Article #66
4-Blocks through Centers: Is It a Good Idea?
Cheryl M. Sigmon

There has been quite a bit of discussion lately on the mailring about whether 4-Blocks could possibly be delivered through centers rather than with the whole class. The original post, I believe, came from someone who was proposing 4-Blocks in smaller mixed groups, rather than in centers, but from there, the discussion evolved. There were really two main issues being debated: 1) Could 4-Blocks be taught in small groups---not necessarily centers, but with the teacher directing the small groups. 2) Could the use of centers provide a balanced approach to literacy, facilitated by the teacher? Let's discuss both of these issues to see what the benefits might be and explore whether these approaches provide optimal learning conditions for students.

First, could 4-Blocks be taught in small groups rather than with the whole classroom of students? There seem to be two distinct advantages to working with small groups of children. One advantage of small group instruction would be to accommodate individual needs and differences. Another clear advantage would be the special bond created when students and the teacher are working closely together---close enough for much direct eye contact, for more interact and direct feedback, and for appropriate touching and words of encouragement. There are several reasons, however, that many teachers would still opt for the 4-Blocks way of teaching and why they feel that they can compensate for the small group benefits.

  • Time management is definitely one of the top reasons. Customarily with small groups, the teacher delivers direct instruction several times---sometimes changing the lessons and often delivering the same lesson several times. Having a teacher run around the room delivering the same Guided Reading mini-lesson three, four or five times to small groups seems a management nightmare when that teacher could more easily and efficiently (perhaps even more effectively!) gather the students together and present the same lesson one time. Teaching the lesson several times is working hard but not necessarily working smart! There are not many lessons that we would teach students in small groups that could not make good mini-lessons for the whole class. That's due to the nature of our discipline---language arts. It is a spiraling curriculum, which means that we continue to teach many of the same skills year after year, having students apply them to more and more sophisticated materials. This concept applies not only to students at different grade levels but also to students of varying achievement levels within the same grade level.
  • Additionally, if we discuss the issue of the teacher working with small groups, we must include the downside as well. What are all of the other students doing while the teacher is working with the small group? Whether the solution is seatwork or centers, that solution is created mainly as busywork for the majority so that the teacher's attention can be focused on the small group. And, busywork is just that---busywork. It can be fun; it can offer some reinforcement for what is being learning, but it is still busywork. With 4-Blocks, absolutely no busywork is needed---not ever!
  • Some teachers express that they feel the need to be "in control" a bit more than seems to occur during several of the blocks in 4-Blocks. They feel that they must be with small groups, encouraging the kind of interaction that only a small group can afford, but also directing the learning process. Although that close proximity and interaction is necessary---at least on occasions, it may not be necessary to the extent that some teachers feel that it is. I would suggest that teachers examine their motives for this "control." It is my belief that students haven't had enough responsibility for the learning in our classrooms. Prior to 4-Blocks, teachers (myself included!) made the decisions about everything that would be read during class time, about which vocabulary words would be learned, which spelling words were important and would be memorized for the test, which topics would be addressed in students' writing, and for the primary learning styles through which instruction would occur. Now suddenly, with 4-Blocks, students are responsible for these things much of the time. The importance of the teacher's role in planning and facilitating, though, should not be minimized. However, it's the students who learn to make choices and decisions---which books appeal during SSR Block and are they appropriate? Which strategies should a coach use during partner reading in Guided Reading Block? How will summary material be presented to the class as closure is brought to Guided Reading? How will the pattern learned in Making Words help in spelling a new word? What topic will make a good publishable piece? How will the book read or written today be shared with others in the class? etc., etc., etc. Yes! We turn loose and are often surprised to find that the students are capable of making these decisions. The decision-making powers and problem-solving skills become some of the most valuable lessons taught and learned in our classrooms!

So, returning to the main question: Could we teach 4-Blocks in small groups rather than as a whole group? I guess it would be possible to deliver our instruction in small groups, but the biggest question remains: WHY WOULD WE WANT TO? The sacrifice of our efficient time management and of taking the opportunity to give students more decision-making/problem-solving power is, perhaps, too great a sacrifice. There are other ways to offset that greatest of advantages---the bonding---, which we'll talk about at the end of this article.

And now, the second issue: Could the use of centers provide a balanced approach to literacy, facilitated by the teacher? There are two main points that I would like to raise here.

  • First, centers don't usually provide direct, explicit instruction for children. Many centers I've seen could actually be regarded as "glorified" worksheets: they keep students busy, they are sometimes entertaining, and they can offer opportunities to practice skills and concepts. Centers don't teach! Centers cannot effectively replace good sound instruction. If kids could learn as effectively through centers, then bring on the robots! Aren't we glad that nothing can replace a living, breathing teacher who offers direct instruction based on the needs of students? Some of the blocks, too, are what Pat Cunningham calls "bossy blocks." If we have the kids in centers, who'll do the bossing? Someone needs to teach a comprehension mini-lesson in Guided Reading and Writing Blocks. Not all children will just read more and write more and become good communicators. Not all children would manipulate the letters in a self-directed Making Words lesson and learn that the patterns in the words are the essence of the activity.
  • Also, the management issue should be raised again---not just time management but also the logistics involved. Planning centers, setting them up, and orchestrating who goes where is time-consuming to say the least. The classroom is its busiest during center time, often with the teacher torn in several different directions. I would say that it would be much more difficult in this environment for the teacher to evaluate where each child is on the learning continuum and how that level of learning should impact future instruction. This on-going evaluation is what should be shaping instruction.
  • The conditions in the classroom may not be supportive of the goals during some of the blocks if delivered in centers. For example, some children are too distracted in noisy environments to become absorbed in a book during Self-Selected Reading time or to write during Writing Block.

In summary of this issue, could 4-Blocks be taught well in centers rather than as a whole group? I would say a definite "no" to this one! Centers could reinforce what has been learned and gained during the blocks, but certainly could not serve as a substitute for what is done with the whole class during 4-Blocks.

In further pursuing this topic of whether we could teach 4-Blocks either through small mixed groups or through centers, there may be those reading this article who feel that there has still not been adequate defense of the loss of what occurs when a teacher has more time devoted directly to children. I hope that we are not overlooking the many opportunities that do exist in 4-Blocks for teachers to work individually and with small groups without trying to re-create the framework. The block time is not impersonal and distant. In Self-Selected Reading Block each week, teachers try to meet with students at least one time individually to have a book chat and to gather some information about that student. In Guided Reading, teachers can choose to work with individual children or small groups during the middle segment of the block, the during reading time. During Writing, again students will meet with teachers to talk about their compositions. Also, during the Working with Words Block, teachers are often free to monitor what students are doing during these activities. The opportunities are there! Seize them!

So, let's consider that Four Blocks is taught best and smartest just the way it was designed years ago. Centers will still be used effectively at other times of the day, just not usually during Four Blocks. And, teachers will find many opportunities to work individually or in small groups with students, just not always during Four Blocks. Trust that you will be meeting the needs of your students!

**Hope you'll read about the 4-Blocks Conference coming up in September listed below. It's going to be a blast in one of my favorite cities in the US---Charleston, South Carolina. Wonderful concurrent sessions, round-table discussions and general sessions are planned along with a big Block Party on Saturday night with music and food! We would LOVE to have YOU join us! There'll be a strand for everyone---kindergarten, primary grades, upper grades, and for administrators and support personnel---something for each of those groups throughout the entire conference. Hope you'll go to and download the registration blank today! There's only room for a limited number of participants. Hurry!

Training Opportunities:

Below are seminars (some 1 day and some 2 day ones) that I have coming up in the future.
Please know that I have a small group of really excellent folks who work along with me, too. We do site-based work in schools and districts at your request. They did not come from a train-the-trainer program. Their expertise with 4-Blocks evolved over many years of training, teaching and support. For their services, you can simply call 843-549-2684 and speak with Cathy or Sue or visit ERG's website at . We offer various types of staff development: classroom demonstrations, on-site presentations, classroom observations and feedback, and exploring 4-Blocks in more depth, among other offerings.

My seminar presentations:

Philadelphia, PA    July 16          SDR
Boston, MA          July 17          SDR
Newark, NJ          July 23          SDR
Dayton, OH          August 2         ERG (Grades 1-3 Intro.)
Dayton, OH          August 3         ERG (Grades 1-3 Beyond the Basics) Closed Out!
Dayton, OH          August 9         ERG (Grades 4-6 Intro.)**
Dayton, OH          August 10        ERG (Grades 4-6 Beyond the Basics)
Charleston, SC      September 22-23  ERG (Conference/Block Party-Southern Style!)
Kansas City, MO     October 25       SDR
Denver, CO          October 26       SDR
Lansing, MI         November 13      SDR
Springfield, IL     November 14      SDR
Silver Springs, MD  November 29      SDR
Hartford, CT        November 30      SDR
For ERG workshops on 4-Blocks and Building Blocks, call 843-549-2684 or go to For SDR workshops, call 800-678-8908.

Hope to see you at a workshop soon!

Personal Journal:

Hope many of you will start making plans to join us in beautiful Charleston, SC, September 22-23 for a Four Blocks conference. Many experienced Four Blocks teachers and consultants will be on hand for sessions of all descriptions---technology and 4-Blocks, conferencing skills, grading/assessment, report cards, alignment with standards, etc. DeLinda is busy planning the "block party night" that will be a part of the conference. This one is going to be FUN (and, of course, educational!) with music and food. Sign up as soon as possible since registration will be limited! See for details.

Thanks to Patti Robbins for being my host at a fun visit to Newport News, VA for a workshop. I stayed in the most charming town on the water in Smithfield. "Hello" to Mary Lee Waldren for her school's warm hospitality during my two-day visit to Danville, VA. Another good visit was to Pete Hurt's school district near Milwaukee. Thanks for the afternoon stop at the ice cream shop (custard they call it in Milwaukee!), Pete! Great groups in Indianapolis with a two-day seminar, and one-day seminars in Grand Rapids and Milwaukee!

Well, it's family reunion weekend! I'm flying home right now from Grand Rapids to get out my recipe books and to start cooking (something I don't do much of lately!). This will be a bittersweet reunion---the first without my mother-in-law.

Hope you're having a wonderful summer---reading lots of good books and having some quality fun-in-the-sun time! See you back here in a couple of weeks!

4 Blocks Goodies