For the past seven years Ryan taught second grade at Sunnyside Elementary School. He and his three grade partners had a great working relationship, collaborated on major projects and initiatives, and provided daily balanced literacy instruction for their students. According to Cunningham and Allington (2011), teachers who balance comprehensive literacy instruction ensure high levels of student engagement, expertly manage their classrooms, and help their students achieve proficiency in both reading and writing. This year, Ryan moved to fifth grade where he expected the same type of devotion to the literacy block; however, to his dismay he found that the focus seemed more on standardized testing preparation than prioritizing daily literacy instruction.
Emphasizing Time and Instruction
The focus of this article is to emphasize the best use of time and instructional strategies during the allotted time for reading and language arts in grades four and beyond. It seems that the current literature contains more recommendations for teachers of the primary grades than it does for those who teach non-primary grades regarding balanced literacy (Allington, 2002; Fountas & Pinnell, 2006; Tompkins, 2010). In order to ensure that instructional time is wisely used to meet the learning requirements of students, upper elementary instruction needs two components: effective teachers and a clearly articulated daily literacy block along with literacy embedded within the content areas.
Balancing Literacy within the Literacy Block
The literacy block, also referred to as the language arts block, is defined as the portion
of time during the day when reading, writing, speaking and listening are the major focus in order to help students become effective communicators inside and outside the classroom (Ogle & Beers, 2012). Originally called “four blocks” by Cunningham, Hall, & DeFee (1991) the areas of shared reading, guided reading, writing, and word work were stressed because of their critical relevance to the literacy development of elementary students. Later, Cunningham and Allington (2003, 2011) described the instructional framework of the day for primary grades by delineating time frames for each subject area, with an extended time for reading and other language arts. They used the term “building blocks” for the primary grades and “ big blocks” for the upper elementary grades. Although these ideologies remain common ground for structuring language arts in the primary grades, other elementary grades also adapted a “block” conceptualization for instructing children. These blocks of time afford children the opportunity for voluminous reading which help them internalize the necessary reading skills and strategies of proficient, lifelong readers
(Miller, 2012). Additionally, these blocks of time increase the stamina of the reader and allow
them needed time to grapple with texts and the ideas and themes proposed by authors (Atwell,
2007). Teachers also reap the rewards of having an extended period of time for instruction
during the literacy block. Teachers can teach the whole class, meet with small groups of students,
and confer with individual students (Graves, Juel, Graves, & Dewitz, 2011). Differentiated instruction takes place naturally as teachers prioritize their time during an extended literacy block. Furthermore, the literacy block affords teachers the opportunity to connect reading, writing, and thinking as they plan thoughtful instruction to meet the literacy needs of children in today’s classrooms.
A Shift in Thinking
Ryan’s teaching experiences in the primary grades caused him to realize the value of having a designated amount of time for integrating the language arts so that students made connections between word skills and contextualized reading, and between reading and composing. These connections are important to developing proficiency in all learners, not just those in the early grades. The conceptualization of balanced literacy should not begin and end in the primary grades. Ryan’s move to the fifth grade has presented him with a dilemma: how to do collaborative work with his teaching peers to convince them of the importance of strategic teaching and learning during an uninterrupted, extended period of time within the literacy block.