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A Brief Overview of Four-Blocks
Four-Blocks is a balanced literacy framework, which was created by Dr. Patricia Cunningham and Dr. Dorothy Hall along with first grade teacher, Margaret DeFee, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in the late 80s. Four Blocks is a comprehensive language arts model that allows students to develop their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills towards becoming effective, literate communicators. The main focus of the model is reading; however, the model allows for integration between and among all of the language arts areas and among all curricular content area. Four-Blocks is an instructional delivery system for teachers: the HOW in teaching, not the WHAT. Research is supporting that Four Blocks makes instruction more effective and more efficient, helping teachers to manage the precious time that they have to interact with students.
Although Four Blocks was originally created for first grade, teachers have learned to modify it appropriately to improve instruction at many grade levels. Generally, grades 1-3 adhere to the same basic formats with greater modifications necessary for upper grades, 4-8.
At kindergarten, a framework called Building Blocks provides the developmentally appropriate foundation for language, print and literacy. This framework was based on the classroom practices of Elaine Williams, a veteran kindergarten teacher in North Carolina.
There are two guiding principles behind Four Blocks:
First, Four Blocks is based on the premise that there is not just one way that educators can teach ALL children to read. The experts basically agree that there are four ways kids can learn to read. The failure in the past has been that educators have felt it necessary to pick and choose among the four to find the one that met the needs of most children. Four Blocks provides a framework that allows teachers the opportunity to expose all kids to all four approaches each and every day. This fail-free approach ensures that kids won't fall through the cracks because their particular area of strength may not be included. This premise is what Four Blocks teachers refer to as multi-method.
Second, Four Blocks is based on the theory that children can learn to read and write without being labeled and ability grouped. Even though one of the four blocks is Guided Reading that is often associated with ability grouping, the Four-Blocks approach to guided reading does not place children in small ability groups for instruction with the teacher. Four-Blocks teachers learn a different way to support students and to match them with text to aid their success in what is considered a more engaging manner than traditional instruction once offered. This premise is what Four Blocks teachers refer to as multi-approach.
These are the four blocks and why they are integral parts of this reading/language arts initiative:
Self-Selected Reading Block - view Frequently Asked Questions
Research points strongly to the fact that "kids who read most, read best." (Anderson, et. al., Becoming a Nation of Readers). Some kids, through having regular and sufficient opportunities to read materials that they are motivated to read, will figure out a great deal about reading on their own. One prime example today is the number of students who have read the 750 page Harry Potter book for whom reading was, otherwise, uninspiring and difficult.
During Self-Selected Reading Block, teachers help students develop a habit of reading. Students are given a short period of time during the school day to read from a wide variety of materials. Some teachers orchestrate the choices to an extent in an effort to ensure that students have exposure to varied genres, topics, authors, and formats of materials. Students make decisions about what they want to read, enjoy reading, and often share what they've been reading about. Here they learn that the joy of reading often continues (and sometimes gets even better!) as they move beyond the printed page to talk about what they've read.
Guided Reading Block - view Frequently Asked Questions
Teachers must help students to become aware that the ultimate objective of reading is to gather meaning from print. If students only learn to decode words and say those words with precision but don't have any understanding of what the print means, then all is lost. The Guided Reading Block is the time teachers guide students to apply reading skills and strategies in the context of "real" reading.
Four Blocks teachers plan direct, explicit instruction daily, focusing on a specific comprehension skill or strategy. Because all children need these same skills, the teachers usually deliver this to the whole group, regardless of the reading level of each child. Four Blocks teachers skillfully connect students to the text with what is called "pre-reading activities." These include establishing prior knowledge, teaching critical vocabulary, setting a purpose for reading, and leading children to make predictions about the text.
One really different thing about Four Blocks guided reading is that on most days all children in the class read the same text! Teachers recognize that it's more important to teach children the skills and strategies involved in reading and how to apply them to text that they can be successful with. Sometimes it's too easy for some children, but that's okay. These students will have another time in their day when they'll read at a challenging level. For other students, reading on some days will be difficult during Guided Reading, but the teacher will know how to offer them the support they'll need to be successful.
The "during reading" portion of Guided Reading Block will provide time for students to read, practice, and apply. Although Four Blocks teachers value the text that's being read, this time is really about HOW to read, rather than focusing so much on WHAT is read.
The "after reading" segment of the block brings closure to the practice and application in some engaging way. Four Blocks teachers keep the whole block tightly aligned being sure to stick with the focus of the lesson. This is the time that students find whether they've been successful at applying the new skill or strategy they've learned.
This block is, by far, the most controversial block among the four! It's the one that calls for thinking outside of the box that most educators have operated in for a long time. Educators have been ability grouping children for decades. Have we been satisfied with the results? No! The Four Blocks way is surely worth a try!
Working With Words Block - view Frequently Asked Questions
In this block of time, students learn more about the "word level" of reading. Students learn that reading can be so much easier if they learn the high-frequency words that comprise the greatest percentage of text that is read. In fact, there is a list of 100 high-frequency words that research has proven makes up 50% of all printed materials! Four Blocks teachers work first with these words, teaching children 110-120 words per year. There is a routine involved with these words that taps learning modalities of all of the children in the class-those who are visual learners, those who are auditory, and those who are tactile and kinesthetic. Classrooms exude some "health noise" during this time of clapping, snapping, and chanting letters and words.
The second segment of this block is devoted to further exploration of words, letters, sounds, and patterns. On some days, students work at their desks, manipulating letter tiles at the direction of the teacher who leads them through constructing words and word patterns. On some days, the class helps the teacher "Round Up the Rhymes" in a poem, and then they decide which of the words that sound alike also have the same spelling pattern. On other days students apply decoding strategies to guess words in sentences which they teacher has covered. So many different ways-dozens and dozens-to explore and learn more about the word level of reading!
Writing Block - view Frequently Asked Questions
Why is writing included as one of the four approaches to teach reading? Research says that 60% of children can learn to read first from their own writing! Writing provides the greatest opportunity for children to apply their own phonetic understanding. They must first go through the process of encoding-matching letters to the sounds they wish to write-to get words on paper. Then, they must also decode-take the words off the paper by matching sounds and symbols. Such a complicated process! This is where students put together so much of what they've learned in all the blocks.
Teachers start this block every day by modeling something about writing that they want their students to learn. They put this instruction in the context of "real" writing-sometimes something about their new dog; sometimes something about a ball game they went to; sometimes they write about school things-science content, the field trip, holiday plans, etc. Clever Four Blocks teachers learn to integrate their mini-lessons-grammar, mechanics, writing process, and everything students need to know about writing-naturally into their writing. That's where students see the power of these lessons-how they make writing better and clearer.
Time is available after the teacher's model lesson for the students to write. On many days they write about anything they want to tell their teacher and their classmates. The audience becomes an important part of the writing. Students in this Writing Workshop usually write what they want to write and for as many days as they feel they need to for a finished piece. On some days, students around the room are starting first drafts, continuing for multiple days with drafts, revising with peers, or working on revisions and editing with the teacher.
After students have written a specified number of "good" pieces, they sign up for a conference with the teacher. Together the teacher and the student choose one gem among the several pieces that the student is proudest of and which that student will refine with the guidance of the teacher. After this process, the student will then write the last draft and will publish the prized piece of writing for others to read.
This block always concludes with a variety of opportunities for sharing. Sometimes students sit in a "share chair" and read their compositions to the class. Sometimes the teacher invites students to turn to a buddy and read together what both have written. There are many ways that students can share and grow together in their ability to communicate in writing. There is also much that students will learn about reading from the inside out!
Multi-level, multi-approach, and daily-these are the magical ingredients of a framework that's changing America's schools!