Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Departmentalizing (Blocking) Reading: Caution

This year, I moved to a new grade level in my building (a change that has been pleasantly nice), and we made the switch to departmentalizing reading across grades 3-5. If you're not familiar with the concept, to departmentalize in this case means that the grades involved share a common time for the subject, and students are put into ability groups, meaning that the majority will not be with their "homeroom teacher." This is also known as "blocking" in some circles, depending upon the jargon that is used where you teach. For the previous three years, the school I work in did self-contained reading groups (with the exception of some pull out special education students), and I was met with great success, because I was responsible for my students, and they performed up to the level that I demanded of them.

Now with this move to departmentalization, something I had previously dealt with four years ago, I have been forced to advocate for what I believe is best, both in my own experience and from what the research says.

I will first discuss my own opinions apart from the research:

I believe that self-containing classrooms in an elementary setting have many great advantages, ESPECIALLY in the area of literacy. We teach pre-service teachers that reading should be cross curriculur, that students need consistency, they need to reflect on their reading all day, and that they should have a classroom where they are able to revisit their readings and branch out into the other disciplines with their new knowledge.

My school has blocked reading from 3rd grade through 5th grade, and it basically looks like this:

Highest Group (taught by a 5th grade teacher)
2nd Highest (taught by 5th grade teacher)
Next (taught by 4th grade teacher)
So on and so forth, moving down the line to 3rd grade.

Now, for the highest groups, these teachers keep their high 5th graders, and are given the highly advanced 4th graders and off the chart high 3rd graders. So the highest 4th grade group is not truly the highest 4th grade group, because the highest 4th graders move up, while lower 5th graders move down. So basically, all but the top two groups become remedial in nature. Students, whether we want to admit it or not as teachers, are keenly aware of what group they are in. They know if they are "high" or "low," and this has detrimental effects on the motivation of all but the highest students.

Putting these facts aside, let's look at the effect of splitting the classes up for reading block. I love to teach literacy thematically, and let it flow over into social studies, math, and writing. With my students spread all over the building, I can no longer do this. To sum this up, everything that WORKS in the classroom is fundamentally impossible to do in a blocked environment.

The research in this area in the past has been mostly qualitative in nature, and has focused on standardized test scores, as well as student input, mostly in the form of narrative or question responses. For every study that opposes blocking, I can easily find one that is in favor of it, both in theory and in data. As with most issues in reading, there are opposing camps, and if this had been definitively proven one way or the other, it doesn't necessarily mean that we wouldn't be here anyways (because a shockingly low number of teachers actually read and understand current research). I am currently performing some doctoral level research on this very subject, and hope to have some beginning level results in by Thanksgiving.

Obviously I am opposed to the departmentalization of reading. I would like to continue this discussion. Maybe some of you have success stories, and that's great. But personally, I do not see the value, have not seen the value, and continue to not see the value.


happenstans said...

I've dealt with both block reading and self-contained, and advocate self-contained as well. Having control over your own students, and being able to refer to the reading throughout the day is advantageous. I couldn't agree more.