Article #3
Keeping the 4-Blocks Model in its Original Format
Cheryl M. Sigmon

Far too often lately, I talk to teachers and administrators who proclaim that they're "doing" the 4-Blocks Model but that they've decided to change some things about it. Sometimes those things are very minute, and that's okay if it doesn't really change the intent of the blocks. However, some of the adaptations that seem minor may have a major impact on the delivery and on the results of the model. This week I want to look at a few changes I've heard mentioned and to offer my rationale for why you should reconsider and what you might expect otherwise.

We're doing the 4-Blocks Model, BUT...

We don't have 2 1/4 hours for our language arts time.

Let's face it--If we truly value the literacy development of our children and feel that their future academic success depends on whether they can speak, read, write, and listen with proficiency, then we WILL find the 2 1/4 hours in our school day to ensure that it happens! We certainly don't want to exclude other content knowledge; however, the 4-Blocks Model offers endless opportunities to integrate the content from science, math, social studies, health and any other areas. Let's look at the school day and decide how best to organize the schedule to achieve what we must. It can be done still leaving adequate time for math, music, art, physical education, computers, library, lunch, recess, etc. Rather than allowing our days to be dictated by bus schedules, cafeteria shifts, and other logistical scheduling, we must let our school day accommodate, first and foremost, the teaching and learning that is best for teachers and children.

We've made the model better and added a fifth block to "our" model!

I've seen two aberrations of the model lately that have concerned me. One was a large school district that proudly announced that they had detected an instructional gap in the 4-Blocks Model. They felt that the children were not being instructed on their on reading levels during the day, especially the higher-achieving children. So, they decided to add a block that looks suspiciously like the traditional three reading groups. (Yikes!) Sadly enough, I feel that this district has had a major gap in their understanding about the 4-Blocks Model and the balance that is achieved by all four blocks. Although they need a full-blown inservice training to help them clearly understand the philosophy of the blocks, I'll try to offer a 25-words-or-less rationale as food for thought.

First, one intent of the 4-Blocks Model is to meet the individual needs of children without labeling them--eagles, redbirds, and buzzards. Research shows that those labels don't disappear and children rarely change "nests" throughout their educational careers. This model has expectations that ALL children will learn to read and write. However, knowing that all children do not come to our classrooms with the same experiences or the same personalities, the model is multilevel (and compassionate) and takes children wherever they are and moves them forward. If you have a 4-Blocks classroom or have visited a good 4-Blocks classroom, you are bound to be struck by the feeling of a real community of learners, children, not just tolerant of their differences, but who care about one another and who want to learn and discover together. Needless to say, creating a 5th block of reading groups is totally contrary to the philosophy.

Second, the 4-Blocks Model is multilevel and does address individual differences among children of various achievement levels. Pat Cunningham has clearly stated on many occasions that if the Guided Reading Block were the only block of her model intended to teach reading we could not in good conscience continue with such a model as it would have definite gaps. The premise, however, of the 4-Blocks Model is that there are four different ways to teach reading--hence the four different blocks--and each block has something to offer each student. The multilevel, multi-approach is what makes this model successful. In the Guided Reading Block at the lower grades, we work approximately 3 days with on grade-level text and 2 days with below grade level text. Students who are above grade level still have these advantages: 1) being taught the teacher-directed comprehension mini-lesson which can be applied to any level of material; 2) applying the taught skill or strategy to the reading that day; 3) developing their fluency while other students may be struggling a bit with decoding; 4) participating in partner or play school groups; and 5) participating in the closure segment aligned to the mini-lesson and which often allows their creativity to blossom. Both during Self-Selected Reading Block and in planned opportunities for flexible small group and individual meetings with the teacher, those higher achieving children can and do read on their own levels and receive individual instruction. Likewise, the lower-achieving children will receive individual and small group instruction, will read at their level and conference with the teacher during SSR Block, and will read and write at their own level during the Writing Block. As with all models, we are still charged with finding time during a day to offer intervention or pre-intervention as children need it--for the higher and lower achieving children.

In summary, we've got to be willing to try something new. People who are creating the 5th block, in my estimation, either don't fully understand the 4-Blocks Model or either they lack faith that it does what it says it can do--meet the individual needs of ALL children in a heterogeneous classroom. There is research to demonstrate that the 4-Blocks Model is effective in moving the higher achieving children forward. In fact, one major research project proved that those children who previously were ranked in the upper third performance level made the greatest gains! This is not a remedial model.

(Sorry that this was considerably longer than the 25-words-or-less explanation that I intended, but it's still not a full inservice!)

We've decided to teach our vocabulary on the Word Wall, too!

Please, please, please don't do that! The Word Wall is really held sacred for high-frequency or frequently misspelled words that need to be quickly accessible to children. These are the words that we tell them they must always spell correctly. I don't really care if "superconductor" or "invertebrate" are always spelled correctly. It would be nice, but it's just not where I'm putting my emphasis. You'll greatly water down the effect of your whole Word Wall by putting words other than those for which it was intended. Use other places in your room for thematically related words, compound words, content words, seasonal words, etc. Also, don't clutter the walls with those other words. Change out the seasonal words when it's no longer that season. Keep the cluster charts "fresh" and "inspiring" if you want children to use them as resources for their writing.

Also, let's be sure that we understand the difference between spelling and vocabulary. Spelling is a writing skill and vocabulary is a reading skill. This is not to say that we don't want children to use 50-cent words (good vocabulary words) in their writing. But, in our writing we teach them to write it down the way it sounds for your first draft and later to look it up to be sure it's spelled correctly (or to use Spell Check!). Isn't that what we do in our adult jobs? It is the mark, however, of a literate person to spell and use high-frequency words correctly.

Our principal wants the Self-Selected Reading Block to occur the last 30 minutes of the day so that the children can wind down before getting on the buses. So we don't have time to conference with our students during SSR Block.

The conference time during SSR Block is one of the most valuable components of the 4-Blocks Model. You must have this time to work one-on-one with students daily for a number of reasons. First and foremost, you just need to have a few minutes to talk individually with your children throughout the week and to see them as individuals rather than as a class. Sometimes that might be the only time a child interacts with an adult, when they're given undivided attention. Also, that's the time a teacher will use to individually encourage a child to read and to read at their level. It's also a time for the teacher to assess where the child is in his or her development of reading. That insight allows the teacher to make many professional choices about what direction his/her instruction will take and what plan she/he will have for this particular child.

This is valuable time. Don't compromise it by relegating it to a time of day that is less than ideal. If you know you're going to be interrupted by the intercom, helping a student gather his things to leave early, talking to a parent who has come by to get a student early or a number of other everyday end-of-the-day occurrences, then don't schedule this block for this time.

We're trying to do the model, but we don't have any books besides the basal.

4-Blocks is not a commercial program, and that's one thing that first attracted me to it. No one was out to sell me any expensive kits, software, or packets. However, it is necessary to have an adequate supply of books in every 4-Blocks classroom. Besides the basal (if that's what your core program is), you must have below grade-level books for the Guided Reading Block. During SSR Block, you must have lots and lots of books representing varied reading levels, genres, authors, and topics. Appealing books should be attractively displayed all over the classroom to invite and beckon children to read.

This is not just a 4-Blocks requirement. Any and every good language arts program should provide ready access to an abundant supply of books, magazines, and other printed materials for all children. You can start small if that's the only way you can get started (make your own easy pattern books, go to garage sales, etc.), but you must devise some long-range plan to get books into classrooms and libraries. Go to businesses and PTAs to ask for books and take a long, serious look at your school/district budget to see where you can find money for books. It's a priority, and we usually find money for what we truly value.

Our children all return to their homeroom teachers for the Self-Selected Reading Block each day.

Yes, there are some schools, which even at the elementary school level are departmentalized. There is a wide body of research to support that children are best served through a self-contained classroom at the elementary level. It cuts down on wasted transition time, gives little kids only one person whose expectations they must learn and follow, and gives teachers/schools a more optimal chance to teach the whole child (to see all of the child's needs, strengths, weaknesses). Aside from this particular discussion, there is also a major problem with children returning to a teacher who is not the primary person responsible for language arts/literacy instruction and development. The SSR Block, as discussed above, is the time for the teacher to have a conference individually with each child throughout the week. This is when she assesses the growth--or lack of growth--of this child and plans her strategy for helping this student along the growth continuum. She must know if this is a child whose needs may not be met as far as reading level during the Guided Reading Block and must take this opportunity to encourage him towards certain books, levels, topics, genres. The homeroom teacher, who may be a very capable person, is not likely to be the person who needs the valuable insight into this child. Keeping the blocks under one teacher's direction is the optimal plan.

These are only a few of the variations I've seen to the 4-Blocks in schools I've visited or that I've heard from teachers on the mailring and elsewhere. Some of the aberrations are under the control of the teacher. Some are not. More and more I'm finding modifications that are made by an administrator who is, probably, well-meaning but uninformed. If you're part of the amen chorus of teachers who are trying to implement the 4-Blocks but who are meeting obstacles thrown in your path by administrators (Bless you!), then you can hand over this column to your principal and/or district staff person with the following paragraph highlighted:

Administrators, listen! The 4-Blocks Model is a research-based literacy model, proven to be effective for ALL children. Please give us (your teachers) the support we need to deliver the program we feel will make our children successful in their language and literacy development. Please have the school schedule accommodate the model, rather than requiring us to accommodate all of those logistical things that are necessary but that are not what cause kids to learn and achieve (i.e., bus arrival and departure, lunch schedule, announcements that interrupt, inadequate funding, etc.). Please provide us with the training we need to be successful with the model, and please attend all of the training with us so that, through your understanding of the model, we will have the support we need.

If you do the model the way it's designed, you're almost assured of results you'll be excited about. But, if you've decided to change the model for whatever reason, you may not see the results you hoped for. If that happens, please promise me that you won't say, "4-Blocks just didn't work at our school!"

4 Blocks Goodies