Spiral Curriculum: Definition & Example

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  • 0:01 What Is a Spiral Curricula?
  • 0:34 Mathematics
  • 1:28 Reading
  • 2:18 Science
  • 3:20 Social Studies
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Derek Hughes

Derek has a Masters of Science degree in Teaching, Learning & Curriculum.

'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.

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.

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