Article #4
A Matter of Timing
Cheryl M. Sigmon

Let's talk this week about the FAQ, "No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to get everything in that I'm told I need to get in during the 4-Blocks. What am I doing wrong?" So many teachers make this comment when they're taking their first steps with the model. The pacing of instruction for this model is often quite different from the prior instructional format that a teacher has used. The pacing is a critical element. You must move fast enough to engage all students and fast enough to get in each block for an equitable amount of time daily. Here are some suggestions that may help you to stay within the time frame:

  1. Get a timer and use it! A timer is a must for a 4-Blocks classroom, especially while you are getting accustomed to the new structure of your language arts time. Each block will have approximately 30-40 minutes when you have it up and going "full blast," though you may need all of September and a bit of October to get to that stage. When your timer goes off, you don't need to drop everything you're doing, but you'll need to learn to quickly bring it to closure and provide transition to the next block.
  2. Don't worry that you're leaving some kids behind in a block because of the brisk pacing. The blocks are structured as they are to provide balance and support that address the needs of different learners with varied learning styles. Where some children may not get full benefit from the Words Block because they are less auditory and don't hear the sounds the way other kids hear them, they may excel in the Guided Reading Block and the Self-Selected Reading Block when they interact with text in its entirety. Where some kids aren't able to build all of the words in a Making Words lesson on their own, they will benefit from building the word when the teacher builds it in the pocket chart as they cross-check their response. If you gear down the blocks so that every child completes every activity, you will surely lose the quicker learners and the higher achievers. Trust that the blocks are multi-level and have something to offer every student--but not the same thing for every student.
  3. In your Guided Reading Block, be aware that you will have 3 days to cover your grade-level selection and 2 days to cover your selection on an easier level at the lower grades. You should have time for reading and rereading. Be sure that you're sticking to teaching only comprehension skills during this time. Many teachers fall into the habit of feeling that all of the skills they once taught during their reading time prior to this model still need to be included. Another block (Words Block) exists to teach and support the decoding skills and strategies that are necessary for good readers. Still another block (Self-Selected Reading) exists for students to practice reading at their own levels. The Writing Block will allow your students to apply their phonetic understanding, listening to sounds as they construct their own compositions. Let all of the blocks share the load of what you once tried to accomplish during Guided Reading.
  4. In your Self-Selected Reading Block, your conferences may be the reason for going beyond the time limit. If so, then think about these things:
    • Be sure to pre-plan which students you'll be conferencing with. Many teachers assign their students to a day of the week for conferencing. So, on each day of the week, you'll know exactly how many kids you'll meet with individually. Divide the total time for conferences by the number of students for that day, and then hold yourself to that amount of time for each student. That will usually be 4-5 students divided into approximately 20 minutes which means about 4 minutes per student. If you plan carefully, you can get a lot of ground covered in that small amount of time.
    • Organize your record keeping system so that the folders or records for each student are quickly and easily accessible for beginning your conferences without any loss of time.
    • Don't try to accomplish too much during your conferences. You'll want to keep the conversation as informal as possible. Let the students know what it's like to have a literary conversation, just like adults like to have. For example, you'll want to ask, "How do you like your book?" "Why did you choose that book?" "Would you recommend that book to your friends?" "Tell me a little about what's happening in your book." You might want them to read a page or two or a paragraph or two. Also, you might want to focus on a particular skill/element that you've been instructing, such as "Where does your story take place? How did you know that? Can you read something from your story to me that will show me how you know your story takes place there?"
  1. If the Writing Block is where you're getting off track, you may want to be sure that you're allowing the students to write at their own pace. If you haven't been engaging students in a writers' workshop format before, you may even feel that you're not "in control" of the class at first since every child will not be writing on the same topic and at the same stage of the writing process on a given day. Model for them daily and then let them write for 15-20 minutes. It's a good thing if they can't finish what they're writing in a day. For one thing, it makes them more eager to return to what they were writing the next day. For another thing, it helps them learn to revise and extend their writing if they know your expectation is not to have them complete each piece daily. Realize that giving them responsibility for what they write and for when they write is one of our ultimate goals as teachers. We're always supporting them and moving them towards being independent writers. Also, we don't spell for them as they write--another step towards independence! They're actually getting to apply their knowledge about phonics every day during this time.
Don't despair if you don't have the routine down perfectly at this point in the year. Getting the timing down to a science is an ambitious goal. This model is not meant to be taught by robots! You should plan a little "wiggle room" for days when the sharing needs to extend a minute or two beyond what you planned or when the kids are just on the brink of figuring out the big word in Making Words. You've got to use some common sense about when to move on. However, if you strive towards having each block run 30-40 minutes daily, you'll ensure that every child will be exposed to each of the methods by which he or she WILL learn to read. If you slight a block or omit it all together, you may be denying a child what he needs to succeed. None of us want that to happen.

So, set your timers and let's practice. I think we can get it all done!

4 Blocks Goodies