Note from Dave: This guest post is from Lynsay Fabio, the New Orleans educator behind The Classroom Management Course. Enjoy!
If you’ve been following Dave’s blog recently, you know that he’s having a bit of a head explosion, in large part because of the super-important role that knowledge-building plays in…well, just about Everything Education, and the difficulty and complexity involved in succeeding at this as a classroom teacher and as an American educational system.
Specifically, reading comprehension, much thought to be a discrete set of replicable skills like “making inferences,” turns out to be much more a function of strong background knowledge than mastery of these supposed reading skills. This discovery alone stands to turn reading instruction in many ELA classrooms on its head. Throw out the week-long mini-unit on finding the main idea; do away with the cutesy sequencing lesson on putting the scenes in order.
Personally, I’m excited by this discovery — it means we’re getting closer to finding what works. But it does pose a new challenge: what to do instead. What curriculum choices and instructional techniques will lead to improved mastery in reading?
This gem by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway of the Uncommon Schools network teaches any English teacher willing to learn exactly how to build or enhance a reading lesson curriculum that actually improves reading outcomes in durable, meaningful, measurable ways. Its goal is to help teachers close the achievement gap in literacy; that stated, its methods can up the rigor of literacy instruction anywhere.
In this post I’d like to share with you a few things that I found so helpful about this book, in the hopes that it will help you and your students flourish in the long term.
1. It was written as a humble answer to a very real problem.
The Uncommon network is famous for getting crazy great results with their students, who nearly all come from underserved communities. The head of the network discovered that this was only partially true– their gains in math were crazy great, but their gains in English and reading were much more modest. The founder set Lemov, Driggs, and Woolway on the task to “figure out reading.” This impetus to be self-critical and look for what’s best for kids, rather than what’s comfortable for the organization and what’s always been done, I find brave and inspiring. I trust in their intentions because they’re trying to solve this very real problem for their own network, their own teachers, their own students. It’s not “we’ve got it all figured out, it’s simple, come see what we do.” We know from Dave’s incessant preaching (wink) that those silver-bullet, self-celebrated “solutions” are always a lie. Instead, this book is a brave response and excavation into what’s really going on underneath all the reading and writing that students are doing in the hopes that they can uncover the keys for us all, themselves included. Simply put: they’re one of us.
2. The solutions were discovered in the classrooms of great teachers, as measured by real data.
It’s easy to start with pedagogy or theories about what should work in reading instruction, but this team took a different approach: “We set out to solve the problem in the way we've been accustomed to: by watching and learning from what successful teachers do and by doing our best to figure out what, among those things, works best.” They searched far and wide for schools who were already achieving stellar reading results with students from under-served backgrounds, and then came to study and name what those schools were doing. They pored over their curricula, and they sat in their classrooms to watch and learn. They didn’t start with preconceived notions — they started with the data on what was working.
3. It works for Common Core lovers and haters.
The last few years have been divisive with teachers either loving or hating the Common Core (or its implementation). You can fall on either side of that debate and still love this book, so long as you agree that students should be given a chance to do these four things:
- Read grade-appropriate, challenging texts
- Read texts closely, rigorously, and intentionally
- Read more nonfiction more effectively (without cutting all the great fiction)
- Write more effectively in direct response to texts
In other words, the book is not married to any specific set of standards.
4. It encourages common sense about great books.
In our increasingly Internet-centric world, the old-school, lowly book is falling out of favor. It’s being replaced by excerpts and whole units conducted online. Reading Reconsidered is a staunch, loving defense of why whole books — the kind you can write in, thumb through the pages, dog-ear the pages you love — have always been and should remain at the heart of ELA instruction. (And this isn’t just sentimental– as you read in #2, it’s in part because it’s what works the best.) If you’re looking for support in instilling a love and appreciation for great books with your students and in your school within the general curriculum (rather than an add-on independent reading program), this book will help greatly.
Further, if you’ve been working with Lexile, F&P, or any other book leveling system for a bit, you know that those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Some of them just feel plain wrong. This book speaks to that reality and points out the pitfalls of Lexile levels more clearly and helpfully than any other source I’ve encountered. Specifically, I love this chart, in which the authors plotted the books in their at-the-time current Uncommon curriculum to see if they were sufficiently rigorous at each grade level.
I’ll let their words speak here:
It wasn’t just that so many of the books we thought of as rigorous did not appear to match the implied targets. We were prepared for that; we were comfortable saying that a certain book didn’t reach the targeted Lexile level but was still something students should read. What we struggled with was the perversity of some of the scores. The places where books fell when we graphed them didn’t seem in accord with our sense of what students really found difficult. This is best shown in the nearly equivalent Lexile scores given to Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders. They are, according to the graph, all but interchangeable. In terms of our students’ experiences reading them, however, they couldn’t be more different. One was among the most challenging books our seventh graders read while the other was among the easiest. If you’re a middle school teacher, we almost assuredly don’t have to tell you which was which. (If you’re not, Lord of the Flies is several times more challenging than The Outsiders.)Reading Reconsidered, p. 27. (Lynsay’s note — I read Lord of the Flies in 10th grade!)
This kind of deep knowledge and reverence of great books is refreshing. Further, they give five specific tips on what qualitative features make a text more difficult. (They’ve named them The Five Plagues of the Developing Reader, and they are a revelation.) It doesn’t just point out the pitfalls of Lexile levels and leave you hanging. This team helps us make sure that we make wise choices about what we require our students to read.
5. It has insanely helpful instructional techniques that can be used to improve any lesson that you already have.
Yes, this book offers wisdom on curricular choices and book selection. But most of us don’t have the luxury (or desire, even) to reconsider those in November. Our curriculum for this year is set and established, usually by a ton of hard work and hard conversations. We also sometimes have limited autonomy to direct this curriculum as we see fit and as Reading Reconsidered recommends. So what to do?
Let me tell you, most of this book can be applied to any already-existing lesson. They include helpful terminology and definitions, examples from real champion teacher’s classrooms (remember #2 — these are all the best of the best, according to the data; it’s not just some principal’s opinion) and video excerpts of their lessons, so you can see and hear exactly how to implement it.
Here are a few of my favorite quick-tweaks to make any lesson more rigorous starting tomorrow.
The Embedded Nonfiction Text
The problem with knowledge-building is that the more you know, the easier it is to learn new things, but the less you know, the harder it is to learn new things. So where do we start? This is their key answer to the knowledge-building problem: don't cut out all the great fiction, but instead insert paragraphs and excerpts of nonfiction strategically to increase comprehension of the primary text. Example: If I'm reading Treasure Island with my students, I can add an article about 17th-18th century imperialism and “Pax Britannica.” The authors observe that students are able to comprehend both texts better and faster as a result of this synergistic pairing. When reading the article, students retain more of the information because they see how imperialism is affecting characters they've already come to care about. Simultaneously, when they return to reading the novel, they will pick up on the nuance of the following description of the pirate Billy Bones: “This was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea,” because they understand the force of the British navy in this era. They'll be able to make inferences not because I drilled the skill, but because they have the requisite background knowledge.
Reading Reconsidered is full of examples for how to embed nonfiction paragraphs and articles in order to increase the comprehension of each. For Lord of the Flies, for example, one teacher includes an article on rainforests and jungles to help students understand the setting of the story, and an article on Chilean miners to show students “how the miners responded to crisis and avoided descent into savagery.” It also includes example questions that overlap between the primary and embedded texts to help students make these connections.
In short, if you embed a bit of nonfiction in your fiction, kids will learn a whole lot more about both. You essentially build knowledge at twice the rate. And that's more learning, less stress. Try a few embedded nonfiction texts in your next novel unit, and see how that helps you build knowledge.
The Read-Write-Discuss-Revise Cycle
Most of us plan ELA activities in this order: Read, Discuss, Write. I know I did; I always scheduled the Socratic Seminar right before the major paper was due. This approach helps prime the pump by letting students verbalize their ideas out loud as a way to rehearse them before writing. Reading Reconsidered points out that this order of operations, while student-friendly, has a few pitfalls:
- A student can have a weak comprehension of the book (or not read the book at all) and still manage a decent written response by listening to the discussion and piggybacking off of peers. The teacher gets a false positive for what students are able to comprehend on their own, and the student continues on with poor reading skills.
- The quality of ideas in discussion is typically low. Often we figure out our best ideas while writing, not before. Also, the discussion gets monopolized by a few extroverted verbal processors, while introverts or those who process ideas silently and solo are never heard from.
- Writing is seen as a one-and-done activity at the end of the reading cycle rather than the process of constant revision that it truly is.
Reading Reconsidered invites us to flip the cycle and order our activities like this: Read-Write-Discuss-Revise. This way, all students will get the chance to process their ideas in writing before discussing. It has the following benefits:
- As a teacher, I can circulate among students’ papers and see what they’re thinking, what they understand and where they need more support, before the discussion ever gets started. I have an accurate picture of what students can do on their own, and I can call on students strategically to drive the discussion or unearth misconceptions because I already know what their papers say.
- The quality of ideas is much better because students may have had a breakthrough or “aha” moment in their 4th or 5th sentence, and they can share that aloud rather than the first thought they had.
- After a rich discussion, students get the chance to revise their written responses. This helps students to see the value in revising: after you’ve heard all these great ideas aloud, why wouldn’t you want to go back and build on your initial thoughts? Done often, this cycle builds a habit of revision.
It’s important to note that this is for longer, meatier questions than just a Stop and Jot. Reading Reconsidered calls these responses Everybody Writes, and they are deeper and longer than the 1-2 sentences typically required by a Stop and Jot.
So for your next lesson, try reordering your activities to place the Writing before the Discussion, and see how it helps raise the rigor of your class.
The Close-Read Burst
When the Common Core first came out, I had several professional development sessions about how to write a “close reading” lesson. In these lessons, I would plan an entire 50-something minutes on just three paragraphs of text, painstakingly taking the words and sentences apart piece by piece in order to see the genius in each tiny choice and meaning in the whole. They were a thing of beauty.
But, as one wise woman said, ain’t nobody got time for that. Most teachers don’t have the time to execute close reading lessons every day, or even every week, because that would drastically cut down on the total quantity of what students were able to read through the year. Plus, it would be brutally slow and get old and boring. Teachers were likely to plan one close-reading lesson per unit — probably on Evaluation Day — and default back to shallower reading habits for the rest of the novel.
The Reading Reconsidered team has a solution: the Close-Read Burst. They are ten minutes long and can be planned or unplanned, and they are much simpler than a longer Close-Read lesson. They follow two principles:
- Establish meaning, then analyze meaning. (What does this word mean? Why would the author choose this word and not another?)
- Zoom in to language, then zoom out to author’s purpose. (Now that you’ve broken down this one line, how does this change your understanding of the passage as a whole?)
Here’s an example of a Close-Reading Burst on one key line from John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. (In this scene, apparently Steinbeck is introducing a “smug, self-centered doctor who casually exploits the protagonist’s village.” I’ll have to take their word for it; I haven’t read The Pearl. Yet. 🙂 )
His eyes rested in puffy little hammocks of flesh and his mouth drooped with discontent.John Steinbeck, The Pearl
Now here’s the question series written by two champion teachers on p. 94 of the book:
- Let’s look more closely at the image of “puffy little hammocks of flesh.” What does this mean the doctor looked like? Can you describe him? (We take this understanding for granted so often! Slow down and ask students what the author is literally talking about.)
- What ideas do we typically associate with hammocks?
- Steinbeck could have chosen something else; he could have said “puffy little cradles of flesh.” Instead, he said “hammocks.” Why? What does this specific choice of words add to the text?
- What about “drooped?” Does this word support or challenge our hypothesis about the doctor’s characterization?
- Now let’s look at Steinbeck’s diction across the whole passage introducing the doctor. How does his imagery characterize the doctor? What is Steinbeck telling us?
In five questions, these teachers have led their students through a rigorous analysis of the scene’s key line. Their students will emerge with a richer understanding of the doctor and, therefore, this text, but also they are building their proficiency at deep, analytical reading rather than just “getting the gist.”
Moreover, these concrete questions are so helpful to me as a teacher — I can use them as templates to modify and write a Close-Reading question series for whatever text I’m currently working with. Reading Reconsidered is chock full of these.
A Close-Reading Burst. Establish meaning, then analyze it. Zoom in, then out. I can do that — once a day, on the most important sentence in whatever we’re reading, in ten minutes. It makes Close Reading accessible, replicable, and interesting for teachers and students. Try one in your next lesson.
In sum, if we’re going to take seriously Willingham and others’ warning that we’re barking up the wrong tree with literacy instruction, and we’re willing to change the way we teach to answer that call, Reading Reconsidered marks a promising path forward. I hope you’ll consider it.