Sifting and Sorting Through the 4-Blocks Literacy Model|
by Cheryl M. Sigmon
Troubleshooting in the Words Block at Upper Grades
A school curriculum coordinator just wrote to me to request some help. The scenario she describes is not so unusual for schools that I've visited around the country. She has questions about a number of issues, but we'll tackle the two major ones. Her email starts, "We are currently focusing on the Words Block in our school and have run into some issues that we hope you can help us resolve. First, the weekly spelling test. All of our upper grades teachers are giving a weekly spelling test, which seems to be their main focus and reason for the new words they add each week. The list is comprised of the new Word Wall words, the Nifty Thrifty Fifty words, and other words that the teacher decides upon (I'm not sure how!). I have been in their classrooms modeling Words lessons and activities to show them what a typical day/week would look like in this block. On the days that I'm not able to be in their classrooms, no word work happens at all--just the spelling test on Friday. My understanding is that progress in correct spelling of WWW and NTF words comes from evidence in their daily writing. Have I missed something?"
The answer, of course, is "No, you haven't missed a thing!" However, teachers need to think through the issues involved here. (Also, let me say once again as I've often said, I really appreciate teachers who question practices. I don't like to see folks so easily led into something new without total understanding of the why's and how's!)
First of all, it's not necessary to give spelling tests, nor is it really advantageous to give them. However, some teachers at upper and at lower grades are bound and determined to do that. So, I've learned to pick my battles wisely. If they want to test, I tell them to "go to it!" There's no need to let that issue be the deciding factor between implementing and not implementing Four-Blocks! I think teachers need to think, though, about why they're testing and how they're testing. The very best way to determine if students have developed automaticity with these words (that means that they spell and use them without any real conscious effort) is to see the evidence in their writing. However, if teachers want to have a pencil paper test, let them, but caution them that the "real" test is in whether or not the students use these words correctly in their "real" writing.
In helping upper grades teachers to accept the Four-Blocks way of teaching and testing spelling, here are a few pointers:
1 - Ask teachers to think about why they're testing and how they're testing. Is their goal to have students memorize the words for short term and spell them correctly when called out in isolation? Or, is it their goal to have students process these words and use them correctly in their "real" writing? If the answer is as it should be, then they should either watch for the words in the "real" writing samples or, at least, construct tests that simulate that as closely as possible. For example, they might give the students dictation for a test, calling out a paragraph that uses old and new WW words, NTF words, and some of the pattern words they've been studying. Rattle off the dictation quickly enough so that students don't have a lot of thinking time or hunting time. Then look to see if they've processed these words.
2 - Don't get stuck on Word Wall words and NTF words exclusively. If you have Modifying Four Blocks for the Upper Grades (Sigmon, Carson-Dellosa, 2001), you'll find so many other ways to explore words---which is what it's really all about at upper grades. You want students to develop an appreciation for our language and the way it's constructed. You want them to "play" with Latin and Greek base words, for example, to see how knowing those bases can help them figure out so many other words. You'll want them to collect words, to play Riming/Rhyming Relay, to do Word Charades, to make alphabet books based on content area words, and so many other activities to lead them in the direction of word exploration. Move beyond the basics---move beyond memorization and get into exploration. Understanding words and language is a far greater benefit at upper grades than spending countless hours memorizing basic words for a spelling test. (I know you agree!)
3 - Vocabulary words shouldn't be tested in this block and, I feel, shouldn't be tested at all for spelling, only for meanings. The big words we might test or evaluate are those that have meaningful word parts (morphemes---prefixes, bases, suffixes). The purpose of teaching these words is to enable students through their knowledge of these word parts to be able to unlock the meanings of so many more words. The Guided Reading Block is the best place for the other vocabulary study. So, don't spend an inordinate amount of time memorizing big words where meaning is really what counts!
5 - The WW work should be a very brief part of the block for upper grades. These teachers have so much more to accomplish and so little time to do it. Also, if the teachers choose to test, the testing time should be an even briefer part of the day and of the block. There should still be time in that block on testing day to explore words. If testing goes much beyond 5-10 minutes, I think they're wasting time.
The curriculum coordinator's final question is one that articulates the whole purpose of this Working with Words Block. She asks, "How can I move my colleagues' understanding of ‘having' a word wall to that of ‘using' a word wall, and from ‘here are the words for your test on Friday' to actually owning the words and understanding how they work?" She has said it so well!
There are many people around the country, and actually around the world as Four-Blocks is spreading far and wide, who "have" Word Walls and "do" Word Walls---or at least they go through the motions of snapping, clapping, stomping, writing, etc. But, they aren't really "doing Four-Blocks." In Four-Blocks, we enable students to be better spellers, decoders, and to develop a better understanding of how our language works. Mere memorization of words for a test, isn't our objective. Students must store knowledge in their long-term memory and learn when and how to retrieve it. We're after application and transfer of knowledge.
We also must keep our work with Word Walls in proper perspective---it's just a fraction of the Working with Words Block which is a part of the balance of all four approaches to teach students how to communicate well. Let's not get hung-up on the smaller issues, but at the same time, let's try to understand why we're doing what we do. It's all for the good of the students we teach!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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:
|Des Moines, IA
||SDR (upper grades)
||SDR (upper grades)
||SDR (upper grades)
||SDR (upper grades)
||October 5-6, 2002
||ERG - (Second annual Balanced Literacy---Block Style ~ Conference and Block Party! Register now!)
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 or www.ceea.org (CA seminars).
Hope to see you at a workshop soon!
I'm on a plane to California right now, my first trip of the new year. My holiday season was a wonderful one, especially so because of the addition of my second grandchild, baby Charles, in December. It's tough getting back on the road and in the air, but I've gotta keep getting the word of 4-Blocks out there!
Today was a little rough for me. My middle child, Beth, is leaving for Seattle on Wednesday, and I had to say "goodbye" today. She wants to experience the great Northwest for a year or two. It's beautiful in that area of our country, and I want her to enjoy it---but not to fall in love with it and not come back home to the South! I wish Beth well in her journey but will miss her immeasurably. She's a special person, as all of my children are to me. By the way, if you need help with 4-Blocks in or near Seattle---I'm your person!!! I'm looking for excuses to see Beth already!
I'm looking forward to seeing some of you in Winston-Salem at the Leadership Workshop this coming weekend. This conference provides a great time to talk about issues that are important to folks supporting Four-Blocks implementation.
Notice, too, that the date for the fall Balanced Literacy Conference and Block Party has been set---October 5-6, 2002, again in Charleston, SC. You won't want to miss it! We had a ball last time! Of all the evaluations collected at the end of last year's conference, every single person said they would come back for another one! That's a great testimony to what happened that weekend! Hope you'll join us for fun, fellowship, and information! Go to www.ergsc.com for more information about it. A limited number of registrations will be accepted.
Hope your new year is off to a great start! See you soon!
Cheryl Sigmon is a regular contributor to Teachers.Net.