About Cheryl Sigmon...
Cheryl Sigmon is the author of Implementing the 4-Blocks Literacy Model (Carson-Dellosa, 1997) and the co-author with Pat Cunningham and Dottie Hall of The Teacherís Guide to the Four Blocks (Carson-Dellosa, 1999). Cheryl was a classroom teacher for a number of years. For nine years she was a language arts consultant for the SC Department of Education, where she worked in K-12 classrooms to help schools strengthen language arts programs. Since January 1999, she has been a freelance consultant, helping thousands of teachers across the United States implement the Four Blocks Model.

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Sifting and Sorting Through the 4-Blocks Literacy Model
by Cheryl M. Sigmon

Way Too Picky!

Today during a workshop with 4-Blocks coaches in Indianapolis I was reminded of one additional reason that some teachers develop a real distaste for 4-Blocks. Plain and simple: Some people who train or who share the framework with others are far too definitive - a.k.a. "nit-picky" - about what a teacher should and should not do if teaching the 4-Blocks Model. I believe that this has probably resulted from well-meaning people who want to share good ideas along with the model or things that they believe made their own implementation more successful. This additional information can be most helpful but should be clearly distinguished from the essential elements of 4-Blocks.

Here are a few of what I consider to be the "picky" things that have been debated:

  • Teachers must read at least one selection of poetry, one of non-fiction, one familiar story each week during SSR Block. (This is not true, although we do encourage teachers to read aloud from a variety of materials throughout the year.)
  • You must have your Word Wall words on white paper backed with a color. (The color is important to some kids in making visual distinctions between similarly configured words, but you might choose to put your words on the colored paper rather than have white and a color. If you didnít have your words on colored paper at all, it wouldnít really mean youíre not doing 4-Blocks and doing a great job. But, if it helps some of your struggling kids, why not do it?)
  • You must alphabetize your words under each letter of the alphabet, which means you either must introduce them in alphabetical order or you must rearrange the words each time the new words are added. (Life is too short! Donít worry about this one at all! You might have the kids alphabetize some of the words as an On-the-Back activity, but stay off that ladder!)
  • You must do DOL (Daily Oral Language) every day as a part of the Writing Block. (DOL is NOT a part of the 4-Blocks. Nothing is done through DOL that canít be done even more effectively through the model writing lesson - in a real context. If you want to do DOL, do it, but donít let it prevent you from accomplishing the essential three segments of the Writing Block).
  • At upper grades, the Word Wall should be in cursive - or manuscript (Iíve heard both. The truth is that I could defend it both ways. Itís really a teacherís choice.)
  • The book bins can stay at each table for SSR Block for only one week - no more, no less. (Thatís a guideline that we shared in the beginning. However, if you find that your kids need longer, take it! If their interest is exhausted in less than a week, you probably need more books.)
  • You should set a timer, and follow it strictly! (We do encourage the use of a timer to help teachers with their pacing. Otherwise, weíve found that we tend to go long in one block and short-change another one. The timer, however, is just a reminder. You donít stop mid-stream and switch to the next block or subject. If youíre mindful of the time, you may not even need a timer.)
  • You must use a graphic organizer with all writing or must use a certain graphic organizer with a certain type of writing. (Graphic organizers are great, but they should be offered to kids who need to use them to organize their thoughts. Not all kids need them. I must admit that Iím glad to know about them, but I donít use them in most of my writing. ---Oops! Come to think of it, you might wish I would!)
  • Teachers must use a particular list of words for their Word Wall. (The published lists are a great start, but teachers should tailor their walls using the words their kids really need to know and use. If even the struggling students, know some of the words, donít use those words. Find the ones theyíre commonly missing in their writing that are used with some frequency.)
  • Teachers must follow the Month by Month books strictly. (No one knows your kids like you do. Yours may be more or less advanced, more or less mature, more or less interested. The decision is yours.)
  • And the list goes on and on...

Okay, then! If we arenít supposed to get too picky, but we should stick with the basics, what are the basics or essentials? I would consider these the essentials:

  1. Planning and organizing are guided by a belief that teachers can teach children without labeling them.
  2. Implementation reflects belief that there are four ways that children can learn to read.
  3. Fairly equal time is given to each of the four blocks, driven by the belief that they all support kidsí growth in reading and literacy.
  4. The phonics and spelling portions of curriculum and instruction are based on current research that includes teaching patterns rather than lists, on the value of word chunks and patterns versus analytic phonics, and on the premise that itís more important to teach children HOW to spell than it is to teach them WHAT to spell.
  5. Each of the four blocks includes the two to three segments outlined in either the Teacherís Guide to the Four Blocks or in Implementing the 4-Blocks Literacy Model.
  6. The activities included in each block are multi-level.
  7. Materials are present and amply enough to support delivery - especially books.

If a teacher chooses not to accept or implement the 4-Blocks, I hope it will be because of some substantive issue such as differing with the belief by 4-Blocks teachers that reading can be taught without homogeneously grouping children, without labeling them, without having all kids at their instructional levels during Guided Reading Block. Some teachers may choose not to move into 4-Blocks because they believe that phonics needs to be presented with the old "hiss and split" approach, sounding out each and every letter and learning rules through worksheet practice - lots and lots of worksheets. Some teachers may feel that the balanced approach just isnít for them. Some teachers may wish to continue following strictly what publishers have provided in the way of curriculum, instruction and practice in their basals. Some teachers have discovered a way other than 4-Blocks that they believe in and that has brought them results with all of their children. There are many reasons that teachers may give for not joining many of us who are sold on 4-Blocks.

Though it would not be my choice to abandon or avoid or ignore 4-Blocks for any of the above reasons, I respect the professional decision of teachers to provide for the children who are within their care. As I share 4-Blocks with teachers and administrators, I do at least attempt to provide justification for these most common reasons - rationale for teaching heterogeneous groups of children, research on current best practice about phonics, alternatives to worksheets that might be regarded as more effective, and a plan for more selective choices of text and the skills and strategies for instruction.

Now! You who are "Nit Nannies" need to relax a bit. I still want teachers to "do" 4-Blocks the right way. But, we mustnít work ourselves into a frenzy, nor should we get close to having a script for teachers. We need to trust teachers as professionals to use and be guided by common sense. And, if I can say that (especially since Iíve been called the 4-Blocks Police Chief before!), you all should be able to relax a bit, too!


An Extra: Another childrenís tradebook to add to your list for summer reading: Click, Clack, Moo - Cows That Type, what a great book with a moral and with wonderful illustrations!

Personal: The "Dixie Chicks" (a new chick is from Illinois, but at least itís Southern Illinois - not exactly "Dixie" but close enough! Right DeLinda?!) and I enjoyed working with the second training cycle of Indiana teachers and administrators this week. Additionally, I worked another 2 days with a group of coaches for schools involved in this training model. We shared two big Pacer-Laker games together - one in the complete darkness of a huge hotel (We must have our priorities - the hotel brought in a generator after the big storm to power the TV for the game!) It was fun, though! Thanks to "Coach" Becky for giving me the idea for this column, and for Claudia Wheatleyís term, "nit nannie," which I love. Looking forward to working with another group of Hoosiers next week. BTW, what in the world is a Hoosier?

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Cheryl Sigmon is a regular contributor to Teachers.Net.

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