Doug Lemov on how to 'push the margins' of what children can read

Understanding complex vocabulary and syntax is the key to boosting literacy, says Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov

Doug Lemov

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On a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, my youngest daughter and I sat together on the couch reading. The sun was streaming in through the windows as we made our way through the final chapter of Island of the Blue Dolphins

My little Goose was transfixed – tucked in very close and thinking deeply.  

Listen, I am biased. If there’s anything that makes me happier than reading with my kids, I haven’t yet found it. And as an educator, I won’t be the first to make the case for reading aloud to your kids.

But I want to go beyond the basic advice (“read to your kids”) and share some thoughts about the importance of reading challenging texts to your kids – books more advanced than they can read on their own.

This is important because it prepares them to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas. In time, most kids learn to effectively decode (applying their knowledge of letter-sound relationships to correctly pronounce written words). Far fewer learn to follow difficult ideas in complex texts.

One important benefit of reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, then, is that Goose will learn challenging vocabulary before she is able to read it on her own. And at a faster rate. When she encounters words in her independent reading, she will have the benefit of knowing more of the words she’s trying to read. 

The roots of misunderstanding

But it’s not just with vocabulary that reading aloud helps. 

Complex syntax poses a massive barrier for students. They read certain sentences and cannot unwind their syntax. They grasp a few pieces, one or two ideas, but cannot put all of the pieces together.

Hearing complex syntax read aloud builds an affinity for a different kind of vocabulary. Call it the vocabulary of syntax. As with distinctive words, so too will they be more ready to decipher complex and unusual sentence structures when, months or years later, they begin to read them on their own.

All of that advanced vocab and syntax will be really good for Goose. But most important, perhaps, is the complexity of the story.

A common but unfortunate response to the fact that children are reading less may be to make reading easier, more accessible. The thinking is that kids will like reading if we give them what’s easy and appealing. 

But to me, it’s only by experiencing what is truly great – which is often also difficult – that they will be sold on reading. It’s not the accessibility of books that makes converts of their readers, it’s the brilliance, the power and the greatness of them.

So read the best books with your kids. Read them aloud, bring them to life. Because challenge is far more engaging in the long run than pandering. There are myriad sources of blithe and anodyne amusement. Only reading offers to-your-soul depth.

Doug Lemov (@Doug_Lemov) is the author of Teach Like a Champion and Reading Reconsidered: a practical guide to rigorous literacy. Find out more at: 

This is an edited version of a feature in the 9 September issue of TES. Subscribers can read the full story hereTo subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. The magazine is also available in all good newsagents.

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Doug Lemov

Doug Lemov is a teacher, author and managing director of charter school chain Uncommon Schools.

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