How to Build a Better Reader, from the EdNext Podcast



By 03/18/2016

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ednext-march16-readingreconsidered-excerpt-coverIn the new book Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction, Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway offer clear guidance on how to teach students to be better readers. In the March 16, 2016 episode of the EdNext podcast, the authors sat down with EdNext executive editor Marty West to discuss strategies outlined in their book for overcoming deficits in background knowledge to boost reading comprehension. The transcript of this EdNext podcast episode appears below.

This episode of the EdNext podcast accompanied an excerpt from the book in which the authors illuminate why background knowledge is so important to reading comprehension. Lemov, Driggs, and Woolway are leaders of the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools, where they work to design and implement teacher training and principal training programs based on the study of high-performing teachers.


Martin West:

It’s often said that of the subjects taught in school, reading is first among equals, a prerequisite for success in any other area, especially as students move onto college. If that’s the case though, there’s cause for concern. While the math achievement of American students has risen steadily in recent decades, especially in the early grades, reading scores have barely budged. What’s behind those trends and what can teachers do about them? I’m Marty West, Executive Editor at Education Next. Joining me today are Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, authors of the new book Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction.

Doug, Colleen and Erica are all leaders of the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools, where they work to design and implement teacher training programs, based on the study of high performing teachers. You can find an excerpt of their book at educationnext.org. Doug, Colleen, and Erica, congratulations on the new book and thanks for taking the time to speak to me today.

Doug Lemov:

Hi, Marty. Glad to be with you.

Colleen Driggs:

Thank you so much for having us.

Marty:

Very glad to have you. What led you all to write this book?

Doug:

Well, we definitely didn’t want to, but it kind of announced itself to us. Kidding aside, we were thinking a lot about reading. I think there are a lot of reasons to think a lot about reading and it turned out that other people were thinking about it, too. We spent a lot of time looking at data. If you look at student achievement data, say in New York state, results on the typical New York state test correlate to socioeconomic status in reading, one and a half to two times as much as they do in math. What that tells us is that your ability to participate in a meritocracy—to rise above the zip code that you were born to—is not as simple in reading as it is in math.

Obviously, that’s a fundamental issue for our country, but even beyond the stronger effect with students of poverty, as you mentioned in your introduction, there’s been what we describe as an SAT inversion sometime in the last 15 years. It used to be that our reading scores are higher than our math scores and that’s what everyone was worried about, but now our math scores are higher than our SAT scores. There’s been a comparative drop in reading performance. With the college professors that we spoke to in the course of writing this book, they describe a crisis in the making of students who can’t do the reading that they need to do to succeed in college, and students who don’t do the type of reading they need to do. We don’t do sustained, reflective, meditative reading for long steady bouts like they used to be able to.

Even when we think about the joy of reading, which is important to all three of us, we talk about the importance of that, that the rates of reading among teenagers are dropping precipitously. It’s possible that the things we say we’re doing to instill love of reading are not successfully doing that. Look, these are all really hard questions to answer, but we’ve found ourselves thinking about it a lot. At one point at a meeting we sometimes wish we hadn’t gone to, the head of our organization turned to us and said, “Will you go figure out reading?” We set off to do what we like to do, which is study top teachers and watch what they do. One thing led to another and we had a book.

Marty:

A very common pattern in education research, very related to what you were just talking about, is that lots of interventions, whether it be attending a high performing charter school or being assigned to a particularly effective teacher, will have a much larger effect on students’ math achievement than on their reading achievement. Do you have any insight as to why that might be the case?

Colleen:

The thing about reading, it’s so complex. You ask students to respond to something that they’ve read, about what they’ve read in a passage. A single assessment question can rely on such a myriad of skills that are actually happening simultaneously. If you think about that question, at the most fundamental level, you want to know whether or not students comprehended the passage. That comprehension relies on: Well, did they know the vocabulary in the passage? Were they able to unpack the syntax of the sentences in the passage? If they’re able to do that, do they actually have the background knowledge that’s necessary to understand the passage? At an even more basic level than that, were students able to quote the passage or were the words in the passage so difficult for students that they took up most of their cognitive energy in just figuring out the words, and they didn’t have the space left to figure out how those words actually strung together in a cohesive way to make meaning in a sentence or a paragraph or a book.

In math, the skills are built in a much more linear and incremental way. But because of the complexity and number of skills involved in reading, it’s sometimes harder to diagnose. It’s also harder sometimes to help students to catch up. Reading progress happens much more slowly over time, especially when we consider things like vocabulary and background knowledge, which really happen starting at home from birth. If students aren’t sufficient in those areas, then it’s going to take much longer than a year, two years, or four years, to catch up and to make the gains that they need to make.

Marty:

That answer I think really highlights the scope of the challenge that you all took on in this book. Let’s dig into its contents a little bit. The excerpt we’ve posted on the Ed Next website focuses on the challenge of preparing students to read nonfiction text, something many educators nationwide are wrestling with as their states transition to the common core. You write that the challenges students face in reading nonfiction are both a cause and an effect of the knowledge deficit. What do you mean by this?

Doug:

Well I think one of the things that’s surprising about reading is that if you look at research, there’s a pretty clear correlation between your prior knowledge of the subject that you’re reading about and your ability to comprehend it. Just to take an example that’s commonly used, baseball. If I give you a sentence, Pedroia sacrificed Youkilis in the third, his 100th RBI of the year. Are you a baseball fan, Marty?

Marty:

I am.

Doug:

Okay, so you probably learned a lot from that sentence and you probably know a lot from that sentence. For example, you know what team is playing, right?

Marty:

That’s right. The Red Sox.

Doug:

And what kind of year is Pedroia having?

Marty:

He’s doing pretty well, if he’s got 100 RBIs.

Doug:

Yeah, it’s pretty great. You’re a baseball fan. You understood the sentence. Not only did you understand the sentence, but you learned a lot more than someone else, who let’s say is not a baseball fan, and didn’t pick up on the fact that Pedroia is having a great year or that the Red Sox were playing, or doesn’t even know what a sacrifice means or that the sacrifice implies probably that it was a fly ball but possibly that it was a bunt. Not only did you understand more of the sentence at the beginning, but the gap got wider in the course of your reading the sentence, because you understood more of it. You learned more. You absorbed more knowledge than a reader without strong background knowledge.

There’s been a lot of research that suggests if you divide strong readers and weak readers into two separate groups and you give them passages based on content that they know and they don’t know, actually the degree of knowledge is often a stronger indicator of how well they’ll do in comprehending the passage than their reading skills. You need knowledge to gain knowledge in reading. But of course, reading is one of the primary ways that you gain that knowledge. If you’re lucky and you’re born to privilege and a constant string of knowledge and information, that may work really well for you. If you’re not blessed with a deep reserve of content knowledge at the outset, it raises the problem of how do you and how do your teachers strategically build the knowledge you need over time to gain knowledge? It’s kind of a chicken and the egg problem.

Marty:

This challenge of building background knowledge is something that folks like E.D. Hirsch have been writing about for some time now. One of the things that’s really exciting about your book, I think, is that it doesn’t just regurgitate these challenges, but also provides a ton of practical strategies for addressing them. That’s really the focus. Can you tell us a bit about the advice you offer teachers about how to help students overcome this knowledge deficit?

Erica Woolway:

Yeah. Increasing the amount of nonfiction that our students read is not only important for increasing background knowledge, but it’s also important for preparing students to read the types of text that they encounter in college. Before common core, when we think about that K-12 experience, students probably read 70 to 80 percent fiction, if not more. But yet in college, unless you’re an English major, you read usually 70 to 80 percent nonfiction. It’s important that we expose our students to more nonfiction text, not only with the goal of increasing background knowledge, but also to prepare them to be successful in college. One of my favorite ideas in the book, and I’m glad that you’ve chosen this passage for your website, is that you can actually embed nonfiction within fiction text, in order to increase absorption rate.

For instance, one of our favorite examples of this actually comes from Colleen’s classroom, when she was reading The Outsiders with her students. This is arguably a text that students are actually pretty familiar with the background knowledge required to read the text. So she used this as an opportunity to increase background knowledge in a unique way by pairing it with an article on the hierarchy of bull elephants. Students were then exposed to a unique article and also unique knowledge, in order to unlock the synergies of the nonfiction and the fiction text. We call that embedding outside the bullseye. Typically, you can also embed inside the bullseye, where you would embed a series of nonfiction articles that are actually related to the fictional text, in order to increase their background knowledge of it. Not only increase their background knowledge, but then also increase both the teacher as well as the students’ interest in the text as well.

Marty:

Just so we all understand, help us understand the connection between The Outsiders and … Was it bull elephants?

Erica:

Colleen, I’ll let you explain more.

Colleen:

Sure. The connection was basically the social interactions of these bull elephants, they actually had male bonding routines and rituals, similar to human beings. Because we were reading The Outsiders, about two rival gangs and we could look at the social interactions of these two particular groups of males, we can look at how they actually parallel the social interactions that scientists had observed within bull elephants.

Doug:

I was just going to jump in to add a couple things that I think are really savvy about what Colleen did. First of all, her students got to read a summary of primary field research about what a scientist was doing in Africa, studying elephants. Not only did they get a chance to read a really challenging nonfiction text, students don’t get to read much scientific—or enough, certainly—scientific literature. This was a great opportunity but it also raises implicitly the question, “Well, why would someone want to do this kind of research?” The answer is because it helps us understand the interactions between all species, including people. It makes it more engaging and I think it’s pretty clear that the students in that class read the article on bull elephants with much more engagement and more learning and knowledge absorption than they would have, if they just had read it like we read nonfiction in most classrooms, which is a lot of teachers knowing they have to read nonfiction, so they do a nonfiction unit: We read an article today about the American Revolution, then an article tomorrow about the naked mole rat, and we look at the subheadings and the captions and how the articles are structured and we talk about them from the structural standpoint. It’s not a particularly engaging way to [read] … Nonfiction is not necessarily that intuitive to students as narrative structure, which they’re exposed to all the time in their lives, even outside their reading. Teaching nonfiction in this nonfiction unit, isolated from stories like The Outsiders, which can connect to it, guarantees a low return from the reading. I think part of what’s so powerful about Colleen’s approach to embedding nonfiction here is that both texts got richer. The elephants text and The Outsiders text got richer by comparison, and kids probably learned more because they were so engaged while reading a really challenging scientific text.

Marty:

What are some other key strategies teachers can use to build students’ background knowledge, so that they can become stronger readers?

Colleen:

One of the things that we think is really important is just for teachers to make the most of fiction. We understand that this changes in the common core and with shifts in the SAT. We know that there’s a renewed emphasis and focus on reading nonfiction, but we also know that English and literacy teachers love their fiction as we do. What we encourage teachers to do is just to think about how to make the most of the fiction that they’re reading with their students. One way to do that is to think strategically about the fiction text that you choose to read with your students. If I’m a fourth grade teacher and I’m choosing between Bridge to Terabithia and Number the Stars, they’re both beautiful books certainly worth reading, but if I’m thinking about building background knowledge for my students, then I might get more bang for my buck if I choose to read Number the Stars, because it’s rich in historical context.

That’s not to say that teachers should always be reading historical fiction. Historical fiction is fantastic, but I think that we want to always keep whatever fiction we’re reading. We want to think about, what are the opportunities to build real-world background knowledge in the reading of this book? But also just maximizing the questions that you ask during reading. A lot of times in reading classes, we tend to ask field-based questions or questions about character, but it’s important not to overlook the moments when there are references to real people that have lived or real events that have occurred and to drill down on those and to ask students how the portrayal in the book actually compares to what happened in real life, in order to help them to solidify some of the background knowledge that comes into play in fiction text.

Doug:

Maybe I’ll tell a quick story here, because one of the interesting things about the book is that we’re all parents in addition to educators. A lot of this book is filtered through our thoughts about our own children’s education, learning to read and actually reading with our children in the course of writing the book and reflecting on it. One of the epiphanies for me was reading historical fiction, understanding the most out of historical fiction. My daughter was reading a historical fiction book about the Civil War. I sat down to read it with her a little bit and she read me a passage. It was interesting because I wanted to ask her some questions about it and I started to ask her the kind of character motivation questions that Colleen is outlining; but then it struck me that there are all these questions about the historical context, like there was a soldier who was dying of disease, that I could ask her that reinforced the historical fiction. How is what this soldier is dying of typical or atypical of the experience of soldiers in the American Civil War? My daughter happened to know because we talked about that. It was actually fairly typical that more soldiers died of disease than died in combat. We tend to think of only skill-based questions. Skill-based questions are useful and important; but so are knowledge-based questions. If we’re going to invest in reading a book with historical fiction, actually asking about the historical context, how the book reflects on it, distorts it, changes it, challenges it, are equally important, especially given how much we know about the importance of knowledge base. But sometimes we overlook asking those questions or feel like those questions are cheap, and I certainly don’t think they’re cheap anymore.

Marty:

Now your book is called “Reading Reconsidered”, but you also devote a good bit of time and space to helping teachers help students become strong writers. Why did you do that, and how are reading and writing skills related?

Colleen:

We think that it’s actually hard to separate reading and writing skills. In order to be able to unpack the complex sentences that an author wrote, it helps if you are able to craft, if you understand what it takes to craft those same kinds of sentences yourself. In researching for this book, we just realized, and me certainly as a former reading teacher, I think I overlooked the importance of writing instruction. I learned the hard way lots of times that without that solid foundation of writing instruction, it was really hard for my students, as I said, not only to deconstruct the sentences that other people wrote, but then to understand the intentionality that went into choosing words, into the structural arrangement of the sentence. That’s where we started to think about it in addition to just the idea that one of the emphases of the common core and on the SAT is for students to be able to write directly from the text. We thought it was important to spend time studying how to help reading teachers in helping students be more successful writers.

Marty:

Thanks. Now your book covers a huge amount of ground, much more than we can cover in this conversation, but I’m wondering if I can conclude by asking each of you to identify maybe one big idea that came as a surprise to you, as you researched the book. Perhaps something that challenges the conventional wisdom about reading instruction that you’d want listeners to understand.

Erica:

We started the conversation today about background knowledge. I think a critical aspect of background knowledge is also vocabulary. As Doug mentioned, we’ve done a lot of reading with our own kids. One of the ideas we talked about in our book are two ways of increasing vocabulary, as through both explicit instruction, the deep study of one word at a time as a class, as well as implicit instruction, how do you support vocabulary acquisition while students are reading, which is actually a critical time and a critical way of building their vocabulary. In the book, we talk about a variety of ways and we’ve studied a lot of great teachers who support the acquisition of vocabulary during the reading, whether it’s through jotting a note or dropping in a definition or doing a little bit of practice during reading with a particular word. This is one of the techniques in the book that I have found most useful with my own kids, as I read with them.

Colleen:

For me, as I just mentioned with the power of writing and the importance of intentional writing instructions in a reading class, one of my favorite ideas that I think all reading teachers can and should incorporate daily as well as other subject area teachers is this idea of the art of the sentence. Really focusing on the fundamental building blocks of writing a sentence and thinking about teaching students how to significantly increase the quality of their sentences by modeling for them and then giving them practice with sophisticated sentence structures, sophisticated sentence starters and the power that that has on helping them to become better readers, especially better close readers.

Marty:

I’ve got to ask, then, does that mean that we should be diagramming sentences?

Colleen:

That’s a great question. Maybe. Sometimes. We don’t actually talk about that as one of the tools that we recommend, but I think that having that strong, grammatical foundation and then the shared language, I think certainly can only help and support our students.

Marty:

Doug, how about you? What do you want listeners to understand?

Doug:

I think I realized in the course of writing this book that I have a passion for oral reading and the power of oral reading. I think it’s underestimated in our classrooms. That when you read aloud to children, several things happen. Not only do you introduce them to text that’s more complex than they can decode on their own, and so they not only develop an ear for sophisticated vocabulary, but they develop an ear for sophisticated syntax, which is often a challenge for them in decoding. But you introduce them to great ideas, ahead of their ability to decode them on their own. That enthuses them and builds in them a passion for reading. I started asking about the question of joy and love for reading. If all we ever do is give kids books that are on their level and don’t challenge them, particularly the weakest readers, they’ll never be given the greatest texts and the stories that changed our lives and the stories that should change their lives, and they will never really understand why reading is so deeply important and so deeply motivating, and why it’s beautiful and joyful. A teacher once said to us in one of our workshops that she lived in fear when she read aloud to her class, because she was worried that the administrator would walk in and think that she wasn’t teaching. Beyond the notion of teachers reading aloud, there is deep power in students reading aloud in the classroom. Most teachers are socialized never to read aloud in class. They have a pejorative name for it: popcorn reading. But there is something deeply powerful about hearing a classroom of your peers read life into a text by reading it with passion and understanding and inflection and … Instead of thinking when you’re reading silently, “I wonder if anyone cares about this book,” seeing that every other kid in the class loves this book, wants to bring it to life, enjoys it, is relishing the fiction and the words in the story. To me, students need to read silently for sure, that is the way they will do most of their reading in their lives and in their professions, but there’s also a place for oral reading by teachers and oral reading by students in the classroom, that I think for me has been slightly overlooked. Certainly the Lemov children are getting heavy doses of it.

Marty:

Well, Doug, Colleen, and Erica, I think your answers there just highlighted the insight that you all have into the reading process and also the passion that you bring to this question, this challenge of figuring out reading. Congratulations on the new book and thank you very much for spending some time with us this afternoon.

Doug:

Thanks, Marty. We really enjoyed it.

Erica and Colleen:

Thanks so much.

 




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