Book Reviews

‘READING RECONSIDERED’ by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway

“An exceptional reader can learn to do anything, no matter…how long the journey to mastery.”

If I’m completely honest, there’s only one method from Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ that I have adopted fully in my own classroom, despite my intentions to take on more. This is the ‘control the game’ method for group reading. Like much of TLAC, this is incredibly simple, but has been powerful in all of my classes to ensure that every student reads aloud and that every student is actively reading every text we explore as a group. (It is described in more detail below).

As an English teacher, and due to my success with Control the Game, I was excited to find ‘Reading Reconsidered’, Lemov’s collaborative ‘Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction’ in the LRC. Though much of the book is targeted at US reading standards, my discovery of it could not have been more timely. It is not only the English department who are having to deliver more challenging material for the new GCSE specifications and it is certainly true that our students, especially at Key Stage 4, are often not as well equipped as we would like them to be to tackle 19th century non-fiction or archaic sources.

Lemov’s discussion of the decline of the canon is balanced and thoughtful. Unlike our new curriculum, he doesn’t assume that old texts=good texts. One line that rang depressingly true for me, when considering our students and the new specifications in particular, pointed out the power that the “cultural capital” of the canon affords:

“Members of the upper and middle classes often take for granted knowledge that marks them as educated and sophisticated. They can hear a reference to Hamlet or Dickens (in a classroom, a coffee shop, or a book) and join the conversation…Knowledge of the books that educated society takes for granted is a powerful tool, though perhaps only not having it would make you realise that. A culture of reading that doesn’t consider this cultural importance has a disparate impact on those who are less likely to acquire cultural knowledge by other means. It is their best chance to be included in the secret conversation of opportunity.”

Like TLAC, the focus of this brilliant guide is to ensure that all students have the kind of education they need not just to get to college/university, but to be able to continue to access challenging texts when they get there, at the same level as their peers. Lemov identifies ‘Five Plagues of the Developing Reader’ which stand in the way of this. These are clearly recognisable problems from our own classrooms. His solutions are not prescriptive, instead he offers suggestions for text choices to ensure that all of our students are exposed to these problematic characteristics through more approachable texts early on. This is something that helped me to look carefully at how I deliver the ‘pre-complex’ texts that Amy McVay has already introduced to our KS3 English curriculum.

If you’re still assuming that this is just a book just for English teachers, I’d urge you just to read Chapter 3, which focuses on Non-Fiction and Chapter 5, which explores various approaches to reading inside and out of the classroom.

The sub-title of the book, ‘A Practical Guide’, is an extremely apt one. It’s definitely a guide that I will go back to repeatedly (in fact, I returned the copy to the LRC and bought myself one). It is the kind of instruction in reading teaching that I wish I’d received during my PGCE. It is intelligent, carefully researched and enthusiastic about literature. Although there’s no module on reading for pleasure, you can hear the authors’ excitement about reading and what it can do for their students in every section.

Control the Game:

This is a method for controlling whole class reading which can be easily adapted to different texts and classes. It definitely works as well for non fiction as for fiction.

  1. Ask all students to follow the text with a finger. This is crucial and must be enforced. At any point that the teacher stops reading for discussion, Lemov recommends a “placeholder signal” to remind students to keep their place. “Freeze” has worked well for me.
  2. Designate a student to read aloud, while the rest follow along. Unpredicatable duration is crucial, do not let students know how long they will be reading, so they must be paying attention to the text and every reader.
  3. Vary the length of sections (keeping them all quite short) to maintain unpredictability, but also to allow differentiation.
  4. Name a new student at random or jump in briefly yourself. Again, this must be unpredictable. Repeating readers once or twice in the lesson is also useful to maintain this unpredictability.
  5. Try to ensure that, at least over time, you hear from every student. Enforce audible volume and expression from all. I have found that with weaker groups I can pick up the energy of the reading by taking over briefly myself before passing back to another student. This can also be useful for particularly tricky sections of text, especially if they don’t know when I’ll pass back to them, so are reading along more carefully too.

Cathy Williams 

SEVEN MYTHS ABOUT EDUCATION by Daisy Christodoulou

In her introduction, Daisy Christodoulou states that ‘for every myth I identify, I have found concrete and robust examples of how this myth has influenced classroom practice across England; only then do I go on to show why it is a myth and why it is so damaging,’ (p.5-6). A controversial way to start a book and perhaps not entirely reflective of Christodoulou’s arguments, but a good way to inspire curiosity.

In this book, Christodoulou challenges seven myths that she had previously accepted as ‘rules’ that teachers had to abide by, in order to teach ‘well’ and adhere to the standards set out by Ofsted. Basing her arguments not only in theoretical frameworks and research but also in personal experience of teaching in state secondary schools, Christodoulou does make some convincing points against these myths (see below). Indeed, her attacks are not necessarily ground-breaking (I found myself nodding along at points) but they do put into words the problems with certain classroom experiences that even I have witnessed (and been guilty of) during my short time as a teacher.

Undeniably, the list of myths is a little predictable but to a teacher of a subject that is both modern and old-fashioned at the same time, I found them quite interesting:

  1. facts prevent understanding
  2. teacher-led instruction is passive
  3. the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything
  4. you can always just look it up
  5. we should teach transferable skills
  6. projects and activities are the best way to learn
  7. teaching knowledge is indoctrination

There are many themes that tie these myths together. The first two chapters discuss the need to build student knowledge of both concepts and facts. Whilst Christodoulou argues that there is a place for both in the classroom, one cannot be left out for the other. Her busting of myth 2 was particularly reassuring to me as a linguist, learner and teacher of MFL. Her arguments for teacher-led learning question how students can learn without being given some basic information (such as the French or Spanish alphabet, for example). Myths 3 and 4 focus on the impact of new technologies such as the Internet on the use of memory and fact learning, portraying many classrooms as a battle ground between long-term and working memory; two necessary learning tools which should be complementary but, due to these ‘rules’, find themselves at odds. Meanwhile, myths 5, 6 and 7 question the prizing of project based learning and the teaching of ‘transferable skills’ above everything else and suggests that often, strong teacher subject knowledge is deemed less important than a teacher’s ability to teach such skills.

Arguably, some of the statements Christodoulou makes in her book are not new. Indeed, we bust some of these educational myths in our day to day teaching, yet the author does provide us with some more ammunition in the pedagogical battles that we fight, not so much within, but outside of the classroom.

– Lily Peters

This Much I Know About Love Over Fear describes head teacher John Tomsett’s vision of creating a culture for truly great teaching within schools. It’s a wonderful read and, above all, a hopeful book that documents the author’s insights into teaching and school leadership. Underpinning everything, Tomsett argues, is the idea that schools should have a culture of honesty, humility and particularly humanity. In an educational world which is bursting at the seams with new initiatives, workload, performance management, targets, meetings and data harvesting, the book reminds us that as teachers we should stay totally focused on our core purpose: the development of great teaching which will in turn lead to great learning. Mostly, though, the book is an important reminder that values and good relationships remain the bedrock of a successful school. Inspirational and life-affirming.

– Stuart Kemp