Article #11
Where Are All Those Things We Once Taught?
Cheryl M. Sigmon

Many teachers have voiced concerns that some of the traditional subjects we used to teach are not apparent in the 4-Blocks Model. Last week we discussed one of those subjects, spelling, and found that it was alive and well, just not taught as a separate part of language arts. This week, let's discuss two other traditional subjects that some teachers fear have been overlooked in this model: handwriting and grammar. Not to fear! As you probably guessed, they are both integral parts of the model, integrated in a context that makes more sense to students. Let's explore!

First, many parents, community members and educators lament the fact that handwriting has not been stressed of late and that there has been a marked decline in penmanship as a result. Some of the decline may be a sign of the times since technology has made polished products so easy. Teachers now in many high schools and, certainly, in most higher education institutes require that students' final drafts be published on the computer. Instruction in keyboarding has taken the place of time spent drilling the traditional pages of neatly written letters of the alphabet. There's no use debating that issue, though. It is quite apparent that there has always been and will always remain a need for the educated man to write in cursive and/or manuscript. (Just which one--cursive or manuscript--we also won't debate here!) The 4-Blocks Model has not ignored that fact.

Our most formal handwriting instruction takes place during the Word Wall activity daily. Just as with our other practices, we integrate it into the instruction and into the application and practice that we provide for our students. Usually the school year begins by introducing the names of all students in the class, one per day, and then moving into introducing five new high frequency words each week. Whether with a child's name or with a high frequency word, we clap, snap and chant it, and then we write the word on lined paper. The teacher offers a good model of the word on the overhead projector or on the board or chart at the front of the class. The teacher's transparency, board or chart has lines similar to the one used by the children--first grade lined paper with its blue and red colors and with the solid and dashed lines or regular lined paper for the older children showing the margins and spacing as appropriate. Each letter modeled for the children is meticulously made, and the teacher talks aloud as she or he forms the letters, "The letter goes 'upstairs' above the line and then comes back down to the line. This letter goes 'downstairs' and then back up to the line. Now check to see if what you've written looks just like mine." The children are asked to crosscheck their work according to what the teacher has produced. Each child usually does this checking with a red pencil. If corrections need to be made, the teacher asks that the change be made with the red pencil, rather than erasing and slowing the pace of the lesson. (This also prevents the huge mess usually made by primary children when they attempt to erase--inevitably leaving large holes in the paper and then wanting to get another sheet of paper to start over!)

Next during this Word Wall activity, the teacher asks the students to draw a line around the word outlining its configuration. This configuration is an important aid to some students who will recognize a word primarily by this clue. Again, the teacher calls attention to the letters that require going "upstairs" and "downstairs." And, again, the students must cross-check their work with the teacher's and must change whatever needs to be changed with the red pencil. The teacher will have this record of each child's attempt to form their letters the very best that they can. Additional practice can be assigned to some children who need it. Daily during the Word Wall segment of Words Block, children will likely have opportunities to use their handwriting skills to practice writing words, both new and old WW words.

Some teachers feel that the Writing Block is another good opportunity to teach handwriting. However, something should be considered about that practice. It is not practical for any of us to use our best handwriting in our first draft attempts at writing. When the teacher models writing daily, this is almost exclusively done as a first draft effort. The teacher will want to stress that the students must write legibly for it to be read back by themselves and others when peer revising is done, but "best" handwriting is not necessary at this time. We want to be honest and authentic in our requirements.

There are undoubtedly other times that a teacher will be providing good models of handwriting and will take the opportunity to stress its importance. The morning message, although impromptu, is one of those times. Such a short message is not one that requires going through the stages of the writing process. It serves a different purpose.

Now, moving on to the other subject which some fear is omitted from the model--grammar instruction. For those of us who have taught above first grade, we always wonder (maybe sometimes a bit facetiously) why the previous teacher did not spend any time instructing points of grammar: parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.), usage, and conventions of mechanics and punctuation. Often, right up through high school, teachers wonder every single year: Why hasn't anyone taught these students grammar? Or, why don't these kids remember anything about what they've learned?

Basically, research reveals that students do not value or retain grammar taught in isolation devoid of any context that gives it purpose and makes it meaningful. What importance does grammar play in their real world lives? Putting grammar instruction into the context of that authentic purpose can mean the difference between reteaching grammar every year and in offering direct instruction on it only once and then allowing the students to practice and apply that newly learned skill in increasing more difficult materials.

What is the best context in which these skills should be taught? Writing is the definite answer! Writing is the "real world" context for grammar skills. Once students see that there really is a reason to know correct verb tenses, to have the subject and verb agree, to vary sentence structure, to use vivid adjectives and powerful verbs, then--and only then--will they store this information in their long-term memory and retrieve it each and every time they write and speak.

Because the teacher models daily, the opportunity is available to manipulate this writing to make and correct errors which the teacher realizes the students must learn to correct in their own writing. There is also the opportunity through the mini-lesson to teach a writing skill explicitly. "Something is not quite right about the verbs I've used in my writing. Here I've used the word 'ran' and here I've used 'run.'" "My sentences are so short and choppy. Maybe I can combine these two sentences into one with the same information and make my story more interesting." "I need to use some adjectives to describe this sunset or else my reader just won't be able to picture it." These are the things real writers think about as they compose, and it's the way the children will begin to think once it's part of the daily modeling provided for them.

There is truly not a grammar skill that cannot be taught--and taught more effectively--in the context of real writing. The traditional practice of having students copy and complete isolated exercises, one after the other, of sentences that drill a particular convention is antiquated and ineffective. There could be some value in using some of the exercises for practice on three conditions: 1) that direct, explicit instruction precede the practice; 2) that the practice be necessary (It is not likely that all students will need the practice; the practice should be assigned only to those students actually needing it.); and 3) that the practice be something with which the students can be reasonably successful (otherwise, the instruction has not been complete and thorough).

So, we are now quite clear that grammar, handwriting, and spelling are integral parts of the 4-Blocks Model. The approach to the teaching and learning of these subjects is a bit less traditional but has proven to be successful. Kids in our 4-Blocks classrooms understand that these subjects have real world application for them. They are willingly receptive to the learning of these concepts, and they realize that their growth and development in these subjects makes them better readers and writers.

4 Blocks Goodies