Block Scheduling- Articles

Block Scheduling

Scheduling Foreign Languages on the Block

These two articles can be found by searching the ERIC Digest at

Block Scheduling

by Karen Irmsher

Originally published in ERIC Digest, Number 104 (1996).
A copy of this article can be obtained by writing to ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, 5207 University of Oregon, 1787 Agate Street, Eugene, OR 97403-5207 (free; $2.50 postage and handling).

Six classes a day, five days week, every day the same schedule.

Telephones and radios were still novelties when high schools nationwide petrified the school day into this rigid pattern. The refrigerator and television hadn’t been invented, much less the copy machine, computer, and video player.

We live in a very different world now, and we know immeasurably more about how students learn. Yet most contemporary high school and middle school students are still locked into the same archaic schedule that their great-grandparents experienced when they were teenagers.

This Digest looks at problems inherent in the traditional scheduling pattern. Then it examines the benefits and challenges of block scheduling, and ends with a few tips for making the transition.


For starters, say critics, the pace is grueling. A typical student will be in nine locations pursuing nine different activities in a six-and-a-half-hour school day. An average teacher must teach five classes, dealing with 125-180 students and multiple preparations. This frantic, fragmented schedule is unlike any experienced either before or after high school.

“It produces a hectic, impersonal, inefficient instructional environment,” states Joseph Carroll (1994), provides inadequate time for probing ideas in depth, and tends to discourage using a variety of learning activities. Opportunities for individualization of instruction and meaningful interaction between students and teachers are hard to come by.

No matter how complex or simple the school subject, the schedule assigns an impartial national average of fifty-one minutes per class period, say Robert Canady and Michael Rettig (1995). And despite wide variation in the time it takes individual students to succeed at learning any given task, the allocated time is identical for all.

The 1994 report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning states, “Schools will have a design flaw as long as their organization is based on the assumption that all students can learn on the same schedule.”

In addition, since most disciplinary problems occur during scheduled transitions, the more transitions, the more problems. And a great deal of time is lost in simply starting and ending so many classes in a day.

“Traditional, inflexible scheduling is based on administrative and institutional needs,” say Gary Watts and Shari Castle (1993). Flexible scheduling patterns are a much better match for pedagogical practices that meet the educational needs of students and the professional needs of teachers.


Gordon Cawelti (1994) defines it as follows: “At least part of the daily schedule is organized into larger blocks of time (more than sixty minutes) to allow flexibility for a diversity of instructional activities.”

The variations are endless, and may involve reconfiguring the lengths of terms as well as the daily schedule. Some of the possibilities detailed by Canady and Rettig include:

*Four ninety-minute blocks per day; school year divided into two semesters; former year-long courses completed in one semester.

*Alternate day block schedule: six or eight courses spread out over two days; teachers meet with half of their students each day.

*Two large blocks and three standard-sized blocks per day; year divided into sixty-day trimesters with a different subject taught in the large blocks each trimester.

*Some classes (such as band, typing, foreign language) taught daily, others in longer blocks on alternate days.

*Six courses, each meeting in three single periods, and one double period per week.

*Seven courses. Teachers meet with students three days out of four–twice in single periods, once in a double period.

And there are many more. Any of these can be modified, of course, to meet the specific needs of a school.

Scheduling changes are usually linked to decreased reliance on the standard lecture-discussion-seatwork pattern, and an increase in individualization and creative teaching strategies. They are often part of a major restructuring effort.


Larger blocks of time allow for a more flexible and productive classroom environment, along with more opportunities for using varied and interactive teaching methods. Other benefits listed by Jeffrey Sturgis (1995) include: more effective use of school time, decreased class size, increased number of course offerings, reduced numbers of students with whom teachers have daily contact, and the ability of teachers to use more process-oriented strategies.

In evaluations of schools using block scheduling, Carroll found more course credits completed, equal or better mastery and retention of material, and an impressive reduction in suspension and dropout rates. He posits improved relationships between students and teachers as a major factor. Every school in Carroll’s study benefited from the changes, though not all in the same ways or to the same degree.

Positive outcomes multiply when four “year-long” courses are taught in longer time blocks, each compressed into one semester, say Canady and Rettig. This pattern allows students to enroll in a greater number and variety of elective courses and offers more opportunities for acceleration. Students who fail a course have an earlier opportunity to retake it, enabling them to regain the graduation pace of their peers. Teachers have fewer students to keep records and grades for each semester, and schools require fewer textbooks. What’s more, overall satisfaction in the learning process is greater for both students and teachers.


All change is painful, say Gerald Strock and David Hottenstein (1994), and often controversial. The process of making the transition is probably the biggest challenge: building support for altering such a time-honored tradition, and finding/creating the planning time needed to make the change.

“Imposing a scheduling model on a school will not ensure success,” states the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (1990). The lab recommends a minimum of two year’s planning time before implementation, to make sure the new schedule meets the needs of all concerned.

Adequate staff development time is also essential, say Canady and Rettig. Teachers who have taught in thirty-five to fifty-minute time blocks for years need help in gaining the necessary strategies and skills to teach successfully in large blocks of time.

They observe that teachers who are most successful in block scheduling typically plan lessons in three parts: explanation, application, and synthesis. Most teachers have much less experience with the latter two phases than with the first. Teachers may also need training in cooperative learning, class building, and team formation.


Before instituting major schedule changes, it’s desirable to have a common vision, a good plan, and strong support of all stakeholders, says Carroll. Ideally, the superintendent, school board, principals, teachers, students, and parents should all be provided with opportunities to learn about the proposed innovations, and have plenty of chances to discuss the ramifications.

Canady and Rettig suggest the following:

*A general presentation regarding the pros and cons of various models of block scheduling

*Visits by teachers, students, parents, and school board members to schools having block schedules

*Panel presentations by teachers from schools operating block schedules

*Faculty discussion meetings, leading to a vote or consensus

*Parent and community meetings

*Assemblies for students conducted by students from other schools or by their peers who have visited other schools

*Distribution of relevant research data and implementation procedures

*School board presentations and approval

*Staff development focused on the appropriate design of curriculum and use of extended blocks of time for instruction

Attempting smaller changes minimizes the risks, they note, but creates less striking results and is also less likely to generate enthusiasm and commitment.

To be successful, the change must address a need, fit the teachers’ situation, be focused,
and include concrete strategies.


Canady, Robert Lynn, and Michael D. Rettig. “Block Scheduling: A Catalyst for Change in High Schools.” Princeton, New Jersey: Eye on Education, 1995. 266 pages.

Carroll, Joseph. M. “Organizing Time to Support Learning.” “The School Administrator” 51, 3 (March 1994): 26-28, 30-33. EJ 481 309.
Cawelti, Gordon. “High School Restructuring: A National Study.” Arlington, Virginia: Educational Research Service, 1994. 75 pages. ED 366 070.

National Education Commission on Time and Learning. “Prisoners of Time: Research.” “What We Know and What We Need To Know. Report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. September 1994. 60 pages. ED 378 685.

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Rural Education Program. “Literature Search on the Question: What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Various Scheduling Options for Small Secondary Schools (High Schools and Middle Schools)?” Portland, Oregon: Author. January 1990. 24 pages. ED 329 385.

Strock, Gerald E., and David S. Hottenstein. “The First-Year Experience: A High School Restructures Through Copernican Plan.” “The School Administrator” 51, 3 (March 1994): 30-31. EJ 481 309.

Sturgis, Jeffrey D. “Flexibility Enhances Student Achievement.” “NASSP AP Special: The Newsletter for Assistant Principals” 10, 4 (Summer 1995): 1-2.

Watts, Gary D., and Shari Castle. “The Time Dilemma in School Restructuring.” “Phi Delta Kappan” 75, 4 (December 1993): 306-10. EJ 474 291.

Scheduling Foreign Languages on the Block

(no author given)

Originally appeared in an ERIC Digest in 1998 and can be obtained by writing to

ERIC/CLL, 4646 40th Street NW, Washington, DC 20016; Web site:

Educators have only recently begun to realize the potential of scheduling to improve schools. One such attempt, block scheduling, affects many aspects of the school environment, both organizationally and educationally. It comes in many complex variations, including four-block schedules (see descriptions below) (Canady and Rettig, 1995).

Block scheduling rests on the premise that it will give teachers more instructional flexibility (Carroll, 1990), reduce the fragmentation of the day, and allow teachers to adapt their instructional strategies to address the different ways in which students learn. In North Carolina, interest in block scheduling became apparent after the State Board of Education decided to increase the graduation requirement from 11 to 14 courses in 1991. The increased number of graduation requirements made it much more difficult for students to select electives or concentrate on the extended study of one discipline.


Block scheduling is a reorganization of school time. One type of block scheduling is referred to as 4×4, or a concentrated curriculum or semester plan. The typical 4×4 schedule consists of “four blocks of 90 minutes each (see Figure 1 at the end of Digest). By doubling the length of class periods, students complete the equivalent of four 180-day courses every 90 days. After the first session ends, students take four new courses in the second 90-day session” (Edwards, 1995). Another version of block scheduling involves eight blocks taught on alternate days (A/B days) throughout the year (see Figure 2 at the end of Digest).


While block scheduling offers a variety of benefits for all teachers and students, there are some advantages that are especially promising for foreign languages. For example, block scheduling allows for more concentration in the foreign language being studied. The longer class periods offer exciting opportunities for both learners and teachers at the higher levels of language study, where students are able to comprehend the language and work with a variety of texts (oral, visual, and written) and communicative activities. In block scheduling, students have more opportunities to work with teachers and with one another. Other advantages include these:

There are more opportunities to offer and to take advanced courses (see Figure 3 at the end of Digest).

Students have an increased number of possibilities for selecting electives. Under block scheduling, there are 32 different slots (8 per year x 4) for course work as opposed to 24 (6 per year x 4 per year) under a traditional schedule. Students have more time to internalize the language.


There are several areas of concern that specifically affect block scheduling and foreign language education. These concerns need to be taken into consideration when planning a quality program.

“Sequencing of foreign language courses.” It is especially important when planning the schedule to ensure that courses are offered sequentially so students have the option to continue the study of the language without long time lapses. It is equally important for students to realize that extended interruptions will have an impact on their level of language proficiency.

“Availability of courses.” Students pursuing more advanced levels of language study are frequently enrolled in advanced courses in other disciplines as well. For this reason, it is essential to guarantee that singleton courses in the upper levels are scheduled in order to avoid potential conflict. In addition, students who delay their study of the foreign language until the last two semesters of their senior year must have the courses available to meet their college entrance requirements.

“Development of language proficiency.” Foreign language educators are greatly concerned about the impact of the block schedule on the development of foreign language proficiency. Their concerns are based on the belief that language development occurs during a long, uninterrupted sequence of language study. At this time, there are no data, other than anecdotal, to support the positive or negative effects of block scheduling on language development.

“Articulation.” Teachers on block scheduling have found articulation to be a difficult issue. It is of particular concern for language teachers who teach on a 4×4 plan. The alternate day (A/B day) is less bothersome, because it is set over one year. Foreign language teachers are concerned that unless students avoid long interruptions in foreign language learning, language loss will prevent students from reaching the necessary goals for functioning effectively at the next level of instruction. In addition, students who do not take the foreign language course sequentially (i.e., who wait one or more semesters in between courses) will be placed at a disadvantage when enrolled in a class with students who have just completed the previous course the previous semester.

“Retention.” Anecdotal accounts of students’ language retention seem to point out that the loss of language is no greater after a one or two semester break than it would be after the summer recess. Canady and Rettig quote research dealing with retention rates at the college level: “Students retain 85% of what they had originally learned after 4 months and 80% of what they had originally learned after 11 months.” They also point to another study that states that students have a tendency to forget the factual information they have learned very quickly, whereas when students have been involved in critical thinking and have had an opportunity to internalize information, they retain the information longer.


The following issues must be addressed when scheduling foreign language courses on the block.

“Availability of courses.” Courses must be available and scheduled sequentially to ensure smooth articulation between the various levels of language instruction. When the beginning levels of language are offered each semester, students can plan their language study without suffering from extended time interruptions.

“When to begin language instruction.” When students begin and end their course sequence will be largely affected by their previous involvement with the foreign language. Students who have had an elementary or middle school experience may place directly into a level II or Level III course in high school. These students will also need opportunities to continue their study at more advanced levels.

“College-bound students.” Students who are not interested in extended language study, but who are planning to attend college, may not opt to complete the college foreign language requirement until their last two years of high school. This can have a major impact on the enrollments in level I and II foreign language courses. Therefore, the availability of those courses will need to be closely examined to guarantee that there are no conflicts with singleton courses in other areas needed or recommended for college entrance.

“Class size.” Teachers in North Carolina are reporting increased enrollments at all levels of foreign language instruction. Consequently, in the absence of additional faculty, class sizes are also being affected. Because the beginning levels of foreign language study are so focused on the development of oral and aural skills, students must have the opportunity to be directly involved with the language in a variety of ways. Smaller classes can promote the interaction needed for successful development of language skills.

“Combination classes.” In many instances, there may not be enough students at advanced levels of the foreign language to warrant scheduling individual classes. When necessary, advanced levels can be combined provided the students’ levels of language are not too far apart. In North Carolina, Level III/IV or IV/V combinations are widespread. In several cases, teachers combined Level IV and Advanced Placement courses.


Although there are many ways to schedule for the block, the majority of North Carolina schools have chosen the 4×4 schedule “with the four courses per semester option” over the A/B alternate schedule, because the 4×4 schedule provides for continuity of daily instruction. Following are several additional suggestions for scheduling foreign language courses on the block.

  • Add additional levels of language for extended studies in one language.
  • Have students take levels I and II of the language in “back-to-back semesters” (Shoenstein, 1996).
  • Use three 90-minute blocks, and break the remaining block into two 45-minute periods that are offered throughout the year as singletons to address selected courses needing continuity such as foreign language and band.
  • Offer first- and third-year classes during the second semester and second- and fourth-year classes during the first semester. With this scheduling option, a student takes the first course and only misses a summer of instruction before the second one.
  • Allow students to enroll in college courses when the foreign language courses are not available at the high school level for continued or extended study (Rettig and Canady, 1995).


Successful block scheduling requires fundamental changes in instruction. To make the transition from traditional to block scheduling, teachers need training to expand their repertoire of strategies (Wisconsin Association of Foreign Language Teachers, 1995). Administrators can help foreign language teachers make the transition from the traditional schedule to the block schedule by providing staff development that emphasizes instructional strategies and the use of technology; affording teachers the option to observe foreign language programs that have successfully moved to block scheduling; scheduling time for teachers to evaluate and adjust their local curriculum; and giving teachers time to plan and to adjust to their new routine.


Canady, R.L. & Rettig, M.D. (1995). “Block scheduling: A catalyst for change in high schools.” Princeton, NJ: Eye on Education.

Carroll, J.M. (1990). The Copernican plan: Restructuring the American high school. “Phi Delta Kappan,” 28-33.

Edwards, Jr., C.M. (1995). The 4×4 plan. “Educational Leadership,” 53, 16-19.

Shoenstein, R. (1996). The new school on the block. “The Executive Educator,” 17, 18-21.

Wisconsin Association of Foreign Language Teachers. (1995). “Redesigning school schedules.” Author.

This Digest is drawn from “Foreign Language on the Block” (1996), a report published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

This report was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Dept. of Education, National Library of Education, under contract no. RR93002010. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of OERI or ED.



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