Article #42
SSR Block: Keeping Them Engaged
Cheryl M. Sigmon

A letter came to me from Kristi last week telling me that she has plunged right in to implementing all four blocks this year and that she's refining them now. She was most encouraged about her early implementation and shared that, "I have shared a lot with the teachers at my school about the real 4 blocks. I really have more energy each day. The kids even say that the day goes by really fast.!" What a great testimony when the kids even say that a day goes by quickly! Kristi went on to say that she was puzzled about one fine point of her Self-Selected Reading Block that keeps that block from running as smoothly as she would like for it to: "What can I do to get the kids really reading and not just looking through the books quickly. I haven't begun conferencing with them yet. I wanted them to get used to the reading block itself."

That's certainly not an unusual question, especially for this time of the year in early implementation. Many of you may be finding that your kids are quickly thumbing through books, replacing them in the book basket, thumbing through another one, and so on. As you watch them, they may not even focus their eyes on the print on the pages of their books. Again, not so unusual, but there could be a solution for this common problem. Let's explore what's happening here and how we might solve this!

  1. Especially in first grade, many children have no concept of what the squiggly lines on the pages mean. Additionally, many of them don't know other necessary print concepts--tracking left to right, what's the top and bottom of the page, what stories are all about, how expository text is structured so differently from narrative text, along with dozens of other print and language concepts. With these kids we must be patient, but we must also be diligent in our effort to build these basic concepts that they are lacking. Including lots of read-alouds, using some structured language activities (a core Building Blocks activity), engaging kids in Being the Words in sentence building, and other similar activities will help to build this basic conceptual knowledge. Remember again that all three of the other blocks in the 4-Blocks Model are helping to build the necessary foundation.
  2. Within the Self-Selected Reading Block, a solution for these kids might be to be sure that you have adequately modeled for your kids the 3 ways that they can all read during this time. This is especially important if you have many weak readers who can't read any or many real words. They must know that there is a type of reading that they can rely upon until they can read all of the real words. You need to make all three ways of reading equally acceptable for them. Each day when you read aloud to the kids as your introduction to SSR Block, alternate between these methods, phrasing your method carefully so that kids don't feel that any method is less satisfactory. Reviewing the ways that kids can read:

    First, kids can read through a picture walk. When you model this with your read-aloud, start by saying, "Today I think I'll read the pictures instead of the words. Do you know that sometimes it's harder to read the pictures than to read the words?" Of course you'll want to be sure that you have selected a book with a story that is easily told through the pictures to model this. As you show the pictures, tell the story to the kids from what can be guessed through looking at the pictures. Don't get too elaborate as you're modeling what you expect kids to be able to do!

    The second method is by retelling a familiar story. Here you must choose a book that is a familiar folk tale or fairy tale or one that has previously been read in the class. You'll need to be aware that some of your children have not come to you having had "lap experiences" with their parents that would give them a rich store of the traditional Cinderella, Billy Goats Gruff, Three Little Pigs, Little Miss Muffet kind of background. For those kids, reading aloud many good books will be critical. Upon completion of a read-aloud, consider placing the book directly in the hands of a struggling reader, saying, "Here. Would you like to start with this book today?" Usually that student is quite honored to get the "blessed book" before all of the other students have a chance, and he/she has the background and support from your read-aloud to be able to enjoy it. (Not to mention that it solves the problem of having all the other kids fight over who's going to get the book that you've just read!)

    The third way kids can be engaged in books during this time is, of course, through reading all the real words. We do have kids coming to us in kindergarten and in first grade already equipped to do this.

  3. Another solution to consider stems from the fact that some of your kids may not have had this opportunity to make their own choices about reading. They don't yet know how to appreciate this opportunity or how fully to take advantage of it. For these children, we need to model exactly how to stay engaged in a book, helping them understand in concrete terms what you expect. Because we take the first few weeks of school to get the kids focused and in the routine of SSR Block before getting started with our conferences, this is the ideal time to move table to table (maybe a different table each day) providing a good model. We pull up a chair, look through the book basket, carefully select a book, and slowly enjoy each page, reading the words and/or studying the pictures to the very end of the book. After considerable (and reasonable) time, we replace that book and make another careful choice, repeating the process. This is the time we are setting our expectations, even without uttering a single word.

  5. Look carefully at the variety of readability levels in your book baskets to see that they are appropriate for your children at each table. You must have enough easy, average, hard books; enough different genres; enough variety in topics and authors. Look carefully to see if you've covered all of these bases adequately.

  7. Related to the last question, do you know your kids well enough to know that you have provided books on topics in which they're interested? Try keeping a list of their interests from your conversations with them or from administering interest surveys to them. Then, choose books accordingly that you just know they'll want to read.

Especially if kids haven't had the freedom of self-selecting their own materials or the time to read books in class, it may take a while before those kids understand what this block is all about. In our profession, unfortunately, we've been rather guilty of conditioning kids to think that there must always be a pencil-paper type of test or a grade assigned to everything they do. Just sitting and enjoying a book doesn't seem right to them. Maybe some of them are still trying to figure what our angle is! Once they understand, they will grow to appreciate this time. Hang in there! It will happen.

4 Blocks Goodies