Frequently Asked Questions
"We do not recommend it."
Not putting the children in fixed ability groups is one of the basic tenets of Four Blocks instruction. There are lots of reasons for this including: Children placed in the bottom group often perceive themselves as poor readers and act accordingly. The bottom group contains an inordinate number of children with attention/behavior problems and it is difficult to keep them all focused and on task. Some children who would be placed in the bottom group are not slow learners. They just have had few opportunities to learn. When they are placed in the bottom group and the instruction is slowed, they become slow learners. There are always differences in reading levels and bottom group instruction will tend to be geared toward the high or low end and thus not meet the needs of the other end. There is also a lot of range in the top group and the instruction tends to be pegged just a little above grade level, not meeting the needs of the really superior readers. Doing lots of little guided reading groups will take all your time and energy. The Writing Block, Self Selected Reading and Words are equally valid ways for children to learn to read and they all need the teacher working with children to be truly instructional approaches.
It is not difficult to make the Writing, Self Selected Reading and Words Block multilevel. (See descriptions of each.) Guided Reading is the hardest block to make multilevel. We do some small group work during this block and we include our struggling readers in guided reading groups more often than our accelerated readers. But, we change who meets with this groups regularly and we always include some better readers for models. We also do some "after lunch bunch" easy reading groups in which we include the struggling readers along with some better reading models. Our struggling readers do not ever get the idea that they are "the bottom group."
Four Blocks instruction is not ability grouped. Neither is it whole class instruction in the grade level books. We are very concerned with providing instructional level reading for all children but we make our instruction multilevel in a variety of ways in each block. We do not believe that Guided Reading is the only way to teach children to read. We teach children who struggle with Guided Reading but who become wonderful readers because of the instruction the teacher provides them during Writing, Self Selected Reading and Words.
Young children come to school with an "I can do anything" attitude. When children are placed in fixed ability groups for all their literacy instruction, the bottom group of children have concluded that "Reading is one thing I can't do" by the end of first grade. Second grade teachers tell us that the children in the bottom group come with an "attitude"--an attitude quite different from the attitude they entered school with. Many children take longer to become literate but our chances of teaching them are greatly increased if we can keep them thinking they can do it!
Once teachers decide on a schedule that works best for them, they usually do the same blocks at the same times each day but we could show you any order you wanted to see. Teachers have a variety of reasons for scheduling certain blocks when they do. Some teachers do their favorite block first thing in the morning--to get their day off to a great start! Other teachers schedule their least favorite block first--to get it out of the way! (Yes, teachers have personalities too and like some blocks more than others!)
In some classrooms, a special teacher, assistant or other helper comes for part of the day. Many teachers feel that Guided Reading or Writing are the two blocks that benefit most from having an extra adult in the classroom and thus schedule one or both of these when they have help coming. We would like for children who leave for any special instruction to not miss one of the blocks unless we are absolutely certain that child is receiving instruction in that approach while out of the classroom. If a child goes to Reading Recovery, for example, we know that child is getting the very best guided reading instruction, so we might schedule our classroom Guided Reading Block during that time. Another possibility is for the Reading Recovery teacher to alternate when children are taken so that children do not miss the same block every day. Generally, we try to schedule our blocks when everyone is there and this sometimes necessitates scheduling one or more blocks in the afternoon This actually works out well for some children who are not "morning people."
No matter how comprehensive or how multilevel your program is, there will always be children who really struggle in the early stages of reading. These children benefit enormously from the tailored one-to-one instruction they receive from a trained professional such as a Reading Recovery teacher. Across the years, many of the schools that have implemented the Four Blocks framework have also implemented Reading Recovery programs. In those schools, the classroom teachers attest to the accelerated progress made by the Reading Recovery children. Reading Recovery teacher leaders who have programs in Four Blocks schools and in schools not using Four Blocks repeatedly tell us that they exit children more quickly when Reading Recovery tutoring is combined with a Four Blocks classroom program.
While we do believe that kindergartners need many of the components of our Four Blocks, we feel that a different way of organizing instruction is more appropriate for kindergartners. Most of our kindergarten literacy instruction is arranged around themes and the reading and writing they do is connected to those themes. In kindergarten, we include reading to children, with children (in a shared reading format) and by children. We include writing for children, with children (in a shared writing format) and by children. We also do lots of activities with words, letters and sounds, with particular emphasis on developing phonemic awareness. The kindergarten program which we developed to build the foundation for literacy can be seen on the video, Building Blocks (Cunningham & Hall, 1996) and read about in The Teacher's Guide to Building Blocks (Hall & Williams, 2000) and Month By Month Reading and Writing for Kindergarten (Hall & Cunningham, 1997).
The Four Blocks was designed for instruction in the primary grades. We believe that until children have a strong, fluent third-grade reading and writing level, they need regular instruction in the four major approaches. Once most of the children in a classroom are reading at the third grade level or above, we would include work in all the blocks, but we would not give them equal time and we would not necessarily do all Four Blocks every day. We would call this model, Big Blocks. We might do longer writing sessions or guided reading sessions three days a week. As much as possible we integrate Guided Reading and focused writing with each other and with the content areas of science and social studies. The possibility of this kind of integrating is one reason we support self-contained intermediate classrooms. because you would work with big kids, big words, and bigger blocks of time we call the upper grades "Big Blocks."
Words would get some attention--but not one-quarter of our time each day. Since learning how to decode, spell and gain meanings for polysyllabic words (big words) is the goal in the intermediate grades and since most of these new big words occur in content areas, we would center our word instruction on content-area vocabulary. We would still have a regular time each day for teacher read-aloud and self selected reading. In planning how much time to spend on reading and writing goals in primary grades, we divide our time up each day. For intermediate grades, we divide our time across an entire week of instruction. If however, we have entire classrooms of intermediate-aged children most of whom still read and write at first and second grade level, we would use the Four Block organizational framework. The real question is not what grade the children are in but what level they are reading on. (For more information on how we would organize at intermediate grades, The Teacher's Guide to Big Blocks by Amanda Arens, Karen Loman, Pat Cunningham, and Dottie Hall will be out May 2005).