‘Teach Like a Champion,’ by Doug Lemov, changed my teaching profoundly: it was the most practical and helpful piece of writing I had ever encountered, and transformed my classroom practice, giving me specific aspects to hone and improve.
When I heard that Lemov had been an English teacher, it didn’t surprise me – in particular, in TLAC 2.0 there are several techniques which are especially useful for the English teacher. When I heard he was co-authoring a book on reading, I had very high hopes. ‘Reading Reconsidered,’ written by Lemov with Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, does not disappoint. With a nod to the poetic importance of literature (‘this book is about the enduring power of reading to shape and develop minds’), again, we have a manual for practice; specific things that teachers can do, day in, day out, to read effectively with pupils.
‘Reading Reconsidered’’s opening gambit is that text selection is key: in pages referencing Hirsch and Arnold, canon and cultural capital, the writers note: ‘part of the value of reading is to be able to read and talk about important books that almost everyone else has read.’ The great conversation of literature, intertextuality, ‘works only when pupils have read some texts in common.’ The writers extol the value of a common reading curriculum for all pupils, and warns us to select our texts carefully, noting: ‘a typical pupil might read and intentionally study forty or fifty books in English classes’ over their time in school and ‘these few books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works.’ If only there were as many as fifty texts! Such a sentence puts the demands of the new GCSE English Literature, with its four texts (I include the poetry cluster as a ‘text’) over two years into frightening perspective. To those who argue that canonical texts are unreadable by youngsters, the authors respond: we just need to get better at teaching them.
The writers go on to isolate the ‘five plagues of the beginning reader’, looking at five challenges all readers face in encountering tricky texts, and how we can overcome these in our everyday practice. One example is using ‘pre-complex texts’ to prime pupils for the canon, such as children’s classics like ‘The Secret Garden’ which use challenging syntax but have child-friendly story arcs.
The chapters on close reading are a must-read primer for all English teachers, going meticulously through how we should read closely in class, supplemented with specific questions designed to unlock meaning in complex passages. One key take-away for me was: teachers! Prepare to close-read! Annotate your text! It sounds blindingly obvious, but I know I’ve been guilty of sauntering into class, blank copy in hand, hoping for the best. Yet what more important preparation can there be for a lesson than our own annotation?
The most revolutionary chapter for me in ‘Reading Reconsidered’ was that on non-fiction. It made me recognise how vital it is for pupils to read non-fiction alongside fiction to assist with their comprehension and to enable really excellent analysis: ‘reading secondary nonfiction texts in combination with a primary text increases the absorption rate of pupils reading that text’; ‘when texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up.’ Overall: don’t teach non-fiction as a separate unit, but rather interweave non-fiction texts into your teaching of literature, either with short, contextual glosses or in-depth historical study of the time period in question to deepen analysis.
Though reading is this book’s chief subject, the authors do not neglect writing: ‘we are suggesting that pupils [should] write with more frequency and consistency as part of their daily work of responding to texts’. They recommend intervening at the point of writing to help pupils improve (no mention of lengthy, burdensome and delayed marking), explaining: ‘great teaching begins at the moment learning breaks down.’ ‘Writing,’ in this guide, also encompasses annotation, and again there is detailed advice for modelling these, with the goal of pupils eventually annotating autonomously.
Again, though the goal is for pupils to read independently, we need to be aware that if they do this poorly they are ‘inscribing errors’ (and of course we know from Lemov himself that ‘practice makes permanent’). It is vital that pupils read aloud, as well as listening to great reading being modelled for them. In considering ‘accountable independent reading,’ the writers give such guidance as using short sections with a specified focus, or scaffolding pupil comprehension by using questions.
Although the focus of the books is practical, with advice to be found on the specifics of vocabulary instruction and the dynamics of a classroom discussion, the underpinning voice here is one deeply concerned with children loving reading and doing it effectively. The voice of the parent in each writer is heard most clearly in the book’s dedication: ‘to our kids, with whom we have 16,000 more nights to read – not nearly enough.’ Foundational to this book is a personal and deep love of reading, for all the right reasons.