Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.23.14On The Power of Pacing: Book Excerpt and Our Upcoming Workshop (Video)

workshops_pacingOn June 6 in Tarrytown, NY, we’ll be hosting a one-day workshop on the topic of Pacing, a topic that gets a full chapter with official techniques in Teach Like a Champion 2.0.  I usually define Pacing as “the illusion of speed.”  It’s your ability to make rigorous work on a given topic feel energetic and engaging to students while still maintaining their focus. We thought it might feed the paparazzi-fed, pre-workshop frenzy if we posted a little video and excerpt on pacing from the new version of the book.  Thanks to the ever insightful Joaquin Hernandez for helping prepare and adapt this.

An Excerpt on Pacing from Teach Like a Champion 2.0

As many teachers know firsthand, doing the same thing for too long can be a recipe for trouble. A patch of independent writing that started out with a soundtrack of scratching pencils and the hum of productive reflection can give way to a dirge of muted grumbling with pencils seemingly stuck in mud.  The momentum created by your engaging Call and Response can evaporate before your eyes, as participation grows tired and superficial. One potential cause is staying with the same activity for too long.

Achieving the right balance of energy in your classroom requires a skill I call Change the Pace—your ability to shift between “fast” or “slow” moments in a lesson by changing activity types (e.g. transitioning from independent practice to discussion) or activity formats (e.g., staying with discussion but changing the dynamics of the discussion, for example, from a pair activity to a whole-class discussion). Over the course of this post, we’ll dig deeper into how teachers do that.

Changing Activity Types: The Five Major “Muscle Groups”

There are generally five types of activities we can ask students to participate in.  Each requires students to think and engage in a different way. They are:

  • Knowledge Assimilation (KA): When students are presented with new information, while they listen, read, take notes, and ask or answer basic questions.
  • Guided Practice/Guided Questioning (GPGQ): When students engage in activities that involve back-and-forth with the teacher, practicing the use or application of knowledge.
  • Independent Practice (IP): When students complete work without significant support from the teacher that they know how to do on their own. It’s often silent, but doesn’t always need to be.
  • Reflection and Idea Generation (RIG): Usually solo work and often involves writing. Whereas in IP, students execute work they know how to do on their own, students engaged in RIG are given time to try to make sense of things they are in the midst of learning, or do not yet understand.
  • Discussion (Disc):  Activities in which students develop ideas and answers by talking directly to one another, in small groups, or as a class.

Since all five “activity types” are important, and since students should develop skill with all of them through constant practice, my team and I call them “muscle groups.” It’s important that teachers work all of them regularly to ensure students get a well-rounded mental workout. Fortunately, as we you’ll see in the clip of Jessica’s Bracey’s that we’ll discuss in more depth below, shifting between the muscle groups creates not only balanced intellects, but also a sense of engaging change (i.e. good pacing).

Listen, Things Have Changed

Now, let’s take a closer look at how the different activity types can come together in a lesson—in this case, one taught by Jessica Bracey, a 5th grade reading teacher at North Star Academy Vailsburg Middle School.


After students summarize what happened in the previous chapter of the novel they were reading, we see Jessica accomplish the following in a span of less than 10 minutes:

  • Reading: Jessica kicks the lesson off with 70 seconds of oral reading, Control the Game Reading style (KA)
  • Writing: Students then spend 2 minutes and 45 seconds responding in writing in their reading response journals to a question about what they just read (RIG)
  • Discussion: Students spend a minute or two sharing and discussing their answers to the Everybody Writes prompt with the whole class (Disc)
  • Repeat…The cycle then repeats itself, with Jessica facilitating more cycles of Reading, Writing, and Discussion, with the cycles getting longer and the questions getting harder over time.

Many of you might be thinking: Reading. Writing. Discussion. Great–I’m already doing that! And you’d be right. But what we found remarkable about Jessica’s lesson wasn’t the novelty of her lesson activities. Rather, what stood out was how long each activity was, the order in which they were sequenced in the lesson, and the consistency of her approach. These attributes made for a lesson that felt as fast and engaging as it was rigorous.

  • Activity Length:  One useful takeaway teachers have shared with me after watching Jessica’s is that they, too, alternate between reading, writing, and discussion, but that they do so in long, “non-recurring” chunks. For example, in a typical class, they might read for 15-20 minutes, write for 5-10 minutes, and discuss for another 10-15 minutes before tackling an exit ticket and wrapping up. As Jessica’s clip illustrates, you can bring energy and engagement to your class merely by breaking those chunks into shorter cycles of the same activities and shifting between them every 2-4 minutes. With each shift comes the addition of a new “milepost”[1], which makes the lesson “feel fast.” Aside from making the lesson engaging, making frequent shifts between these three activities ensures that writing never gets “squeezed out” of the lesson, as is often the case when writing is left for the end of the lesson.
  • Sequence: Another strength was how often Jessica asks students to write before they discuss. This prevents students from being able to freeload insights from discussion rather than make their own based on reading the text. It also forces students to do the hardest cognitive work independently, and arms them with ideas that they can draw on to elevate the quality of discussion.

The more I watch champion teachers like Jessica, the more I see evidence of Daisy Christodoulou’s assertion that rigorous and independent work like discussion works best when it’s informed beforehand by deep Knowledge Assimilation (KA). By investing heavily in KA through frequent stretches of Control the Game Reading, Jessica prepares students to engage in rigorous, text-based writing and discussion.

  • Consistency: As teachers, we often try to do “new” things with students to keep class interesting and make things feel more engaging, but what makes Jessica’s lesson so fascinating is how engaged students seemed to be while participating in familiar activities that they appear to know well.  By shifting between familiar activities, she allows her students to do and do and do with very little down time.  For instance, students can transition right into their “reading response journals” because it’s the  87th time students they’ve done so far this school year.  Contrast this with the amount of time she would have to spend rolling out her expectations and directions for a brand new activity. Even though it might seem like it would be more interesting, it would be as likely to have the opposite effect.


[1] Mileposts: reference points that make your rate of progress visible


5 Responses to “On The Power of Pacing: Book Excerpt and Our Upcoming Workshop (Video)”

  1. Matt Wheeland
    May 23, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    Good excerpt. I’m excited to read the whole chapter in December!

  2. Andrew Old
    May 25, 2014 at 8:20 am

    I’m not sure about this. There was a big push here in England for “pace” a few years back. Initially we were encouraged to use 3-part lessons (starter/main/plenary). Then teachers were encouraged to switch activities even more frequently. “Progress every 20 minutes” became the slogan, and anything that could not be taught and assessed (to show progress) in less than 20 minutes was discouraged. What happened was that learning became very superficial, and longer periods of practice became pushed out.

    • Hilary Lowe
      May 25, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      Interesting point Andrew. I definitely agree with you that you don’t want to move between short activities all the time, but not sure that’s what Doug’s saying to do either. I think the line that stands out to me is “with the cycles getting longer and the questions getting harder over time.”

      From reading that, I assumed that a well-paced lesson builds up to longer and more rigorous intervals of work. The point is that you don’t want to start a lesson with a 40-minute block of reading or writing or divide your 80-minute lesson into just 2-3 continuous activities. You want to keep engagement high by building up to longer chunks as the lesson chugs along.

      I also think that short activities don’t have to be superficial, but can still be really rigorous–just as long activities can become less meaningful if kids aren’t prepared to tackle them. Like Art of the Sentence. Rigorous, but could take just 3 minutes to do.

      My takeaway is that it’s all about striking a balance. You don’t want to go too long all the time (which in my experience, is the one of the most common pitfalls for new teachers who stick with “I do”/”We Do”/ “You do”), but you want to make sure to mix it up enough where you’re not just doing 40 min of IP every day….that way you make sure pupils get different kinds of practice and in an engaging way.

  3. James Marshall
    May 27, 2014 at 8:15 am

    I like this pacing idea, and I think it will work when coaching my young athletes too. You can stick to one subject for the length of the session, but keep cycling how it is coached.
    Unfortunately, facilities sometimes constrain what I can do and for how long.
    I have a classroom for an hour tomorrow, then 3 hours of court time. I will try my best to cycle within that.

  4. Doug_Lemov
    May 27, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Thanks for all the comments. Andrew, I should point out that this is an excerpt from a larger section in which I also talk about the importance of going slow and setting a more meditative, reflective tone and pace at times. I think it’s important for good classrooms to not only to do both but to use the tools of engagement to build capacity to sustain concenrtration for longer periods of time. I’m pretty sure i want my children’s doctor or the guy who did the engineering on the bridge i’m crossing to be able to sustain concenration for long periods of time. And if school doesn’t reinfoce that i’m not sure where it will get done. As Hilary pointed out i think a good rule of thumb is engage and then build stamina and the goal is balance. I try to be cautious about saying where the right balance is (because i’m sure i don’t know) and focus on providing a road map for the different types of pace. Interestingly I think the tools that make some classes “feel” fast are quite similar to some of the ones you use to slow down. With a little luck that comes clear when you read that whole thing.

Leave a Reply