Doug Lemov: Too often, the way we teach reading in schools is wrong

30th March 2016 at 21:01
pile of open books
The author of Teach Like a Champion explains why he believes teachers need to reconsider the way they approach reading

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One evening while I was in the midst of writing Reading Reconsidered my recent book on literacy with Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, my teenage son saw the manuscript on the kitchen counter and generously offered a bit of guidance. “It’s about the title, Dad,” he said. “I mean, reconsidered? Seriously, you should try something with a little excitement: Reading Revealed. Or,” he paused for emphasis, “Rediscovered!” Then he tossed the manuscript back on the counter and went on to more pressing concerns.

He had a point, and for a day or two Erica and Colleen and I thought seriously about changing the title. In the end the word "rediscovered" just didn’t cut it though. It implied a brashness we were not comfortable with. We didn’t want to trumpet a silver bullet or tell teachers to start over with our grand design. We wanted to offer a set of tools they could use to increase the rigor and quality of what they already did in areas that were important to them. And we wanted to reflect on key assumptions in the field. To my son’s disappointment, it really was a reconsideration we were shooting for.

In light of that choice I thought it might be useful to explain why we think a bit of self-reflection is not only important but necessary for our profession.

Equity of opportunity

Consider that by most measures between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of first-year students have to take remedial classes in English when they arrive on college campuses. Those students have done what we’ve asked them to do in our schools; they are “successes”, having graduated with our imprimatur and gone on to bigger and better things only to find they are not ready. From there only about two thirds complete their remedial courses and only about a third ultimately graduate. Needless to say these percentages skew most heavily against low income students who not only have overcome the greatest odds to attend but and whose ability to earn success through college is most important to our nation.

As Robert J Putnam points out in his outstanding book Our Kids, what our society requires most to sustain itself is the idea of equality of opportunity – a fair chance at success for everyone based on the merits of their work. And we have not managed to provide that equity of opportunity. You can work hard and be told you have succeeded and find that this is not true and that the road to success ends, as one study put it, in a bridge to nowhere. And more and more the data suggest that it is not just about lack of rigor and preparation in our schools. Maybe it’s also about how we teach reading specifically.

If you take the results of just about any state assessment and compare proficiency rates to the free lunch status of test takers, you will find the correlation between socio-economic status and achievement is one and a half to two times as great in reading as in math. If you are not born to privilege, we are less likely to know how to ensure your success in reading. And this is a fact most critical because reading undergirds every academic endeavor. When you arrive on campus you are given a syllabus full of dense and complex texts and this forms the foundation of your learning in almost any subject. A friend of my son’s has parents who are doctors. They required him to spend the summer reading the science textbook from the next year’s biology class, even though, ironically, the rumor was the teacher almost never required students to read from it. “Whether or not he makes you read it,” one of them said, “You need to learn to read scientific literature. It’s what doctors do.” “Plus in medical school,” the other added, “If I had to choose between reading my textbook and going to class, I learned it was better to read my textbook if I wanted to survive.”

The causes of this problem—that reading is harder to teach – are complex; after all, reading itself is complex. A student who fails to grasp the details of a text may have failed to use the reading “skills” our instruction tends to emphasize – making inferences and observations; asking questions as they read—or she may have lacked experience unwinding complex and multiclausal sentences, she may lack knowledge of key vocabulary—or background knowledge. There are a dozen possible causes.

Still, we have been slow as a profession to embrace data that suggests these things – that prior knowledge is one of the key drivers of reading success, for example, and that skills may not be universally applicable across texts after all. Making 50 character inferences about Winnie in Tuck Everlasting, may not, we observe in our book, prepare students to make successful inferences about Oliver Twist. A novel written in 19th century language and punctuated with 35 and 40 word sentences is a different thing entirely from an engaging piece of young adult fiction. If you first encounter texts that are more than 100 years old when you arrive on campus, the game is most likely up before it’s begun.

Avoiding difficult books

Perhaps reading skills are not the solution then. Or perhaps they are useful but also require other elements as well. Challenge, for example. Leveling texts for readers well into middle school and often beyond is accepted as standard practice in most American reading classrooms but is it best to ensure as common practice that our students avoid reading books that are "too hard" for them. Teachers are routinely trained to avoid giving children books that are too hard. Even the children themselves are given this advice. My own kids have each come home from school with the same guidance given to them almost yearly: Read a page of the book you are interested in. If there are more than five words you don’t know, put it down. It’s too hard for you.

The eminent literacy expert Tim Shanahan has found, in reviewing the research, almost no basis at all for the assumption that leveling text helps students learn faster. It is, in his words, “an unproven theory” even though it is all but standard practice. Perhaps there are times when students should pick up that challenging book with its five hard words and endeavor to read it anyway. Or at least times when a teacher should select it for class reading and offer support and guidance so that students learn how to unlock a daunting text. It might require help and support for students to stare down that terrible-too-hard-book but in so doing they might learn how to struggle with a text outside their comfort zone—which is surely one of the core skills of college. Plus the book might just be a great one.

In other words it might be that we should see the reason to teach a book as its greatness and its difficulty to be a barrier that must be overcome rather than its accessibility as the reason for reading it and its brilliance as a pleasant bonus. Or it might be that there are times when our students should practice reading easily and happily but other times when they should struggle. Why, other than a bent to Manicheanism, should we think it was always one or the other?

But asking how we choose books raises another aspect of our teaching that perhaps requires reconsideration: young people don’t read much anymore. They don’t find it interesting or engaging. Surely part of that is the ubiquity of pinging, chirping, buzzing devices always in their pocket and designed by our society’s finest minds to distract and attract them at every moment. But it also might give us pause to wonder whether we have the equation right when we say: let students choose their books and let them read what avoids inducing frustration and we will build a love for reading.

You can find a thousand articles advising us not to give students texts that are too hard so we don’t frustrate them and to always let them choose because otherwise they won’t like the books they read and will stop. Perhaps always giving students books that don’t challenge them too much—books that are complex, rich, renowned for their influence and insight–cuts them off from a key underlying rationale for reading. Just possibly, handing a young person a book and saying, “Here. Read this. You have never heard of it and perhaps at first you are skeptical. But trust me,” might it be not an oppressive act of leaden folly but among the greatest gifts an educator can give.

Are we so sure that what students think they will like at age 8 or 10 or god forbid 14 is all they are capable of liking? Colleen and Erica and I, at least, can all think of books that we read against our own better teenage judgment (infallible thought it seemed at the time) but that turned out to be transformative. Some of them right away, some only years later, but may God smile on the teacher who, in 1978, handed young Lemov The Old Man and the Sea and so made a reader of him for life. Embarrassingly, I do not remember who it was that bestowed that gift, I just remember the book.

Reading aloud

Many educators believe that asking students to read aloud in class is wrong. One reviewer, giving his verdict on our book via Amazon, opined that reading aloud was “a highly outdated practice.” “The fact that these authors included this in their book,” he went sagely on, “makes me question everything they know about literacy instruction.” But we kept on noticing how public—how joyfully public—reading was in top performing classrooms and schools. We saw classrooms where not only the teacher breathed breath of life into a text by reading it aloud but where students did. Where they took joy in reading and where, crucially, they saw their peers joyfully and expressively read almost every day? Are we so sure that this is wrong? Oral reading builds a culture around books that we will surely need to make young people love reading in the face of its high tech alternatives and it puts us in touch with the reasons why texts have been read and told aloud in our societies for centuries.

In short, it is just possible that our assumptions deserve some reconsideration. Certainly the revised SAT and the Common Core have mandated that we reconsider some of our assumptions or at least change our practices, and part of the book is about how to react to those mandated “reconsiderations” in a way that aligns also to our students’ long term interests and to our own reasons for loving and teaching reading. But more broadly we find ourselves watching successful reading teachers and noticing how differently they do things. As one teacher, who read aloud constantly with students put it, “I live in fear that an administrator will walk in, find us reading and ask why I am not teaching.” 

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


Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction is published in the UK today (Wiley, Jossey-Bass, March 2016).


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