Doug Lemov: Three fresh approaches to teaching reading

4th April 2016 at 09:52
teenager reading
In an excerpt from his latest book, Doug Lemov provides some practical tips on how teachers can alter the way they approach reading with their students

Consider, for a moment, how much reading you were required to do in college. Almost assuredly there were instances when the time you spent reading stretched into hours. Some classes probably required a book a week or a daunting array of journal articles—possibly both.

The message was clear: you had to read a lot if you wanted to understand whatever discipline you studied and meet the standards of economics, chemistry, political or literary theory. Extensive reading gave you knowledge, context and perspective, an ear for how the discipline talked. It was required not just to “pass” but to earn a degree and enter society. Extensive reading gave you what you needed to succeed, but it was not easy. You needed lots of practice to prepare you.

Running is a decent analogy. If you want to be a distance runner, you have to put in the miles. Sure, you can improve your results by refining your strategy and studying up on the science of training. In the end, though, there is no way around the fact that success requires a lot of road miles. In the case of reading we sometimes refer to this as miles on the page.

This observation points out two challenges. The first is that most students don’t read as much as they should, both in and out of school. A few years ago, for example, a colleague of ours followed a sample of students through their day at New York City public schools and found that, on average, students were reading for twenty minutes per day. Twenty minutes! What’s even more disheartening is that almost 40 per cent of students did not read at all during the school day. Of course, this assumes that during the time students were reading, they were reading well and attentively, which is no sure thing.

Surely, 20 or 40 or 60 minutes of reading a day doesn’t cut it. In fact, even if students read for twice what those numbers suggest, it would still not likely be enough.

Getting young people to read more has perhaps always been a challenge, but today there is increasing competition for students’ attention, both in school and at home. The buzzing, pinging, and flickering reminders cause students (and many adults) to disengage not only from “mere” reading but also from the sort of sustained, uninterrupted reading that the most demanding texts require.

Below, we’ll look at three different approaches to reading: students reading independently, students reading aloud, and students listening to oral reading.

Three Different Approaches to Reading

In considering the balance between the amount of reading and the quality of reading students do, three different approaches come in handy. The way these three approaches are implemented—and the balance among them—can have a dramatic impact not just on the amount of miles students cover but also on the quality of their reading—even their love and passion for reading.

There are clear benefits to giving kids robust opportunities to interact with text in each of the three approaches we discuss, but each also has limitations. As we look at these benefits and limitations, it’s important to remember that it’s not a competition. The goal is not to identify the best format for reading but to recognize synergies that can allow us to use all three in conjunction—to give students the most meaningful and productive interactions with the texts they read.

Independent Reading

Reading independently is ultimately how students read on exams, in college, and in their adult lives, so it is especially important to give them lots of practice in doing so. On both sides of the Common Core debate, there is clear consensus that all kids should have ample opportunities to read independently, which is why in countless classrooms and homes across this country, parents and teachers alike stress the importance of making sure that students have a book in their hand as much as possible.

At the same time, there are limitations to reading independently, and some of these limitations go unacknowledged. Most significant, there is very little accountability for readers when they are reading independently. Readers, especially our most struggling readers, often practice reading poorly by inscribing errors when they read independently. They might decode vowel sounds poorly, drop word endings, or skip over words they don’t know. They might read quickly or idly and fail to process the meaning of the words. As a result, they don’t effectively practice—or get better at—reading, and they miss opportunities to make meaning out of what they read. Independent reading, for all its strengths, is also, well, independent. Part of the pleasure of reading—sharing the story as it unfolds—is tacitly sacrificed.

Students Reading Aloud

One way to address the limitations of independent reading is to design it for greater accountability. Another is to balance it with other approaches to reading. Giving students, especially developing readers, frequent opportunities to read aloud in addition to reading silently is a great way to do this, though students’ reading aloud also has benefits and limitations.

On the plus side, when students read aloud, they are able to practice fluency, decoding, and most of all prosody—the art of using rhythm, intonation, and stress to connect words into meaningful phrases. This, you might say, is a hidden skill, relevant even—perhaps especially—for older students who read complex texts for which the ability to create such linkages can be a key to unlocking the text’s meaning. Having students read aloud also provides rich and constant data to teachers on the quality of their reading. Without reading aloud, we know far, far less about the quality and skill of the reading students do. With that constant data come opportunities for immediate—and therefore highly effective—corrections.

Most important, having students read aloud connects students with the pleasure of reading. A classroom where expressive reading by students is the norm, where students take pleasure in books—pleasure that is visible to their peers and therefore infectious—is a classroom where students change their relationship to reading. In that classroom, students come to understand why every culture on earth tells and loves stories.

However, there are downsides to students’ reading aloud. One is the challenge of what the students who are not reading are doing when one student is reading aloud. Are they staring out the window? Looking at the text and pretending to read? Teachers are, in fact, often instructed not to have students read aloud in class for this reason. This strikes us as throwing out a very valuable baby due to some easily addressed issues with the bathwater. Later in the chapter, we will discuss modifications and adaptations that can address this challenge.

Another limitation of student oral reading is that it may not fully prepare students to read on their own. In fact, it can result in student reading that is more focused on expression than comprehension—reading during which it is all but impossible to stop and reflect. These issues, generally, are remediable via adaptation, and simply require balance—that is, the use of student oral reading in combination and synergy with silent reading.

Reading Aloud to Students

The third approach to reading is reading to students. It is often the “forgotten” approach among the three, especially for older students, and it too presents a set of benefits and limitations.

A clear benefit is that when teachers read aloud to their classes, the best reader in the room breathes life into the text by modeling fluency, creating meaning, and adding drama. Reading aloud to students also communicates a love and a passion for great books. Perhaps most important, it allows students to access a text well beyond what they can read on their own, enabling them to familiarize themselves with more complex vocabulary, rhythm, and patterns of syntax. Although many educators recognize this benefit in regard to younger students, the benefits of reading to older students is much less often considered. For example, scientific writing, as we discuss in our chapter on nonfiction, has its own unwritten rules and stylistic conventions—the way, for example, some clauses are meant to be parenthetical and de-emphasized. Reading part of an article from a scientific journal to your students would help them hear those rules and conventions, as well as make it more likely that subsequent reading will accurately capture a text’s tone and meaning.

The downsides of reading aloud to students are more clear-cut. Reading aloud involves teacher modeling, not actual student practice. The teacher embeds meaning in her own expression—meaning that students may not infer on their own. Everyone has to read at the same pace—and from the same text.

Given the benefits and downsides of the three approaches to reading, the goal then is to use each of them in a strategic way, which ensures that we can maximize its benefits but also minimize its limitations. Recognizing these benefits and limitations improves both the quantity and the quality of reading that students do—to ensure that our students log as many high-quality road miles as possible.

Doug Lemov (with co-authors Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway) is the author of Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy. For more information, please visit, and connect with the Doug on Twitter, @doug_lemov.

(Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway. Copyright (c) 2016 by Doug Lemov and Uncommon Schools. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.)

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