Article #7
Whole Group Instruction: The Whole Truth
Cheryl M. Sigmon

A mailring member this week wrote to ask for help in offering a rationale to her administrators and Board members who were questioning so much whole group instruction through the 4-Blocks Model. Many people believe that whole group instruction translates as teaching to the middle, average children and shows little regard for individual differences, especially to the higher and lower achieving children. Let's talk this week about the kind of whole group instruction included in the 4-Blocks Model--what's different about it and why it's successful whereas some whole group models have failed miserably.

First, let's state a fact: You can not teach the same thing in the same way to a heterogeneous group of children and expect them all to be successful--plain and simple! However, let me reiterate: the SAME THING in the SAME WAY.

In 4-Blocks instruction some instruction is whole group. In the Guided Reading Block, we open the block by teaching a mini-lesson to the whole class on a comprehension skill or strategy, applicable to the text we're going to read that day. After the whole group introduction, we have a number of choices we can make about regrouping -- partners; small flexible groups with the teacher; and play school groups of students. Then, we generally come back together as a whole group to see how we applied the skill or strategy that has been taught and practiced. In the Writing Block, we demonstrate writing and teach a mini-lesson on grammar, mechanics, or composition to the whole class. After that, the children work independently until the sharing time (whole group) which concludes the block. In the Words Block, the whole class is engaged in numerous activities throughout. And, in the Self-Selected Reading Block, the block opens with a whole group read-aloud and concludes with a whole group sharing about what was read.

So, yes, there's a good bit of time devoted to whole class instruction. But, the "multi-levelness" is always there. Multi-level means that individual differences are still being accommodated even though the instruction is in a whole group setting. That's very different from just teaching to the mean or average of the group. Let's take a closer look at exactly what is multi-level in each block so that you can see how the accommodations occur.

In the Guided Reading Block, we use grade-level text (or text that seems an average level for the class) for about 3 days of the week and easier text for about 2 days. All children gain from the particular skill or strategy the teacher includes in the mini-lesson daily. Each of the selections--grade level and easier--is read a number of times. Readers who need to be challenged practice fluency and expression through these rereadings. Readers who are struggling with the first reading also develop early fluency, building their confidence in their reading abilities. The paired reading and play school groupings offer unique opportunities for stronger and weaker readers to work side-by-side, with the weaker readers having the advantage of hearing a peer model. Additional opportunities exist in this block for the teacher to meet with small, flexible groups on occasion to help them with a shared need.

The Self-Selected Reading Block is a totally multi-level experience for the children, where books of all interests, reading levels, and genres are available to students in the book crates. Students are encouraged to read at their own levels. Although on occasion, they may explore a more difficult or an easier book because they are interested in a particular subject or in a kind of text. The teacher will model the three ways that students can read even if they aren't able to read the "real" words yet. This definitely makes the during-reading segment multi-level with all kids reading as is appropriate for them. The teacher will offer a daily read-aloud that is often higher than the instructional reading levels of the students, but which is appropriate for the listening potential of those students. This way the students are exposed to higher levels of vocabulary than they would otherwise encounter in their own reading. The individual conferences conducted by the teacher daily will address the needs of each child. This conference will be an opportunity for sharing, discussing, and even for some limited instruction (for example, "Let's look at how to select a book that you can read and enjoy if you're not enjoying this one.") and informal evaluation.

In the Writing Block, students almost always choose their own topics, writing about what they know. They take as many days as they wish to complete a piece of writing. While some children are truly developing confidence and fluency in writing stories of several pages, other struggling students may be learning to apply their basic phonetic understanding--"what symbol (letter of the alphabet) resembles this sound that I hear in this word?" Teachers accept the children at whatever stage of writing development they are in, and they work towards moving them forward with encouragement and direct instruction. During the conference time daily, the teacher has the opportunity to support each student at whatever stage is appropriate--basics of conventions and compositional elements with beginning writers, and more advanced revision and editing techniques with more accomplished writers.

In what ways is the Words Block multi-level? During the Word Wall activities, some students are learning to spell the high-frequency words, while others are learning to read them, too. Many--actually, almost all--of the activities throughout this block allow for elementary concepts and then offer an advanced level of transfer and application. Not all students will absorb the same things from all levels of the activities, but the exposure is sure to benefit even the weakest student. In the frequently used Making Words activity, the teacher always begins with constructing two-letter words but also has a big word to conclude the lesson that will offer a challenge for the higher-achievers. This similar concept guides many of the activities included in this block.

So, you see that, although whole group instruction accounts for a fair amount of the total time during the four blocks, the instruction and activities are planned purposefully to meet needs of a diverse classroom from struggling children to those who are advanced. The whole group part of each block is not "aimed at the middle" with no regard for children who are elsewhere on the learning continuum. The real beauty of this multi-level instruction is that these children are learning and growing together. They are more than tolerate of their individual differences; they rely upon each other and grow to value each other's opinions and to celebrate each other's accomplishments. And, yes--THEY DO ALL GROW with this multi-level instruction and multi-method approach!

4 Blocks Goodies