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
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
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!"