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An Interview with Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs: Reading Reconsidered

Mar 3, 2016 by

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Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)  I understand that Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy is being released soon. What were your goals with the book?

Our goals in writing Reading Reconsidered were to capture what we have learned in studying excellent reading teachers over the past 5 years. Teachers have to balance new guidance on reading: the New SAT, the Common Core with what’s timeless and true about reading. We hoped to be able to not only de-mystify the new guidance but help teachers find a sweet spot that let them ensure success for their students (and themselves) in the long run and also the short run. Both by addressing four important and we think enduring ideas of the Common Core that transcend the implementation challenges of assessment and evaluation (text selection, writing directly from a text, close reading, and non-fiction), but also by addressing the fundamentals of reading instruction (vocabulary, habits of discussion, and how to read with students).

2)   Some people consider reading to be a “psycholinguistic guessing game” while others a set of skills. What is your view on reading?

Full disclosure, we had to google the definition and context of “psycholinguistic guessing game.” What we found was that it’s the interaction between thought and language. We don’t think that it’s necessarily one or the other. Reading is very much about forming a hypothesis (guessing) as you read, and either confirming or adjusting that hypothesis as you go. It’s about the ability to read for basic meaning (“What’s happening here? What does this mean?”) but also deeper meaning (“How does this connect to the central idea of the text? What is the author’s purpose in using this word or phrase?”). And there are certainly a set of skills that are used when reading – how to decode, how to identify the main idea, how to closely read a difficult sentence. But reading is also very much about the relationship that you form with the text – how you make meaning of what you read and use that meaning and experience to inform future encounters with other texts.

Another key aspect of reading in knowledge and experience. Some texts prepare you for certain challenges better than others. You’re not going to be able to read Paradise Lost or Pride and Prejudice—never mind the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights—if you’ve never read a text that’s more than 100 years old before. And since a reader’s level of knowledge correlates as strongly to reading success as any measure of “skills” it’s worth being intentional about thinking about how to grow and foster knowledge as we read.

3) What about reading for fun, for pleasure, for enjoyment? Can kids just enjoy reading The Three Musketeers or Harry Potter? Let’s talk about WHAT students read–and what, if anything, is wrong if a student likes Westerns or Science Fiction or Steven King? What about other forms of reading? For example–poems? Is there anything wrong with reading, for example, Clement Moore’s classic ” T’was the Night Before Christmas”? In another realm- Dav Pilkey. What is the good, the bad, and the rest about Captain Underpants

Two key issues are raised by these questions – the importance of reading for pleasure and text selection.

First, teaching students to LOVE reading is the most important thing that a teacher can do. And in so doing, we believe it’s important that students get to choose what they read for pleasure, whether it be Harry Potter, Steven King, poetry, or Captain Underpants.

Reading texts on their own allows students to practice meaning making independently and gives them opportunity to engage with a wide range of texts, especially those that naturally captivate their interest. We also believe it’s important though, to systematically expose kids to rigorous texts like those they will encounter in college.

For example, archaic texts (those written before 1950) use different syntax and vocabulary than those written today. If a student is faced with Machiavelli’s The Prince in college, but had only been exposed to current young adult fiction throughout middle school and high school, he will not have the tools necessary to be successful in making meaning of this difficult text.

Similarly, we find that the majority of texts that students are assigned to read in college is predominantly non-fiction, but the texts that students read on the path to college are mostly fiction. In our book we talk about ways of embedding non-fiction (and poetry) into the fictional texts that we read with kids in order to support comprehension of both texts, deepen appreciation, and build background knowledge.

It’s also worth noting that people often assume that kids are averse to challenging or nonfiction reading. However, with regular exposure to a wide range of texts, kids become more successful readers of rigorous texts. With that success, students begin to find pleasure in rich and challenging texts.

4) Sustained Silent Reading- How important is it in the big scheme of things?

It is necessary but not sufficient. We believe that it’s important for students to have robust opportunities to read independently. But we also think it’s important to find ways to make independent reading accountable and supportive of struggling readers. Readers who struggle to decode and make meaning independently are often inscribing these poor reading skills. So we think that you can improve on SSR for all readers, by using it in smaller chunks with a shared text, followed by comprehension questions or a writing task for students to ensure that they are understanding what they read. In addition to this accountable independent reading, we also hope that students read independently for pleasure in their down time at school and at home. In all of our schools, students have their independent reading books with them at all times so they can always read when they are done with an assignment.

5) Reading comprehension and reading for pleasure- Do you think the two ever meet in the middle?

Yes! We believe they meet in the middle in at least two key ways. The first is the importance of reading aloud to students across the grade levels (not just in early elementary!) in order to build a joyful culture of reading. Read-aloud can and should be the most joyful part of students’ and teachers’ day—an opportunity to relish and savor the beauty of books. We also see reading comprehension and reading for pleasure intersect with Close Reading, when students are given the keys to unlock the deeper meaning of a text and their eyes pop with insight, and they often experience a deeper appreciation for reading and the intentionality of author’s craft when that happens.

6) What have I neglected to ask?

We believe deeply in the power of vocabulary. Successful reading relies on a reader’s capacity to understand both a large number of words as well as the subtleties and nuances of those words, even when words change their meaning according to the setting. To have a commanding vocabulary is to master both breadth and depth. There is a difference between knowing a word generally and knowing it deeply.

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