This week's column is in response to the frequent questions on the mailring about the Guided Reading Block. Let's get right to it!
"What is the greatest difference in 4-Blocks Guided Reading and the reading instruction of other models?"
There are several differences between 4-Blocks GR and more traditional models of reading. First, 4-Blocks teachers have the "luxury" of getting to concentrate on comprehension skills and strategies and on fluency during the GR Block since there are three other blocks sharing the responsibility of reading instruction. No need to teach phonics, contractions, or punctuation during this time.
Second, ability grouping is not necessary in the 4-Blocks GR Block. The teacher conducts a whole group introductory lesson on a comprehension skill. Then, students are grouped in one of a number of choices in formats: partners, playschool groups, small groups with the teacher, book club groups, among others. All students are reading the same text, except when Book Club or literacy circles allow for various titles to be shared concurrently. Grade level and easier texts are used, grade level for approximately 3 days and easier material for about 2 days of each week.
Third, ALL students are actually READING throughout the whole block--no seatwork is necessary!
"What does the Guided Reading Block look like?"
There are three segments to this block: pre-reading, during reading, and post-reading.
Pre-reading (approximately 10 minutes): The teacher opens the block with a good pre-reading lesson, including the same elements daily. As part of pre-reading, the teacher must build prior knowledge about the topic of the text with the students if those students are unfamiliar with the topic, or else the teacher must connect students to the prior knowledge they have had about the topic. The teacher also introduces a few (3-5) vocabulary words that are key to the concept or which may cause difficulty for many students in decoding the text. A mini-comprehension lesson is a daily part of pre-reading, just brief--but none the less powerful--teacher-directed instruction. Then, the teacher sets a purpose for the reading that day. Again, it should be something brief and direct, such as, "Today you and your partner will read to find how Ronald solved his problem in the story." Setting a purpose helps the students to focus on what they are reading. The purpose, if possible, should be aligned with the mini-lesson on comprehension.
During Reading (15-20 minutes): First the teacher determines what level of support the students will need that day. The greatest level of support would be a teacher read-aloud with the students tracking along with the reading. Other methods of high level support would be choral reading, echo reading, or shared reading. With difficult text the teacher would choose one of these methods of support. The intent will be, though, to wean the student from maximum levels of support towards independence in reading. A level of support with less direct teacher assistance is partner reading or playschool groups where the students have responsibility for their reading. Several of these formats can be chosen over the days that the text is read. A teacher may begin with a shared reading lesson on Day 1, partner reading on Day 2, and echo and partner reading on Day 3. The teacher will mix and match as necessary.
Post-Reading (approximately 5-10 minutes): After the reading has been completed, the teacher must bring closure to the block. The most effective closure activity is aligned with the mini-comprehension lesson. This is a way to see how the students applied the comprehension skill or strategy that was taught as the mini-lesson.
"How long should this block last?"
Each of the four blocks must be given at least 30 minutes. The Guided Reading Block can use an extra 5-15 minutes if the time is available. The extra time, however, can not be taken from the minimum time (30 minutes) of any of the other three blocks.
"What is the most difficult part of 4-Blocks Guided Reading for teachers who are new to be model?"
In training that I have done over the past several years, there is one aspect of 4-Blocks that is always more difficult to convince teachers to try. Once they try it, they're more than convinced by the ease with which it works and by the success their students have--something they would never have believed. But, it's the convincing that is hard.
Yes, there are many experts in the field of reading and literacy who are adamant in their belief that children must be in ability groups for reading instruction and for reading practice to be effective. Those same experts cast aspersions at a model such as 4-Blocks where a teacher can manage the same text with a heterogeneous group of children. They can be convincing in their pleas that, "you just can't teach kids of varying reading abilities with the same text and get results."
There is, however, a clear defense of the 4-Blocks way of doing things. First is the rationale that the Guided Reading Block is only one of four approaches to reading. For the experts who say that kids must have an opportunity to read at their own levels, a 4-Blocks teacher can wholeheartedly agree and can point out that this occurs in the 4-Blocks classroom. Daily during the Self-Selected Reading Block, students have an opportunity to read at their own levels, encouraged through individual, one-on-one conferences with the teacher. For the Self-Selected Readng Block, teachers must stock the book crates at each table with books of varied reading levels, genres, topics, and authors. At the lower grades, there should be wordless books, books with predictable text and few words on the page, as well as tradebooks with less predictable text and some chapter books--something for everyone's needs.
During the Guided Reading Block the teacher chooses printed materials that are on grade level for approximately three days of the week and printed materials that are below grade level for about two days. Is this block, then, of any benefit to the students who are higher achievers in the classroom? Absolutely! The goal of this block is to increase comprehension and fluency with text. Both of those goals can be met by the higher achievers using materials that are below their own reading levels. Whereas some students may be struggling with meaning and decoding the text, the high achiever may be reading and rereading for fluency. Additionally, the higher achiever will have the opportunity to receive direct instruction during the Guided Reading Block in a comprehension skill or strategy that can be applied to any level of text. These skills and strategies remain the same when applied to an easy type of expository text or to a very difficult piece of expository text.
Another reason for the success of the 4-Blocks Guided Reading Block is that all students are reading for the entire block every day. Instead of orchestrating centers and "meaningful" seatwork (an oxymoron?) for some students while the teacher works with one group of students, in 4-Blocks the students are all reading in varied formats. The 4-Blocks teacher has several choices to make daily about the level of support students need with the particular text of that day. She can give them maximum support by a teacher read-aloud or strong support through choral, echo, or shared reading. Then, she weens the students of her direct help by allowing them to practice what has been supported. They are grouped in partners, playschool groups or small, flexible groups--with ALL reading the same text.
The management of the 4-Blocks Guided Reading is far easier than the ability grouping with centers advocated in some reading models. In 4-Blocks, the teacher concentrates on one book, one whole-group mini-lesson, one joint building of prior knowledge to the subject to be read, one purpose setting statement for all students. The teacher can be freed of a group to monitor the reading of any or all students and to make anecdotal notes while the students are reading. The flow of the lesson can be seamless from introduction to reading to the closure activity, tying the pre-reading, during reading and post-reading together.
Another advantage--and perhaps the greatest advantage--that 4-Blocks guided reading has over ability or leveled reading groups is that it is unnecessary to label children as the "eagles," "the bluebirds," or the "buzzards." Everyone reads the same book (with the exception of weeks when Book Club is the format) and everyone learns to nurture and support everyone else. Any model that attempts to eradicate practices that discriminate against or among children is worth a try!