Ask Cheryl

Question (Spelling and Vocabulary at Upper Grades)

Cheryl,

I am now about to take a 7th/8th grade language arts/history position (multi-aged classroom) and want to continue there. Currently, they don't have a spelling curriculum at all.

My questions:

  1. Do you have any suggestions for the 7th/8th grades? Specifically, I am in need of some spelling ideas (or even curriculums to look at).
  2. My principal doesn't think that students need to do spelling from 5th grade on. Do you have research to back up otherwise? I have a hard time not teaching spelling words at least through the 6th grade, but don't have much research to back it up. I really can't expect all students to have a good grasp on spelling at that level. There are just too many that will fall through the cracks.

Hope you can help me!

Angie

Answer:

Angie,

At upper grades, I feel that spelling might be less important than "word study" or vocabulary. Maybe what you and I are talking about is merely a difference in semantics...not sure how you're defining spelling. Maybe if you approach it with the principal as a word study time rather than spelling, he might be more easily persuaded. By sixth grade, most students should know the fundamentals----the high frequency words, the one- and two-syllable spelling patterns, etc. But, that's when they need much more emphasis on the other goals-----polysyllabic words, application of word strategies, word etymology that can be useful, different spelling patterns for the same sound patterns (-ite, -ight), and analyzing words for different purposes. If they don't yet know the basics that I just listed, I would also fill in gaps for those students and include those in my planning.

There is a great deal of research to support the importance of vocabulary and word study at all grade levels. Of course, on a practical level you can even defend the need to help students with the heavy load of vocabulary on SAT and other college prep exams. One convincing piece of research I read says that in 1950 14 year-olds had a vocabulary of approximately 25,000 words. Alarmingly, in 1999, that had declined significantly to 10,000 words! The National Reading Panel dedicated a huge portion of their research to the power of word study and the impact of vocabulary on achievement in general, and as you can imagine, there is a direct correlation. You can read their research, and you might read some of Beck's work as well as that of Jack Pukulski and Tim Shannahan (Google for their research). Karen Bromley also has great books on interesting ways to present vocabulary to students.

You can perhaps use the newest Four-Blocks vocabulary books (Month-by-Month Phonics and Vocabulary that are appropriate at grades 5-6). Also, you can build zillions of lessons from the book The Reading Teacher's Book of Lists that contains tons of different lists that you can organize into lessons. (I'm currently writing a series of vocabulary books for Scholastic, but they won't be out until spring of 2011.) Students at upper grades just need lots of word exploration time done in an appealing way. We've got to get them away from copying definitions and making up sentences... That old assignment isn't getting them where we want them to go with words.

So, the short answer is...YES, there is definitely a need to set aside a time for word study at upper grades! I hope you can convince your principal of that. If I can help in any way, I'll be happy to. I'm only an email away!

Cheryl

Question (Organizing for Balanced Literacy at Upper Grades with only 55 minutes)

Cheryl,

Thank you for taking direct emails. I am hoping to get some direction on organizing my classroom. I teach Language Arts to 7th and 8th graders in a predominately ELL charter school (manageable class sizes).

The administration wants me to utilize the Four-Blocks method along with lit circles. I did/do not have a curriculum to use, so I created my own stuff and taught from state standards. I also did some curriculum mapping with essential questions.

I found it difficult to rotate SSR, Guided Reading, and SSR within a day. I also found it difficult to meet all the grammar and writing standards within the Four-Blocks framework. I see my students for 55 minutes per day.

What resources do you recommend to help me pull all of this together?

I appreciate your time. Iím also a relatively new teacher.

Sincerely, Kurt

Answer:

Kurt,

After thinking hard about this, I've come to the conclusion that you've been given an almost impossible (if not totally impossible) task for the coming year! Do I understand that you have only 55 precious minutes in which you are to instruct a balanced literacy program (ssr, guided reading, word study, and writing), literature, communications/media, and, on top of that, you have a high number of ELL students and that the schoolís emphasis is language! WOW!!!!

You don't have as much time as most progressive middle schools for English Language Arts much less for a high ELL population. I think itís regrettable that the school doesn't have a curriculum and that you had to design your own as a relatively new teacher.

Well, I'm sure that I'm not sharing anything that hasn't already gone through your mind. Here are some recommendations...

First, would it be possible to partner with your social studies person to build a "humanities block" of sorts? That would allow you nearly 2 hours of time (assuming the SS person has 55 minutes, too) to get your program more balanced and to take some of the pressure off of you. I'm a big believer in integrating with the content areas so that students have a better chance of transferring the language arts skills/strategies into their real reading and writing. For example, the guided reading or writing "blocks" can often be a part of Soc. St., or Word Study might be best included during that time.

For the integration of SS and ELA, several factors would have to be considered: Is the SS person willing? Is the SS person well-versed in ELA? Is the school willing to allow the integration? And, do you and SS teacher have collaborative planning time? I know this takes a lot of effort to organize.

Next, if the SS integration isn't possible, you'll have to make the best of the 55 minutes you have daily. I don't know how you've been organizing the rotating 3 groups on MWF-----Was that organized like centers where 3 groups rotated about 15-20 minutes per area of GR, SSR, and Word Study? I don't think that's the best scenario because for upper grades it's very fragmented and you're not able to offer the direct instruction you need to. I think I would tend to have all students together (the 4-Blocks way) and do something like....

Every other day - Guided Reading and Word Study (GR about 40 minutes, Words about 15)

Every other day - Writing and SSR (WR about 35 minutes, SSR about 20 minutes...which is awfully short)

So, there wouldn't be a MWF and a TTH, rather it would rotate M-W-F-T-TH-M-W-F-T-TH.... I've seen some teachers handle this successfully.

If too much continuity is lost with the every other day plan, you might try 3-day runs of GR/Words on M-T-W and WR/SSR on TH-F-M. Don't know if that would be too confusing since you'd never have the same plan two weeks in a row, but I've seen it done before.

Sometimes because of what's being taught, GR and Writing will need to be integrated for the whole 55 and Word Study and SSR can have their day with more time for both (For example, if you're doing a research project that allows you to integrate reading and writing instruction). As far as literature circles, I would include that in my plan occasionally (no need to have lit circles weekly, I don't think). With either of the above arrangements, you might switch and put GR and SSR together and use that for your 55 minute block.

Next, if all else fails, be vocal with your administrators so that they see how impossible your task is and how their 55 minute ELA time might not be the best plan for the success of those children you're serving. As the old saying goes, "If you do things the way you've always done them, you'll get what you've always gotten." Now, maybe your administrators are relatively satisfied with the achievement level of your students and with how they've been meeting their goals. But, hopefully, they aren't so complacent that they don't think they can improve. A more integrated program or at least more quality language arts time could make a tremendous difference, especially with the population you serve. I would encourage you to start lobbying! (But then...I've always been a bit of a maverick in education...)

You might also reference The Teacherís Guide to Big Blocks for some additional scheduling ideas.

I hope I haven't been too direct/honest with my assessment of the situation. I'm here if you have further questions. I hope I haven't confused you more than given you some "food for thought"! I do wish you well with your daunting task! Please stay in touch and let me know how you work things out. You might offer something that would help other teachers in your same predicament that we could put on this web site.

Cheryl

Question (Required to use worksheets)

Cheryl,

I am moving to 2nd after 11 years in K. I have used Building Blocks in my K class for most of my years there, and I was thrilled with the results. I am trying to figure out how I'm going to use 4 Blocks in my 2nd grade room. The other 2nd grade teachers don't use much (if any) of it, so I can't ask them for help.

Here's my dilemma: I am going to have to do some of the worksheets that come with our reading series. I'd rather skip 90% of them (at least), but that is not an option. I do try to choose worksheets carefully, though.

How do you suggest I regularly fit in the blocks, and still fit in enough worksheets to appease administration? Do you think alternating days would be best, or squeezing it all in together? I have no idea if my schedule will allow that, but I'll try if I have to.

I know this is a lot to ask, but I'm at a loss... Thank you!

Lisa

Answer:

Hi, Lisa!

Thanks for writing to me and for your interest in Four-Blocks! I'm glad that you had success with Building Blocks and that you're determined to implement what you know works in your new 2nd grade classroom. My bet is that you'll have your other colleagues eager to learn from you before long when they see the results you'll get!

I agree with you that there are not as many good worksheets in this world as I once thought...and, apparently, not as many as some people are still convinced are good for kids. I usually ask myself 3 questions to determine if a worksheet is worthy of kids' time...

  1. Is it connected to "real" reading and writing? If kids can't clearly see how the skill or strategy taught connects to other situations, it won't likely get transferred...which, by the way, is the reason for teaching these skills and strategies.
  2. Can students complete it successfully at about an 85% level of accuracy? The worksheet shouldn't be used for teaching....the teacher should do this directly and explicitly. The worksheet should be used for a little additional practice.
  3. And, last but not least...Do students need a little additional practice? If I already have evidence that they know the skill or strategy, I don't want to waste their time or my time with it. But, if a little additional practice could help, the worksheet might be used.

From what you've shared, I realize that you might not be in control of determining when or if you'll use each worksheet, so... If you have to use worksheets, the times might be...

  • Use a worksheet to bring closure to the Guided Reading Block (or the Writing Block or Words Block) if it's truly connected to the skill or strategy that was the focus of the lesson. It needs to be completed quickly and should give you some feedback as to the students' understanding of the skill or strategy. I would NOT use worksheets for closure every day...probably not even every other day. I want to find different ways to close so that I can keep the kids energized and motivated. Worksheets aren't usually very motivational! I'm sure you agree!
  • Use a worksheet as homework to reinforce what was taught in class.
  • Set apart a few minutes of "practice" time each day for these worksheets that, hopefully, connect to your lessons. This could be time after lunch to settle kids back down. I would definitely NOT sacrifice one of the blocks each day to accommodate worksheets.

Also, be sure that worksheets are truly required by your administrators. So often when teachers tell me they have unreasonable constraints, I find when I pursue it with administrators that the constraints are actually self-imposed or have been perpetuated by others. Be vocal on behalf of your students for those things you believe in. Your administrators will, hopefully, appreciate that you have these convictions that guide instruction in your classroom.

If you have other questions, feel free to write. Good luck with your move to second grade. I have a feeling those are some lucky kids to have you for their teachers this coming year.

Cheryl

Question (Materials for Below Grade Level Days)

Do you have suggestions for resources for below grade level reading days? We have a new reading series this year and they have below level readers, but they only have five copies per class. The teachers are talking about sharing, but they also were in need of other options. Ideas?

Answer

Here's a brainstorm list of materials to use on below grade level days:

  • An article from a popular children's magazine can be used by reading and rereading over the two days
  • Poems make great below level day reading (You can still teach almost all comp skills through poetry, and poems help students with fluency.)
  • Songs make good below level day reading (You can find lyrics online.)
  • Readers' theater books (There are wonderful series of RT books and also some web sites that have good ones. Kids always love taking part in a "play" like this.)
  • Reading A-Z has good resources that are leveled. Their selections have to be downloaded and copied. I like their non-fiction better than their fiction, but, hopefully, teachers are using lots of non-fiction.
  • Lots of web sites offer reading materials.
  • Below level days can include student and class compositions.
  • If you have funding, there are many good high interest, low vocabulary books today. Scholastic has some wonderful series of these as do Rigby and Steck-Vaughn.

Question (Contemplating Implementing 4-Blocks at Upper Grades)

I've heard a lot about 4-Blocks Literacy and am interested in trying to implement it in my 5th grade reading/language arts class. However, time is a factor. I see four groups of kids for 60 minutes per day to teach reading, writing, grammar, and spelling. This is my first year to teach 5th grade, and am also at a new school. I get some extra time with my homeroom, and this is sometimes to be used for silent reading time. This school is BIG in Reading Renaissance/Accelerated Reading. Should I try the 4-Blocks approach? If so, what book(s) do you suggest? Do you have any advice, or can you direct me to any web sites that may be helpful? Thank you for your time!

Answer

What a shame that your school expects you to take care of all of your students' language arts needs within a 60 minute time frame! Yikes! That's a tough order!

Yes, I would encourage you to make some attempt at a balanced approach with your students. You can't have the perfect daily balance with so little time; however, you can come up with a plan for making sure that students have a comprehension/guided reading time, a writing workshop, some word exploration/development time, and SSR. You can allot each day to address, perhaps, two of those areas and create a balance over the course of the week. Also, you'll probably need to mesh your Rdg. Renaissance/AR time with your SSR.

In Four-Blocks grammar is done during the Writing Block where it makes the most sense to students. They'll pick up on it all so much quicker! So, now you don't have to think about separate grammar and writing time.

Also, spelling is included in our Words Block time, and at upper grades you'll explore patterns, word parts and anything that helps students understand the "how to" part of spelling, decoding and phonics so that they can transfer this knowledge into real world reading and writing. So, you won't have to think about separate times for spelling and word development.

Here are a couple of questions for you:

Is RR/AR done during your 60 minutes with the students? If not, then you'll only need to balance the three areas of reading, writing and words within your 60 minutes.

Can you partner with a content area teacher to create more opportunities for balance? For example, science or social studies is a great time to teach a guided reading lesson since students will see that reading strategies are learned for application during content reading.

Is there any chance that you can start some conversations about getting more time for language arts----perhaps two blocks of time? If students aren't proficient in the language arts areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening, they won't do well in any area. So, we should put our time and energy where it'll have the biggest payoff----language arts!

Hey! Who knows....Maybe you'll get everyone there so excited about something new that they'll all want to jump onboard.

Okay...books for you: Modifying Four-Blocks for the Upper Grades (Sigmon) which has great ideas and explains the basics and also has lots of different schedules used in lots of upper grade classrooms; Month by Month Phonics for Upper Grades; Teacher's Guide to Big Blocks; and Phonics/Vocabulary for 5th Grade. All of these are published by Carson-Dellosa and should be very helpful.

Good luck and stay in touch!

Question: (Transferring Words)

A curriculum specialist writes, "In thinking about next year, this question came up this year, and I couldn't come up with just the right explanation. For the months of August and September, the word wall words are because, people, friends, said, have, they, laugh, until, off, and want. How do I do transfer with these words? I'm guessing that all words won't have transfer? Also, the NTF words are composer, impossible, discovery, musician, encouragement, richest, hopeless, and unfriendly. Are the transfer words made from the prefixes and suffixes of these words?

Answer:

With words like "because," "people," "friends," etc., there are lots of ways to help students with transfer. I'm assuming you're familiar with the use of patterns and that the fact that these aren't pattern words has you confused. Right? Well, think of transfer in a more general way. Transfer just means that you want to help your students understand how these words are to be used in their REAL reading and writing. You could use synonyms, antonyms, and derivations of the words for transfer. For example, I might take advantage of the opportunity to teach how "because" is so often misused to create sentence fragments. I might dictate 5 "sentences" using because and have them explore which of the "sentences" really are sentences rather than fragments. Or, I might brainstorm with kids different words that could be used instead of "said" and when those words would be appropriate and more expressive than the tired word "said." I might teach them the different verb tenses and how "have" would change since it's tenses are irregular. You don't have to work on transfer for every word. But, the ones you choose each week should have some value beyond the rote memorization.

The same goes for your NTF words. Their word parts----bases, prefixes, and suffixes---are their real value. So, work with your students to find or make other words that use those same morphemic units. Analyze the words you come up with to find their common threads. Show students how their knowledge about a word part can extend to help them figure out what other words mean. Lots of teachers have experimented with tests that let students show their knowledge of this.

Question: (Disadvantages of Four-Blocks?)

This one is in two parts. Be sure to read them both!

Teri writes, "I'm making a presentation to our Board about Four-Blocks. Along w/ all the advantages and wonderful aspects of it, I think I need to include what are possible disadvantages. However, I am finding it difficult to find any in my research. Can you help?

Answer:

Hmmmm....I'm not sure anyone has posed such a question to me... Let me think... Okay, here are five of the disadvantages I've heard mentioned by others:

Some folks think that the greatest disadvantage is that we don't have students reading at their own precise readability level during Guided Reading. However, if you understand why Four-Blocks is constructed the way it is, you know that it's really inconsequential during GR.

Some teachers feel that Four-Blocks is too rigid---that it defines too much for them. We're often criticized because of the use of timers, etc. However, the "rigidity" insures that we'll cover everything needed in a balanced program and that we won't let our own teaching style dictate what kids have exposure to and, more importantly, what they won't be exposed to that might help them. Also, the framework certainly allows for teachers to interject their own personalities into their instruction.

Some people don't like the type of phonics we instruct. We don't teach a synthetic blending of sounds like some programs. We don't feel that method is based on current research about how we decode words.

Some people don't feel that writing should receive equal emphasis in a reading program. But, ask any Four-Blocks teacher about the power of the Writing Block to allow students to apply everything they've learned! It's how research says 60% of kids learn to read first----through their own writing!

Some teachers complain that Four-Blocks doesn't allow for lots of worksheets and that they don't know how else to gather grades for students. Believe me, though, we don't need all of those worksheets. There are plenty of ways to gather grades in a far more meaningful way. We have much better ways of engaging our students, too!

I think those are the main disadvantages that I've heard expressed. I don't know of any particular research to direct you to give you additional disadvantages. Good luck on your presentation! I hope you'll convince them that Four-Blocks is definitely the way to go!

Now, while I was preparing my list of disadvantages, Teri came up with a list. Below you'll read her list of disadvantages and my responses in green:

Disadvantages/Responses:

  • Monetary considerations: Budget expenditures for implementation vary, depending upon the amount of training and materials required. The most expensive budget requirement is for multiple copies of a wide variety of books for students to use in the self-selected reading block. One moderate cost estimate for implementation of Four Blocks is $162 per student.
  • My response: For some districts, there is no additional expense. It's fine to use current basal anthologies for the grade-level material necessary for GR and to supplement with articles, poems, Internet selections, etc. Also, many schools have ample supplies of books for SSR. (They should NOT purchase multiple copies of same title books for SSR. Maybe that was an error? They do need multiple copies of same titles for GR, however.)
  • District would need a full day kindergarten program to have enough time to implement the program correctly.
  • My response: I'm all for full day K, but it isn't totally necessary for Four-Blocks. I encourage schools to implement Building Blocks as a precursor to Four-Blocks. But, again, it isn't mandatory--just ideal.
  • Where are the writing fundamentals? (Penmanship, fine-motor, print concepts, pencil grip)
  • My response: We have NOT abandoned teaching handwriting. We include it in the Working with Words Block. So, this shouldn't be considered as a disadvantage.
  • Ideally, schools should implement the Four Blocks when all students are present so every child can receive instruction under every method. Scheduling the daily Guided Reading block should occur when children who receive out-of-classroom services, such as Reading Recovery, are not present since these are equivalent modes of instruction. Remedy- teacher may prefer to have additional adult support, such as parent volunteers or paras, during the Guided Reading and writing block.
  • My response: The first statement is true--ALL students need to be present for ALL four blocks because all students need the balance provided. The second statement isn't ideal, and you've stated it in a firm, directive way--"should occur". The more Four-Blocks teachers integrate their material during GR time, the more critical it is for all students to be present. For example, if a teacher is using the science book for GR (which we greatly encourage!) to teach students how to read the material (how it's organized, etc.), then he/she might use the science block of time later in the day for hands-on experiments based on the content read earlier. If a child has been pulled out of the class during GR, then when he returns and gets to the science lesson, he is further disadvantaged because he didn't get to read the material on which the experiment is based. So, you've further disadvantaged a disadvantaged child. It gets to be a vicious cycle.So, the best remedy is to pull kids, if necessary, at times other than Four-Blocks. Also, if I have additional help--whether voluntary or certified, I want them to come in during the Writing Block. In my opinion, that's the most powerful time and the most inconspicuous time to help kids in Four-Blocks.
  • Guided Reading is the more challenging block to accommodate all reading levels as the teacher must select a set of books with similar themes, but written for different reading abilities.
  • My response: I'm not sure I understand this. I may not understand how you've worded this, but in GR the Four-Blocks way, we don't select a series of books with similar themes on different reading levels. In the primary grades, we spend about 3 days using multiple copies of the same piece that's about grade level with ALL students. We have many different ways to support each child's success at reading the selection. Then, we have about 2 days of instruction using multiple copies of the same title of below grade level text with ALL students. We're looking for the widest range of material possible to which students can successfully apply the skill or strategy that we've just taught in our mini-lesson.

Question: (Topic: Pullouts and Assistance)

Hi Cheryl! This year, we are having the Basic Skills Reading Teachers come into classrooms to support the struggling students for 45 minutes each day. Here are my questions:

Do you think it's best to go in during the Guided Reading block or the SSR block?

Or is a combination better?

Is it ever appropriate to pull children out to remediate?

Thank you in advance for your help! Donna

Answer:

Donna, when I have a choice about when to have someone help the struggling children, oddly enough it isn't during either of the blocks you've mentioned. It's actually during the Writing Block. That's the block I feel is hardest to make truly multi-level for students. I know if I'm conferencing with a student that I'm turning my back during that time on kids who really need help. If someone could be there to guide them, it's a most powerful time to do that. That's when someone can be inconspicuous in helping those particular students stretch out sounds (some even take the opportunity to use the whisper phones to pronounce words clearly to help students hear the sounds in words), put something on paper, and to do a modified shared reading activity with what has been written. If the research is right, approximately 60% of our students figure out reading for the first time through their own writing. Powerful...and even more powerful if someone is there to offer guidance!

Is it ever appropriate to pull out kids to remediate? Yes, I'm sure there are cases that warrant that attention. I don't pretend that Four-Blocks can do everything for everybody. But, if I can, I'll be sure that all students still get all four blocks with the regular ed. teacher and the extra assistance.

By the way, are you familiar with FROG (Facilitating Reading for Optimal Growth)? It's a model that takes about 40 minutes to reinforce each of the four blocks with small tutorial groups. There's a little written about it in the Q and A section of The Teacher's Guide to Four-Blocks. You might want to check it out.

Good luck with what you're doing so that ALL students can succeed! ---------------Cheryl

Question: (Topic: Parents Assisting in Positive Ways)

I've been up all night trying to find resources for my dilemma. I am not a teacher, just a concerned mom. My 10 year old step-daughter is having great difficulty in her school work. I believe the problem lies with the fact that her mother is never willing to assist with homework because she believes my step-daughter should "just try harder." I can't change that fact, so I am trying to work with what I can while we have my step-daughter for the summer and other visits. Her reading skills are at a second grade level at best. She reads very quickly and doesn't take time for accuracy-just skims things over and skips words that she doesn't recognize immediately. Thus, her comprehension of stories and problems is terrible. I believe that her other studies would improve if we could just get her to be more consistent in her reading. Are there any online resources that you know of to help with this issue? Thank you so much for your time! Jennifer

Answer:

Jennifer, I know the feeling of frustration in dealing with a child for whom reading is difficult. My youngest daughter struggled with reading, and it's largely why I spend my life traveling around the country at the pace that I do...at my age! Now what can we do about your step-daughter? The problem isn't a quick one to solve, but it likely has a solution. She could greatly benefit from having someone knowledgeable about reading strategies to work with her. I'm assuming you've stressed to her that reading isn't a race. Some kids really don't understand that. Also, some don't understand that it isn't about calling the words. They need to be told that they have to be active participants with the page of printed text.

One little lesson I do with kids is to model for them what I think as I read. I model 4 main things that my brain picks up on as I read informational text-----1) that some of what I'm reading I already knew; 2) that some things are brand new to me; 3) that I encounter some things that make me have questions; and 4) that some things make me stop and say "Wow!"---things that surprise me that are new. I model thinking through some text. Then, I give the kids a post-it note that I've cut 3 times from the edge to the sticky part so that the Post-It note has 4 "fingers". I ask the kids to read and each time they come to something they recognize that they already knew to tear off one of the "fingers" and stick it to the text. We use up all 4 of the notes that way. Then, we reread and find things that are brand new to them, etc., etc. With practice, kids learn how to process the text they read and to pay it closer attention. There are many ways to teach kids to process text.

Someone also needs to work with your step-daughter to teach her decoding strategies that she can use to decode unfamiliar words she encounters. She needs to know that some of those words-not all of them-are keeping her from understanding and enjoying what she's reading.

I wish your step-daughter could be in a Four-Blocks classroom. I think she would be served well by getting a balanced program----learning comp strategies, getting some word development and decoding help, having a chance to self-select books and read to build habits of reading, and working with writing to put it all together. Is there any possibility she'll be in a Four-Blocks class this year?

I don't know of online help for your step-daughter. I would stay in close touch with her new teacher to be sure that you, her dad, and her mom are advocates for what she needs to catch her up to her peers and to help reach her potential. Don't take "no" for an answer at her school. They owe her a good education that helps her catch up. Sometimes well behaved girls are truly overlooked. But, be the squeaky wheel on her behalf. Thank goodness she has you looking after her! Let me know how I might be of help to you. I care, too! ----------------Cheryl

Good luck with what you're doing so that ALL students can succeed! ---------------Cheryl

Question: (Topic: Publishing and Writing Centers)

I've just been awarded $1500 to set up a publishing/writing center and to enhance my classroom library as well. While I already have some ideas, I'd love to get ideas from other teachers/classrooms you have visited. I am a reading teacher and service first and second grade students.

Thanks for your help in advance, Terry

Answer:

Terry, congratulations on receiving the grant award! Wow! Spending $1,500 will be lots of fun! Here are a few ideas for your publishing center:

  • lots of different sizes, shapes, and colors of paper
  • lots of different pens and pencils (find fancy ones with glitter, feathers, etc.)
  • materials for illustrating the books (crayons, magic markers, glitter)
  • a book binder with a supply of plastic binders
  • a stapler
  • silver rings for binding class books
  • yarn for binding class books
  • a tired words chart (See Fun Stuff at this website for directions)
  • a hole-puncher
  • packages of copy paper (especially if you're using a computer)
  • clip art packages (Print Master or Print Shop----if you're using a computer)
  • sun visors for each student (decorate with "Editor" and put cute stickers on them)
  • print lots of book templates for kids to construct their books easily
  • a couple of dictionaries appropriate for your kids
  • a thesaurus appropriate for your kids
  • (optional of course) a digital camera to scan into the books, especially for making informational books
  • One teacher I've worked with placed a sign above her publishing center that read "Writers' Tools" where she dangled plastic-but realistic looking-tools from which she hung different writing craft words like "imagery," "details," etc.
  • Some books to use as good writing models would definitely be appropriate. You'll find some of my favorites at my web site (www.cherylsigmon.com) in the Books and Articles section (click on Books Used in Cheryl's Seminars).
In the writing seminars I've been doing for SDR, I display two centers that I've been experimenting with: a Revision Center and a Publishing Center. Both of these have helped to motivate students to produce higher quality pieces of writing. I've created my centers on trifolds boards (you can purchase the science project boards for this). They're easy to fold up and store in a closet in rooms where teachers simply don't have the space for permanent centers or where teachers choose to change the atmosphere for the Writing Block.

In my Revision Center, here's what I have on my first panel of the trifold: my editor's checklist and several whisper phones that students can use to read over and edit their papers. On the middle panel, I have Writer's Tools (large cut-outs of tools and words representing what I've been teaching). On the third panel, I have Sparkle Words at the top written in glitter with a few choice words scattered around to remind students that they need to make wise word choices (and a thesaurus is available). On the table where the trifold is set up, I have lots of materials for students to use as they make their revisions such as Post-It Notes, erasers, highlighters, red pens, dictionaries, a thesaurus, resource books, etc.

In my Publishing Center, here's what I have on display. In the first panel, I have clasp envelopes cut in half and pasted on the board to hold the different templates for student books: a title page, a dedication page, middle text pages, an about the author page, a summary page. On the middle panel, I spotlight an "Author of the Week" which is a student in the class. I put a school picture on that panel and some things about the student, including a quote from the student with advice for other writers. On the last panel, I've taken a real published book apart and have labeled it to show students how different parts of the book look in some books. On the table where the center is located, I have lots of materials again such as crayons, colored markers, book binder, stapler, etc.

Please let me know what you end up with in your center. I would love for you to take a picture of it and let's post it on my website for others to use as they think of doing this. There's nothing like a publishing center to motivate students to write! Good luck! --------------Cheryl

Question: (Topic: Vocabulary)

Cheryl, some questions came up in a meeting recently about introducing vocabulary from the anthology story. Do you teach the words in isolation or in context? Our reading basal series offers a chart with the words at the top of the page and then used in a paragraph. Would you use this chart and follow the script in the teacher's manual? Would you use all 9 words? Do you recommend using the same activity each week? Thanks again for your help! Donna

Answer:

Donna, this is a question of Isolation vs. Context. The value of your vocabulary words is in their meaning. My two main criteria for selecting which vocabulary words I'll use are: 1) Is this word critical for understanding the text? 2) Is this word useful to the student in future reading and writing? Knowing that the National Reading Panel says that students can't process more than about 10 new words a week (and that includes science, social studies, etc.), we need to be very selective in the words that we teach. We also need to remember that it's important to teach students that you don't have to figure out every single word that you read----we certainly don't do that as adults. But, we need to learn to monitor our comprehension to know which words might be critical to understanding. That being said...

I like to do something a little different each day with a few of the vocabulary words. I try to focus on only about 3-5 words per day, sometimes only reviewing the really important words that we've already talked about. I might start by using the paragraph your basal offers and have the students do Guess the Covered Word. Then, after we know which words are in our selection, we might make an inference about what we're going to read that day. Sometimes I introduce the words by doing a "text walk" where we locate the words, mark or frame them (maybe using Post-Its or highlighters) and talk about them in the context of the sentence they're in. That might also be a time to use the Word Grabber (the little flag made with cardboard on a paint stirrer that lifts the words from the text on a transparency...really neat and catches kids' attention!).

On the next days, I'll take just a few minutes at the beginning of the lesson to do Rivet or some other quick activity to help kids process the important words in a different way. If you have Modifying Four-Blocks for Upper Grades, you'll find that I put dozens of activities in that book to use for vocabulary. Variety is just the spice that the classroom needs!

Hope this helps you as you guide the teachers you're working with. --------Cheryl

Question: (Grouping further to meet students' needs.)

Four-Blocks is relatively new at our school, and I'm still trying to get a handle on it. I'm hoping you can clarify what one teacher is doing that seems logical but which might be contrary to Four-Blocks-I don't know. This teacher has a very diverse group of kids this year. She's trying to modify Four-Blocks to meet their needs. She uses 3 small flexible groups during her Four-Blocks Guided Reading. She does small group guided reading with each of the 3 groups while the other 2 groups are working independently in word and writing centers. She offers whole group instruction in writing and word at least weekly, and as needed. She also does small group mini-lessons in writing while she's with groups after guided reading. Conferences in writing and self-selected reading are held during scheduled times. She seems to be attempting to use creative teaching of best practices to meet the needs of all of her students. Does this seem like an appropriate way to modify Four Blocks while attempting to differentiate instruction when there are very diverse classroom instructional levels? Any guidance and clarification you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

Answer:

To answer your question, unfortunately, what you've described is not Four-Blocks. It could be termed a version of balanced literacy, but not Four-Blocks. Ironically, you mentioned that you feel the need to modify Four-Blocks to be able to attend to the diversity in your classroom, where, in fact, Four-Blocks was created to meet the needs of diversity in the classroom while at the same time making the classroom more manageable for the teacher. I think your goals are ambitious and that you certainly have kids' best interest at heart. However, you are ability grouping, and at the very heart of Four-Blocks, we believe that we can teach children in a more supportive, nurturing way without ability grouping or labeling them. I think you need a better understanding about how the different components of Four-Blocks work and exactly why we do what we do. For example, three of the blocks offer teachers time to work individually with students-----in SSR, we conference with students to encourage them to transfer what they've learned to material that is closer to their own readability than Guided Reading Block may have offered; in Guided Reading, the teacher isn't tethered to a small group and learns to turn over responsibility for practicing and applying to the students while being able to make the decision to work with a group or individual if the teacher chooses to do so; in Writing Block, the teacher conferences individually so that every student receives instruction at precisely his or her own level. That's just one example of how the blocks serve individual needs. I just don't think this teacher has realized this. I think she likes the "notion" of Four-Blocks but is still relying too heavily on her concept of guided reading to grow students. I think she needs a pat of the back, though, for caring as she does for her students.

In short, if you choose to ability group and say that you're doing Four-Blocks, it's like saying, "I'm a vegetarian, but I've decided to eat meat." The two just don't go together.

I hope this helps. I'm also attaching a copy of one of my articles about the center approach in Four-Blocks----having kids do independent work like you've described in your email. Maybe it'll offer further food for thought. -----------Cheryl

(**Note: You can find this article on centers by following the link in the Books and Articles section of this website to my articles at www.teachers.net.)

Question: (Quality Writing Conferences)

Dear Cheryl,
I am trying to implement the four blocks/big blocks into my fourth grade classroom. It seemed that things were going well until I started my writing conferences. Now that I take time to meet with individual students on a daily basis, my students with attention problems cannot stay on task. They are either talking, staring into space, or crawling all over their chairs, etc. Before I began conferences, I was monitoring everyone so I could go up to them and quietly focus there attention back to the task at hand. Now that I am conferencing, it seems like I have to interrupt my conferences to keep these students from bothering others. Any ideas on how to keep them going, or am I just going to have to stop at the end of each conference to speak to these students? I get all learning disabilities in my class each year and I thought this would be great for them, but my attention kids are having big problems achieving. Thanks, Candy

Answer:

Candy, I'll offer a couple of solutions to your problem:

  1. If you haven't started getting into publishing cycles, moving in that direction should help. Surely the ADD kids want to have their work published. They'll have to "put their noses to the grindstone", so to speak, to produce the several good pieces before they can publish one of those. Publication really motivates students---even those who are difficult to motivate.
  2. Create some work stations to offer privacy to students who need to filter out distractions around them. Find some little nooks and crannies in your room where you can put resources (dictionary, thesaurus, portable word wall, small Editor's Checklist in a plastic frame, etc.) and perhaps something like a lamp to create a different atmosphere. You might even put a few whisper phones in these areas to encourage students to read over what they've written. The phones seem to help them focus clearer on their writing.
  3. If you have only a student or two or three who can't seem to stay focused, put them close to the conference area, maybe even place their desks right by the conference table with their backs to you where you can get your hands on them and where you can check on them in between conferences.
  4. Establish rules for the class during conference and writing time. Give the students as much input into the rules as possible asking them what the conditions in the room need to be for them to be productive. List the rules in clear view of the class. Revisit them often if things aren't going well.
  5. Try giving the ADD students some extra responsibilities that might give them more ownership into the writing workshop. For example, you might assign them to keep supplies in the publishing center, to keep a poster in the room based on a survey of class members with things to write about, etc.
  6. Work with these students directly to set goals. If you can recruit some help to do this, it would lighten your workload, but every day or so, get a status of what these students have accomplished. If you've been to my advanced seminar, I gave a sheet that asks students to be accountable to how they spend their time each day. Conference with them about whether they're making good use of their time.
  7. If all else fails, I would return to your previous method of informally meeting with students to keep them all motivated and on task. You've got to get into publishing cycles, though, to get the very best from everyone.
I hope something here might be helpful. ---------Cheryl

Question: (Keeping the read-aloud in the SSR Block)

Hello! I have a quick question. I'm trying to support the implementation of Four-Blocks in my school. I've come across a few teachers who do their read-aloud at a separate time during the day and not during SSR. I know the reasons for the read-aloud (blessing books, ideas for writing, story elements, background knowledge, and so on), and I know the read-aloud fits in this block perfectly, but what should I tell them is the reason they should keep the read-aloud right before the children read? Many teachers have a 10-15 minute break in their day and want to read at that time. Then, they want the kids to do the rest of the block later on in the day. Thanks for the help! Lisa

Answer:

Lisa, I encounter this same question often with teachers wanting, for various and sundry reasons, to split up their SSR segments. The most convincing argument I can offer is that, from my observations and experience, keeping the segments together helps to maximize time on task. When teachers don't start the block with a read-aloud but merely ask students to settle down and read, students take much longer to actually settle down. If you read aloud first, it sets the tone, models what students will be doing independently, and gets them ready to read. I would also encourage teachers to take advantage of any time during the day that they can do additional read-alouds with their students, but I think starting the SSR Block with the read-aloud makes them more efficient and effective. Is keeping all the 3 segments together in SSR a make or break deal for Four-Blocks? No, I don't think so. If teachers have a good defense for doing the read-aloud at a time other than the beginning of SSR, I don't think that means they're not doing Four-Blocks. But, I would encourage them to think about it. Hope this helps! ----Cheryl

Question: (Organizing SSR)

Cheryl, my Self-Selected Reading questions are:

  1. I try to hold conferences with 3-5 children daily as all the other children read. While I am having a conference with my first child, what are the other three to four children doing that I will conference with later?
  2. If you start self-selected reading on a Monday how can you have a conference with the three to four children and they haven't read any books yet?
  3. Once the reading basket is on their table do they select their own book from the basket? Should each student at that table be given a time on how long it should take them to select their book to read?


I need help!!!!! :) A 2nd Grade Teacher in Tennessee


Answer:

Hope these help you:

  1. When you're conferring with one child, the other students will continue to read until it's their time to be with you. Many teachers have charts on the wall that tell students in which order they'll be meeting with you. Some teachers merely call on students as they're ready for them. Occasionally you might meet with small groups of students all at the same time. During these group conferences, you might compare and contrast what they're reading-different main characters, different settings, different genres and characteristics to determine them.
  2. In reference to your question about how to conduct a conference on Monday with kids who haven't begun to read their books-good question! This is the reason I don't like to assign students to a particular day of the week. I don't always want the same kids to come to me on Monday without having read their books. However, I can have a good conference with kids who've just chosen something to read. For those conferences, we talk about: Why did you choose this book? What appealed to you about it? What do you think it'll be about and why? What kind of book do you think this is? Let's get started together with the first sentences/paragraphs.
  3. Yes, students select their own books from the basket. Prior to doing that, you need to do several lessons on how to choose a "just right" book. (I've got info on my website about this that I've just posted. See the Goldilocks Rule under the Handout section.) As you begin this SSR time, students will be eager to see all of the books and materials that are in the basket. So, be prepared that they'll probably flip through books rather than read. But, hang in there! They will settle down and begin to read when they realize that they have a week to see all the materials. During this time, keep in your mind that this block is all about building reading habits and getting our kids hooked on reading. Don't hyperventilate over whether or not they're reading carefully or reading materials always in their entirety. Just let them enjoy interacting with books and seeing themselves as readers. -------------Cheryl

Dear Cheryl,
I recently took a new job in a district that does not have anthologies or class sets of books. I had been using Four Blocks in my old district (independently, unfortunately) with the anthology. This district has 5 and 6 copies of books for Guided Reading. How do I modify my Guided Reading block? I feel like a fish out of water with this change. Iím teaching 2nd grade, and certainly cannot start buying 20 copies of different stories. They do not have any content texts either. I appreciate your advice. -------Liz


Answer:

Hi, Liz! Thanks for writing to me. I'm sorry to hear about your situation, although I'm sure you'll make the best of it. Here are a couple of suggestions that I can think of:

  1. If each teacher at your grade level has the same sets of 5-6 of the same titles, you might be able to trade and pull together some class sets.
  2. First build towards collections of half the number of students in your class that will allow you to have kids read using whole class methods (such as echo, choral) and will allow you to put kids in partner groups and playschool groups for reading.
  3. Use lots of poems and songs that are easy to reproduce. Also, use newsletters your school is probably subscribing to such as Weekly Reader or Scholastic News or any articles from similar newsletters and children's magazines.
  4. Use material from websites that give you permission to reproduce like www.enchantedlearning.com.

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