Five years ago, Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion rocked the K-12 education world by demonstrating that mastering effective teaching methods was critical to improving student achievement. His latest book, Reading Reconsidered, co-authored with his Uncommon Schools colleagues Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, tackles one of the thorniest education policy issues – improving the effectiveness of reading instruction in schools. Furthermore, Lemov sets out to demonstrate that teaching subject knowledge and reading fluency go together in educating and producing the best-prepared high school graduates.
Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered is a direct response to the potential unleashed by the adoption of the U.S. Common Core State Standards and, as such, will generate a lot of ill-informed education noise. That will be a shame because this book actually explains what works best in teaching reading, particularly at the middle and high school level. It is not only very practical, but based upon what the best teachers in his network of 44 urban charter school actually do to teach reading with rigour, independence, precision, and insight.
Academically-inclined junior and senior high school teachers will readily embrace this book and its tremendously valuable lessons, if they ever get to see it or succeed in spiriting it into their desk drawers. Most of the ideas in the book are, in the words of Education Week contributor Liana Heitin, “inarguably good practice” and deserve to be emulated and implemented right across the board, especially from grades 7 ro 12. Instead of promulgating learning theory, Lemov and his team draw upon lessons learned “visiting high performing teachers,” observing their classrooms, interviewing them, and piloting best practice.
Teachers of English/Language Arts in North American schools tend to provide students with a steady diet of fiction, not only in the early grades, but right through to high school. That has been a serious problem because it limits the potential for integrating reading into history and social science classes. Indeed, one of the prime goals of the Common Core Standards was to correct this imbalance by providing students with more exposure to high quality non-fiction books and resources.
While there has been an increase in non-fiction reading in K-12 education since the adoption of Common Core standards, most U.S. students—specifically in high school—aren’t reading at their grade level, and worse, aren’t ready for college reading either, all documented in a 2015 report, What Kids Are Reading, from Renaissance Learning. In Reading Reconsidered, Lemov and his team see a way to change this trend, and it starts with asking the right questions, such as “Does What Students Read Matter?,” “Should Students be Re-Introduced to Classic Texts?” and “Do More Challenging Readings produce Better Informed, More Well-Rounded Graduates?”
The book is also soundly based upon some of the best research on improving education standards. The recommended techniques are informed by the work of well-known researchers, including educational psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, University of Pittsburgh education professor emerita Isabel L. Beck, and E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and the author of several books on cultural literacy.
Scanning the book’s chapters provides a tour de force of best practice in teaching reading. Chapter 1: Text Selection – what we choose to read matters as much as how we read it; Chapter 2: Close Reading – providing a set of tools that can help teachers close read with rigor and insight; Chapter 3: Read More Non-Fiction – the importance of non-fiction; Chapter 4: Writing — specific ways to teach it to help students read more effectively; Chapter 5: Varieties of Reading — ensuring students read a lot in a variety of ways – silently, aloud and being read to; Chapter 6: Building Vocabulary –implement a two-part approach using both explicit and implicit vocabulary instruction; Chapter 7: Be Consistent — make good use of time to make the literacy classroom more efficient, productive and autonomous; and Chapter 8: Reach the Goal –the ultimate goal is intellectual autonomy, the best preparation for university and college.
Armchair critics wedded to conventional approaches, focusing disproportunately on promoting a “love of reading” and pandering to popular cultural tastes will be threatened by Lemov’s latest offering. He’s clearly out to raise educational standards while improving reading instruction in K-12 schools.
The book is up against formidable forces that have, over the past 30 years, dumbed-down high school reading lists. The Renaissance Learning Study demonstrates how far its gone from K-12 when it comes to the most popular books. During the 2014–2015 school year, 9.8 million students from 31,327 US schools read over 334 million books and nonfiction articles and the pattern is clear. Only two non-fiction books, Raina Telgmeier “s Sisters (Grade 4 and 5) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (Grades 7, 9, and 12) even crack the top 16 list in each grade level. The reading level of the most popular books, especially above Grade 7, supports the Reading Reconsidered book’s assessment.
Lemov and his associates make a persuasive case for using challenging texts and pushing student readers beyond their comfort zones. That used to be the prime motivation of our best high school teachers, and with this book in hand, it could make a miraculous comeback in North American schools.
Does what students are asked to read in K-12 schools matter? Should we introduce more Non-Fiction into the current English/Language Arts curriculum? Does “pick your own book” and “self-paced learning” encourage too many students to take the easy route? What can be done, if anything, to raise the reading sights and levels of today’s junior and senior high school students?