‘”There are a good many books, are there not, my boy?” said Mr. Brownlow, observing the curiosity with which Oliver surveyed the shelves that reached from the floor to the ceiling.
“A great number, sir,” replied Oliver; “I never saw so many.”
“You shall read them if you behave well,” said the old gentleman kindly; “and you will like that, better than looking at the outsides…”‘
In my previous post, I mentioned I’d been on the Reading Reconsidered training, led by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Maggie Johnson. The two days were packed full of challenge: challenging practices and challenging practises.
Nobody ever writes “Six things I know about…” or “Six interesting facts about…” or “Six of the greatest….of all time” posts. Five’s doing alright. Ten’s overexposed. Six gets a bad press. So, in the spirit of reconsidering and reviewing situations, here are my “Six Things I Reconsidered about Reading” whilst on the training.
Early during day one, Doug made a staggering confession. After recounting a significant part of the plot of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, he reavealed that as a university undergraduate he had (be prepared for a shock) gone to the seminar focusing on this play without having done the required reading.
Apart from shattering all my illusions about Doug, the real revelation here was that the pattern we often use in English lessons, from the primary classroom all the way through to the university seminar room, read-discuss-write, reduces levels of student accountability. We read, we talk about texts (though often the issues in the texts rather than the texts themselves) then we write about them. This means it’s possible for some students to understand the gist of a text, take a back seat during the discussion phase and then make a decent fist of writing about the text because of what they’ve picked up from other people in the room. This is ok if you’re preparing students for coursework, but a really bad move for exam classes.
I recall fairly vividly the rumor circulating during my own first year at university that there was a set of detailed plot summaries on the third floor of the library for all of the core texts. These were probably the most well read texts amongst my fellow students. I may have used them once.
Doug was keen to point out that sometimes read-discuss-write and other similar sequences have their place, but in terms of increasing the ratio of thinking and participation in classrooms, shifting to read-write-discuss-revise is a good move as students are having to think for themselves before gleaning ideas from others.
2: Plan from the text
It may seem unsurprising to people outside the world of English teaching, but everything we did over the two days was about drawing implicit and explicit meaning from texts and everything was rooted in the texts.
When you look in many English text books, there are superfluous activities which can detract from reading the texts themselves – activities designed to lead to empathy with a character, activities designed to help students consider the relevance of social issues, woolly and fluffy activities which pad out lessons in the worst possible way. Make a Facebook page for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, write a letter from Beowulf to his Danish pen friend, hold a conference call between Eva Smith and the other women who were protesting about the conditions at Mr Birling’s factory with success criteria including the use of AFOREST devices.
The reading strategies we experienced and watched videos of during the training were the opposite of this. All meaning was drawn from the texts being read. All planning was done with the texts as the starting point.
3: Read aloud and rehearse reading aloud – Control the Game
We spent about twenty minutes preparing for and then practicing reading aloud with a class using the Teach Like a Champion technique, Control the Game. It seems rather stupid now to type these words out as it’s such a key part of my job but I’ve never, even in my training year, practiced reading aloud with other teachers and had feedback. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Modeling reading ourselves and hearing students reading whilst preempting or addressing decoding issues, fluency issues or issues with expression are at the foundations of what we do.
I think there’s an assumption that these are so basic that anyone can do them. Almost anyone can do them, but it’s only when you really consider them and practice them that you can maximize their impact. If we want, as English teachers, to be experts then it’s worth working together on these aspects of our work. This is where we could make real marginal gains.
4: Implicitly and explicitly teach vocabulary
I’ve written previously about explicit vocabulary teaching here. Despite having read Isabel Beck’s work on vocabulary, I haven’t set aside the time to fully think through implicit vocabulary teaching – teaching new and challenging words just prior to or during the study of the text.
Having tried this since the training, the first challenge is in selecting the words to focus on in the text the students are exploring. Beck suggests we should select words which:
- Don’t feature regularly in oral communication
- Aren’t domain specific
- Aren’t text specific and therefore will be revisited in reading or could be revisited in writing
The Reading Reconsidered team advise we then work out which of these words we will:
- Work on the pronunciation of as, when this is cracked, understanding will follow
- Provide a definition for
- Provide a definition for and opportunities to practice
- Selectively neglect
Again, these may seem like easy decisions on the surface and for a one off lesson. However, if you begin to think about which words you’ll focus on from each text in order to make connections between texts on your curriculum, it requires a much deeper level of planning.
5: Questions – move from questions about explicit to implicit meanings
One of the most joyous moments of the two days was experiencing Maggie Johnson modeling a close reading session. It was inspiring.
We focused on this short extract from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.
In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.”
What Maggie did was to combine the Control the Game reading we’d tried out previously with a “Leapfrog Read” where we jumped to the various references to the sun and a “Line by Line” read focusing on explicit and implicit meanings of some of the figurative language in the text. Though she pointed us to specific parts of the text, all of the thinking was ours and we were often made to write or think before discussing. Kris Boulton asks here whether this is common in English classrooms and I’d say that parts of it are, but I’ve never seen them done so expertly.
The biggest thing I’ll take away from this session though is the shift between questions about explicit meaning and implicit meaning. It’s made me rethink and tighten up the way I structure questions about texts already.
6: Consider implications for teachers outside of the English department
There are obvious implications of Reading Reconsidered for English faculties. They should be fairly clear for most other subjects too. However, I’ll redirect you to Kris Boulton’s blog as it takes you through his response to a question I asked him about subjects in which the relevance may be less obvious.
There are a good many books in a good many subjects. Our students should read widely across these subjects and the strategies offered by Reading Reconsidered do, I believe, offer a way of moving deeply into the texts between the covers.