curriculum. A spiral curriculum can be defined as a course of study in which students will see the same topics throughout their school career, with each encounter increasing in complexity and reinforcing previous learning.

Because it is hard to understand what spiral curriculum is just by looking at the definition above, this lesson will show what it looks like in practice in the four major subject areas: math, reading, science, and social studies.


Spiral curriculum is probably most easily seen in mathematics because most topics in math build off of each other with increasing complexity. For example, in first grade and the beginning of second grade, students learn simple addition and subtraction facts. These facts are memorized by students so that they no longer have to rely on counting on fingers or using number lines.

Addition and subtraction is then made more complex by introducing two digit numbers.Students need to rely on their knowledge of the facts they have memorized in order to do the more complex problems. Accordingly, concepts incorporating addition and subtraction become more complex as students move through the grades. The early skills of adding and subtracting in elementary school grow and spiral as the years go by, to be used in algebra in high school and beyond.


Students learn to read in the early years of elementary school. The focus of a reading curriculum in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade is usually teaching students the skills they need to independently and successfully read a text.

After students are taught to read, they are then asked to read to learn new things. This is an example of spiral curriculum in reading: learning to read evolving into reading to learn.For example, students learn to identify a sequence of events when they are learning how to read.

In later grades, students will recognize sequences of events even taken out of order to understand more complicated books and stories. The reading curriculum spirals out from simple comprehension skills to more complicated independent reading that requires the use of those skills.


Finding examples of spiral curricula in play in math and reading are relatively easy; it is more difficult to do so in science and social studies. Nonetheless, it can and should be done because these subjects can be incredibly complex. In many cases, building upon simpler skills sets over time can make difficult content more accessible to student comprehension.Science and social studies aren’t always graded in earlier grades, but most teachers still include some lessons on these subjects.

Plant biology, for instance, is a terrific place for spiral curriculum methods to be put into action. A lesson in first grade might focus on what plants need to grow, including sunlight. In third grade, students will then learn about photosynthesis, which explains why plants need sunlight to grow. In sixth grade, students will learn about the cellular structure of plants, which will give them a more complex picture of plant biology. Finally, students in high school will learn about organic chemistry in plants, completing the picture.

Social Studies

Like science, social studies may be overlooked in favor of more reading and math time in early learning classrooms.

However, that does not mean that social studies isn’t taught with a spiral curriculum. There are many examples in social studies learning of spiral curriculum at work. Students’ understanding of communities and societies is just such an example.

Students start off early learning about small communities, such as their classroom, school, or home. They learn how each person works to keep the community safe and functional. Later, students build on this knowledge by looking at larger communities, such as cities, states or countries. They learn about laws, citizenship, and ethics. Finally, students begin learning about global communities in both the present and past.

Higher-level social studies classes require students to have an understanding of how communities work in order for them to fully comprehend what they are studying in history class. Their education builds from a simple idea of communities to the analysis of major world conflicts.

Lesson Summary

A spiral curriculum can be defined as a course of study in which students will see the same topics throughout their school career, with each encounter increasing in complexity and reinforcing previous learning. Such curricula is a guide for teaching and learning in which students will revisit topics and ideas several times throughout their education (from kindergarten through high school and into college), with increasing understanding and complexity. Though building upon established skillsets is easy to see in subjects such as math and reading, spiral curriculum tools are also to be found in science and social studies.

Examples of Spiral Curriculum

Mathematics Equations

The following table gives an example of spiral curriculum in four major educational disciplines.

Mathematics Learning addition and subtraction with single digit numbers, then two-digit numbers.
Reading Learning to read evolves into reading to learn.
Science Learning that plants need sunlight to grow, then learning photosynthesis, then learning about the cellular structure of plants.
Social Studies Learning about smaller communities such as the classroom or neighborhood, before learning about different cities and countries, social and political structures, and ethics.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this video, check to see if you can:

  • Define spiral curriculum
  • Identify instances of spiral curriculum in a variety of disciplines

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