Article #16
Kindergarten: Building Blocks, Not 4-Blocks!
Cheryl M. Sigmon
This week I would like to share an article I wrote for the journal of South Carolina's Council of International Reading Association, Reading Matters. It was printed in the Spring 1998 issue and is offered here to assist those of you who are thinking of an appropriate kindergarten literacy program to support your primary 4-Blocks program. 

Standardized test scores are on the rise--even in content areas other than reading/language arts (Students can actually read the test!). Discipline is better in classes with students actively engaged in learning. Teachers and administrators are collaborating like never before, focusing on careful and successful implementation. The 4-Blocks Model has been sweeping the nation, bringing a renewal of enthusiasm and energy to all in its path. So, what kind of problems could possibly be inherent in such a phenomenon? Educators have a tendency to over-generalize: if something works this well at first and second grade, then it must be equally effective at the other grades. The 4-Blocks Model, in fact, has proven successful at third grade and above with appropriate modifications. The greatest problem at this point in time seems to be what is occurring at the kindergarten level where many people have attempted to transfer the model with slight modifications.

As background, the 4-Blocks Model was created by Dr. Patricia Cunningham, a professor at Wake Forest University, and was piloted in the late 80's in one classroom in North Carolina with the assistance and guidance of Dr. Dottie Hall, Curriculum Coordinator and Margaret DeFee, then a first grade teacher. Proving successful for that first grade classroom, the model quickly spread to other teachers at Clemmons Elementary School, and years later, has been discovered by South Carolina schools and by other schools and districts around the country which have experienced equally encouraging results. The model is based on the premise that there are four basic approaches to teach reading, and the instructional plan ensures that all children are exposed to all four methods every day. The model can easily be implemented at grades 1 and 2 just as it was designed. At the upper grades, adaptations must be made to accommodate the level of sophistication and difficulty of the curriculum and for the developmental differences of the children. At these grades, the model is still built around the four basic blocks, though the blocks are more complex.

With the success of the 4-Blocks Model at first grade, teachers were eager for a kindergarten model that would provide a smooth transition into the first grade classroom and which would provide a foundation for the teaching and learning theory of 4-Blocks. Realizing the developmental differences of young children, Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Dorothy Hall, along with experimental kindergarten teacher, Elaine Williams, designed a model which they call Building Blocks for the kindergarten. Building Blocks does not offer the tight structured approach of 4-Blocks but is an appropriate companion and precursor to the 4-Blocks. This kindergarten instructional plan revolves around several concepts of emergent literacy development.

What are the similarities between the Building Blocks and the 4-Blocks models? Elements of each of the four blocks are integrated throughout the kindergarten day. Just as in the guided reading block in the primary grades, kindergartners learn concepts of print, of story, and of genre and learn basics of the reading process as the teacher reads to them and with them. Time is provided during the day for children to pretend-read books as in self-selected reading. Additionally, opportunities are plentiful for children to experiment with writing at their own developmental stage and to see writing modeled similar to how that occurs in the writing block of 4-Blocks. Children are also introduced to letters, sounds, rhymes, and word level concepts as in the word block.

Extending beyond the basic format of the blocks, the similarities of the two models include the high level of engagement of the students, the literate-home simulated environment, and the same sensitivity to developmental differences and varied learning styles.

What, then, are the major differences between Building Blocks and 4-Blocks? First and most obvious, the instructional time in Building Blocks is not divided into four segments of time. To accommodate very young children, the kindergarten teacher must provide a different kind of instructional day, planning high and low energy activities back-to-back throughout the day. A succession of activities in the morning might occur as follows: 1) children may all gather around the teacher to watch the teacher compose and read a brief morning message (low energy); 2) children march around the alphabet (high energy); 3) students contribute to a structured language experience by dictating their patterned sentence to the teacher (low energy); and 4) they have center time (high energy).

Besides the consideration of energy levels, the teacher must plan her day to include the fundamental Building Blocks instructional goals as follows:

  1. Desire to Learn to Read and Write: Create an environment where all students see themselves becoming independent readers and writers through a variety of developmentally appropriate activities.
  2. Language Concepts: Foster the ability to read and write words through the use of morning messages, journal entries, sentence building activities, and environmental print.
  3. Print Concepts: Teach print concepts by modeling how to write and participating in shared reading and shared writing experiences.
  4. Phonemic Awareness: Develop phonemic awareness, including the concept of rhyme, through activities with poetry, rhyming books, tongue twisters, and playing with language.
  5. Interesting Words: Extend the list of real-life words that students find personally relevant, such as favorite restaurant names, favorite cartoon characters, and family members.
  6. Letters and Sounds: Encourage letter and sound recognition through activities with alphabet books, beginning and ending sounds, and shared writing of predictable charts.
(Cunningham and Hall, Month-by-Month Reading and Writing for Kindergarten, Carson-Dellosa Publishing, Inc., 1997) Some teachers have found that the best and easiest way to think about these concepts and to plan for their inclusion in the school day is simply by
    • reading to children
    • reading by children
    • reading with children
    • writing for children
    • writing by children
    • writing with children, and
    • planning for awareness of rhyme, print, letters, and sounds.
This may be a bit over-simplified, but remains a good rule-of-thumb for daily planning. (Cunningham, Hall 1997)

For those teachers implementing the Building Blocks Model at kindergarten, there are other do's and don'ts of implementation in keeping with principles of appropriate early childhood education. Kindergarten Building Blocks classrooms...

  • Should provide only short amounts of whole group or small group time with children seated at tables.
  • Should expect and allow some freedom of movement even when children are in whole or small groups.
  • Should allow frequent opportunities for children to interact with each other and with the teacher. Appropriate oral communication is critical and is expected of young children.
  • Should include shared reading, mostly using big books and emphasizing print concepts, comprehension, and enjoyment. Students at kindergarten will not be engaged in the same kind of guided, paired reading with multiple copies of text that one might observe in a 4-Blocks classroom.
  • Should include opportunities to see practical purposes for writing and to engage in real writing or driting (drawing and labeling) activities. Teachers are not encouraged to start a formal, whole group writing segment of time for self-generated writing topics until second semester or spring of kindergarten if students appear to be ready for this. By that time, children will understand that writing is telling and will have had numerous opportunities to experiment with writing.
  • Should not include worksheets of drilled practice.
  • Should not include formal handwriting instruction.
  • Should not require that students copy text. Some children will want to copy letters or words that are on display around the room, but this practice should be optional.
  • Should not include a traditional Word Wall like the one used at grades one and above. If a Word Wall is used at all, the only words appropriate for the Word Wall are students' names and environmental print (restaurants' names, etc.) with which the children have a close personal association. Some teachers create a chart of a very limited number of words (a maximum of approximately 10) during the second semester, containing high frequency words to which the children have been continuously exposed (i.e., he, she, was, is, the, a,...) and which would be helpful to know readily as they enter first grade.
  • Should not expect kindergarten students to attend to self-selected reading for extended periods of time. 10-15 minutes might be a reasonable goal.
  • Should not include Making Words activities just like the ones at first grade and above. An appropriate Making Words activity at kindergarten would use words with which the children are familiar and would likely involve having children "be" the word by standing with other children and holding a letter or might involve a group activity of cutting apart and putting together letters of children's names or environmental print.
One additional critical component of the Building Blocks classroom is the inclusion of centers. First grade should also have centers for children; however, those centers will not be used to the extent that they are in kindergarten, nor with the regularity of kindergarten. In kindergarten, generous time should be allowed for children to explore in free-choice centers; however, some academic centers of short duration should also be included to encourage children to explore concepts of the core curricular areas. On Mondays, the teacher may take advantage of the circle time to briefly describe what children will accomplish in each of the planned academic centers that week. Then, when center time arrives, assigned children will visit one academic center for, perhaps, 15-20 minutes and will then move to free choice centers for the next hour. Children will rotate among the academic centers daily until all are visited throughout the week. An example of one academic center in the area of mathematics might be a table containing graphs and cereal of various shapes where the small group of children graph the numbers of each shape of cereal together.

Sometimes there is a fine line between what is and isnot age and individually appropriate for young children. It is important to acknowledge, though, that there are developmental differences between children and that accommodating those differences as best we, as educators, can is critical. The Building Blocks Model is an appropriate instructional model for the kindergarten classroom, and, although it is less structured and routine than 4-Blocks, it is a model worth learning and implementing. It can mean all the difference in a smooth transition to the first grade with a foundation in basics that will help young children be successful.

4 Blocks Goodies