Sifting and Sorting Through the 4-Blocks Literacy Model|
by Cheryl M. Sigmon
Troubleshooting: Help with Writing Scores
I've heard from a school that's doing Four Blocks, insisting that their writing scores are still low even though they've had great gains in reading scores. What's wrong here?
When I solve problems over the computer, I feel like a doctor trying to make a diagnosis over the phone. I'd rather be with the "patient" and get the vital signs and a good look for myself to be sure of the diagnosis. But, I can't always make a "house call", and so I'll attempt to answer with a series of questions that they'll need to ask themselves and use to analyze what's going on. Here are 8 questions to explore in an effort to improve your writing instruction and your writing scores:
First, do you have more specific information about the areas where your students are not performing well?
For example, many writing performance-based tests offer analytical data such as strengths and deficiencies in usage, punctuation, organization, development, etc. If this type of information is available, you can put it to good use. Teach more direct lessons on the areas of deficiency. Be sure that these skills get adequate attention with explicit instruction and that the students have opportunities to practice addressing these skills.
Next, do you know the rubric or scoring guide being used to measure your students?
If you're judging the success--or lack of success--of your writing program by a test, you should be aware of the criteria by which student work is being evaluated. Almost all, if not all, districts and state departments of education publish that information for teachers' use. If you've not seen this information, contact the appropriate personnel and ask for it for your specific grade level. Some teachers remark being surprised by what's on their tests and even more sometimes by what's not on the tests.
One good example of how pursuing the scoring rubric can help you is the group of teachers I worked with who had spent an inordinate amount of time making sure that the students could identify the mode of writing being elicited by the writing prompt--whether the response should be narrative, expository, persuasive or descriptive. Because there's rarely a true, pure mode, they were nervous when some of the prompts could have been interpreted different ways. They were extremely nervous when the students began to discuss having addressed the prompt in several different modes. Upon checking with their department of education, they were relieved to discover that the mode of the prompt and response was of absolutely no consequence, only that the response had to relate to the topic of the prompt. Looking at the scoring guides and rubrics can also help you calculate how long you should spend on certain skills and techniques. For example, conventions carry different weights on different tests--sometimes counting a great deal and other times counting very little.
So, check out the criteria that your students must be accountable to and align your instruction accordingly. You don't have to teach those criteria exclusively, but you certainly must teach them and teach them well.
Are there guidelines used in the testing situation that you've not taught your students?
Sometimes the testing format can be out of the ordinary. Some tests require that students show their pre-planning and others even require that students use particular graphic organizers to do their planning. Some tests require that students have perfectly clean final drafts, while others allow strike-throughs.
Students should be completely comfortable with what the testing format is. They should know how long they'll have to write, whether they must show their planning, what the final draft should include and how it should look. Give them all the information you can so that they can be adequately prepared--just as we would all want to be as we face a test.
Again, it's not necessary for you to have them practice every day in this same format and under test-like conditions. But, simulate the conditions on numerous occasions before the real test occurs.
Are you teaching focused, direct, explicit mini-lessons daily?
I have observed what appears on the surface to be wonderful Writing Blocks where everything runs smoothly--kids are attentive to the teacher during the introduction, the teacher sits and writes for the students, kids write without hesitation and they willingly share in the closure time. It all seems to be running smoothly! But, oops! The teacher has forgotten to teach anything explicitly. There is no real focus to the model writing--no mini-lesson! Just writing in front of the students daily and having them write will not guarantee that students will produce quality writing and will grow as writers. You must teach the skills, strategies, and techniques involved in writing--both directly and explicitly--each day during your model writing time.
You also can't let the lessons happen "serendipitously", without planning and forethought. You should have a plan even before you know the topic you'll write about. Decide on your topic and know where you're going. Then, after you know where you're going, plan how you're going to get there.
Is Writing Block done daily in your program?
You aren't going to get the results you want unless you give your students an opportunity to write every day. They need to develop a writing habit, just as we try to establish a reading habit during Self-Selected Reading Block by doing that daily, too. All of the blocks are important, but this block is the one that allows students the opportunity to apply all that they've learning from the other blocks. They'll use their knowledge of phonics and patterns from Words Block to spell words in their writing. They'll borrow from other authors that they've been reading during SSR. From Guided Reading, they'll bring what they've learned of the comprehension skills and strategies to build their characters, to establish settings, to develop plots, and to organize their informational pieces. So, do it daily! The pay-off will be tremendous!
Are you growing students both as a whole and individually?
There are two distinct opportunities to teach direct lessons during the Writing Block. The first is when you teach your mini-lesson at the beginning of the block. This is the time you'll assess where your students are as a whole and what they need to know to grow productively. This is where you'll align your instruction with your curriculum and assessment programs.
The second opportunity to teach is during the conferences you'll have with students daily. This is your chance to grow students individually. You'll look at where that student is and a way that you can help that student grow in his or her writing. Some students during this time may grow significantly beyond your basic curriculum. You'll have some students who have the basics down pat. They'll need to explore styles and techniques to make their writing better.
Take advantage of both of the opportunities afforded you during the Writing Block!
Are other teachers below your grade-level supporting students in their writing development?
You can't do it alone, especially if it's your grade where students are tested. If your performance test doesn't occur until third or fourth grade in your school, the third or fourth grade teachers can't suddenly produce good writers. The job of writing instruction, support, and maintenance must be shared among ALL teachers on staff, beginning in kindergarten. If the load is shared and students have been writing on a daily basis since K or first grade, there's just no way that they won't feel confident as writers when they reach third or fourth grade.
Additionally, you'll want to have your teachers get together on occasions to be sure that the curricular items build on and support each other from grade to grade (This is called curriculum articulation). There should be no major gaps between grades, and all teachers should be aware of what they're primarily responsible for.
Are you challenging yourself and growing as a writer?
You can't keep teaching capital letters, periods, question marks, and spelling errors and have your students produce good quality writing. If you feel weak in the area of writing, seek some assistance. Let your administrator know you need to attend a workshop or that he/she might consider focusing on writing instruction in future staff development. There are also some great books on the market for self-guided growth. You have to know what constitutes good writing and how to get your students motivated to move in that direction.
Use these eight questions to evaluate your Writing Block and to get better results. Let me know how you come out! Good luck!
If you're writing a grant at this time, I'll be happy to write a letter of support for your grant to promise good training, either by me or by one of the wonderful folks who works along with me through ERG. Email me directly at email@example.com or call 803-799-8024.
Below are seminars 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 843-539-1213, fax 843-539-1214 or visit ERG's website at www.ergsc.com. 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:
|San Jose, CA
|Long Beach, CA
|Des Moines, IA
||SDR (upper grades)
||SDR (upper grades)
||SDR (upper grades)
||SDR (upper grades)
For ERG workshops on 4-Blocks and Building Blocks, call 843-539-1213 or go to www.ergsc.com. For SDR workshops, call 800-678-8908 or go to www.SDResources.org.
Hope to see you at a workshop soon!
When my oldest daughter told me eight months ago that I was once again becoming a grandmother, she asked how busy I would be in December. I usually take time off in December to be with family since I travel so much during the other months. I told her I had only one night out of the state that was work-related--December 13-14 at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Of course, the due date was December 15th! But, we thought that surely the odds were in our favor that I would be at the birth. Well, as I left home on the 13th to drive to West Virginia, I called and "warned" Ashley again not to go into labor until I got back home. Well, of course, children rarely listen to us. I got a call at 6 a.m. the morning after I arrived in WV that she was at the hospital! I did deliver my address at the reading conference that morning and then hopped in the car and drove straight to the hospital in Charleston, SC---arriving at 7:30 p.m. several hours after my grandson's arrival. I did get to hold him in my arms, though, the day of his birth and got to see that my daughter was well. The baby, Charles, was 9 lbs. 6 oz. and 21 inches! Wow! He was a healthy one-----and, oh, so beautiful!
I have spent many hours holding and rocking my sweet grandchild since then. My two-year-old granddaughter, Meg, loves her baby brother and places soft kisses on his little head all day! I've been in heaven, getting to help out with them both over the past couple of weeks. (Well, let me retract that---surely I won't be this sleep-deprived in heaven!)
The West Virginia Reading Conference was fabulous. Wish I had had more time. Let me thank mailringer, Linda Hull, for all of her help the morning of my session. She was wonderful! The Greenbrier is unbelievable!
A special "hello" and "thanks" to the participants of my Maryland and Connecticut seminars. What great groups you were!
Let me take this opportunity to wish you all a wonderful holiday season. I plan to enjoy this holiday with friends and family as I'm "off the road" for a few weeks. I hope that 2002 will bring you all a bounty of blessings in your personal and professional lives! Keep up the great work with Four Blocks! You're changing the lives and futures of children every day through your caring and persistence.
Happy New Year! ----Cheryl
Cheryl Sigmon is a regular contributor to Teachers.Net.