No matter how many hundred of millions of dollars are spent, school reform initiatives will continue to produce unsatisfying results until we unflinchingly address the critical problem of teacher quality. We're Still Leaving the Teachers Behind...
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 Teacher's 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. SigmonConsidering a Reading Basal Series?
Lately I've had inquiries from Four-Blocks schools going through the textbook adoption process this year and next. They generally have two questions to ask: 1) What is the best choice of a basal reading series to support their program? 2) Is a basal reading series the best way to go or should the reading program be literature based without a series?
Let's take the questions separately. In fact, the second question is probably the best place to start. Is purchasing a basal reading series the best use of a school's money? I'm going to hedge a bit with my answer because I think this is a question that is best answered by each individual school based on careful consideration of a number of issues. What I'll try to do is raise some of the issues that I believe schools need to consider as they make their decisions.
First, do the teachers need the structure and assistance provided by a basal series? Each school needs to evaluate the previous training teachers have received in regards to delivering lessons with or without the assistance of a basal. Don't regard teachers as weak or less professional if their training and practice has been with a series. That was the direction of education for a long time, and shouldn't be regarded necessarily as good or bad. But, it should be regarded in making a decision. It's the comfort level of your teachers that you're looking for here.
Next, what will guide the decisions teachers will make about the curriculum day by day? If schools acknowledge that they don't have a strong curriculum guide, then the basal might offer a curricular plan needed by the teachers. If a school is accountable to a statewide testing program, the school should ensure that the curriculum is aligned with that program. What is taught can certainly be a larger domain of information than what is included on the test; however, the test objectives and information should be adequately covered in the curriculum. If there is no curriculum guide or if the guide is considered to be very broad, a basal might offer more specificity to the instructional plan.
If a series is not purchased, will there be adequate funding for ample supplies of multiple copies of books? Even though basal readers are considered by some to be expensive, most series today are anthologies or collections of good quality literature. Adding up the cost of individual copies of as many selections as basals contain would certainly be far more expensive. If, however, your school can afford the multiple copies of quality literature, then you may consider going in that direction. In Four-Blocks classrooms, schools usually find that they must appropriate additional funding for text that represents variety at below grade-level readability. Four-Blocks is structured to have several days at grade level and several days below grade level. Basals usually don't have adequate below-grade readability resources. In addition to the materials necessary to sustain the Guided Reading Block, many more books will be needed in the classroom environment to encourage students to read during Self-Selected Reading and at any other available time throughout the school day. Above all else, please know that not even the best teacher in the United States---or in the world for that matter---can build a great language arts program without any reading materials! Classrooms need lots and lots of books.
A great deal of research goes into choosing just the right balance of selections for a basal. Those decisions are usually based on such considerations as ethnic representation, genre representation, length of text, interest, readability levels among other factors. If you're not using a basal, serious research must be done to ensure that those same factors influence the materials that are chosen for your students. This must be done for grade-level and below grade-level texts chosen. Is the time and manpower available to research the right materials to purchase?
Those are some of the factors to help you consider whether you should move in the direction of the basal reading series. If your decision is to choose a series that is supplemented by other printed texts, then you'll want to decide which series best meets your needs. Let's consider some of the questions you'll need to answer to make the best choice.
First, is the basal compatible with your school's philosophies about teaching and learning? If you're going to the expense to buy a basal series, then you should ensure that it's congruent with your program so that it offers maximum help to teachers. There's no sense in purchasing a series in which teachers have to invest an inordinate amount of time modifying it to meet their needs. I probably don't need to warn you that some publishers, at all costs, want to sell their series. They'll make it seem as though it was written expressly for you and your students. They're salesmen first and their objective is to get you to buy their product. I've had salesmen of scripted phonics programs (which I detest, by the way!) insist to me that their programs are compatible with Four-Blocks! If Four-Blocks is what you tell them their program should be congruent with, they may insist that it is. My advice would be to check it out for yourself. If you're an administrator who doesn't know Four-Blocks well enough to know the difference, put together a committee of teachers who do, and let them check out the series---independent of the salesperson.
If you're purchasing a series to support your total Four-Blocks language arts program, you'll want to be sure that it offers support for each of the four blocks. For example, you wouldn't want to have teachers confused by a synthetic phonics approach when Four-Blocks doesn't value that approach. Be sure that as many elements as possible are compatible. The series should be chosen because it takes some of the planning load off of teachers. Some of the elements I would look for would be:
Does the series offer adequate support to teachers in connecting students to the text---establishing prior knowledge, learning critical vocabulary, making predictions, and setting a purpose?
Does the series help teachers with their task of clearly identifying a comprehension mini-lesson each day spent on the text?
Are the comprehension skills/strategies presented in the lessons truly comprehension skills/strategies? (Often there is confusion posed by publishers about what comprehension skills/strategies are. You don't want teachers confused about this.)
Are the comprehension skills/strategies congruent with the ones in your curriculum guide? (Beware that salespeople will ALWAYS claim perfect alignment! Research this one!)
How many skills/strategies will teachers have to supplement beyond those offered in the basal?
Are the writing/grammar/usage/mechanics, etc. skills congruent with those in your curriculum guide?
How many writing skills will teachers have to supplement beyond those offered in the basal?
Are the different types of words and patterns taught in the Words Block offered in the basal?
How much will teachers have to supplement for the Words Block beyond the basal?
Does the basal recommend good read-alouds for SSR Block based on connections with the basal texts?
How much does the basal help teachers with integration among the blocks and with content that is important at each grade level?
These are some of the questions I feel are important for schools to explore as they make the important decision about the core materials to support a good Four-Blocks balanced literacy program. I'm sure that my list isn't inclusive of every question you may wish to explore, but I hope it offers you some points to consider. Once the major expenditure of texts books is made the books remain in schools for 7-10 years of more, so making the best decision takes times and energy. A good basal series, however, may save teachers much more time in the long run.
Grant Support: If your school is submitting a grant, I'll be happy to submit a letter to support your training. Often, grant readers are impressed that you've secured someone with credentials to assist with training and implementation. Contact me at email@example.com if I can help you.
Below are seminars that I have coming up in the future. The fall schedule will soon be posted. Hope to see you at one!
I had such a treat in March during my visit to Grand Rapids, MI. I mentioned during my work with teachers at Walker Station Elementary how much I love the tradebook Leonardo's Horse by Jean Fritiz and that I knew that the one replica of the horse standing in Milan, Italy, oddly enough, was in Grand Rapids at the Meijer Gardens. Principal Mark Heagle took me for a quick visit to see the horse sculpture on my way back to the airport. Wow! It was amazing---most impressive! If you're planning a trip to Grand Rapids, read Fritz's book first and then be sure to include a visit to see this spectacular sculpture that was diVinci's dream. (By the way, on my website at www.cherylsigmon.com, I have a book review on Leonardo's Horse with suggestions of lesson plans.)
When this article is posted, I'll be in Germany to continue my work with my friend Dianne Yoesting and the wonderful teachers in the Heidelberg DOD Schools. We're working this time to integrate technology into Four-Blocks. I'm a little nervous about my trip during these uncertain times.
For any of you looking for a great book to read, I have a recommendation. I've just finished one of the best books ever---Use What You've Got by Barbara Corcoran. I saw this incredible woman briefly on the Today show one morning and was curious enough about her book to get it from the library. IT WAS WONDERFUL!!!! Barbara Corcoran was the creator of The Corcoran Group, one of the highest producing real estate firms in US history. She shares life lessons that she learned from her mother that she attributes her success to. After finishing this book, I went straight to the bookstore and bought four copies. I've mailed one to each of my daughters, asking them to promise me that they'll read every page. The fourth copy is my own personal copy! This is a book I'll reread for inspiration.
Please know that my thoughts and prayers are with all of you who may have loved ones involved directly in the war efforts. We all need to pull together to get through this.
For a printable version of this article click here.