Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.14.15On Reading and Building Knowledge: My Morning “Behind Enemy Lines”

This morning I got up early to write.  At about 6:30 I wandered into the living room to find that my daughter was downstairs already, sitting quietly over the heat vent- it was negative five degrees Fahrenheit here this morning.  I needed to get some work done, but my rule is, I work until my kids get up and then I give my morning to them so  I sat down next to her and noticed her book on the floor.  It was one I didn’t recognize, Behind Enemy Lines, historical fiction about a woman who disguises herself to spy behind confederate lines during the Civil War.

“Want me to read aloud to you for a bit?” I asked. She nodded.  I poured myself some coffee and then came and picked up the book.

The chapter I read was about Emma, the protagonist, disguising herself as an itinerant peddler and being dropped near Cold Harbor battlefield and setting off on a “mission.”  The plot was a bit flimsy. She enters an abandoned house to seek shelter during a rainstorm and finds a dying confederate soldier.  He has Typhoid Fever, she realizes.  She stays for a day or so to comfort him until he dies. She takes the gold watch he asked her to take to a general and sets out to meet him.

The book was good but not great. Engaging idea, some nice moments, but the plot was a bit contrived and some implausible actions and events made it less than truly historical as “historical fiction.” I found myself thinking about how I might teach it to get the most out of it, and in particular how I might apply an idea I’d been wrestling with for some time.  My colleague Erica sends her son to a school that’s more committed to developing background knowledge than most schools. Their results are amazing and she described how her son, a kindergartener, came home with a book they’d read in class.  Instead of asking her to have him read it to her and practice his decoding, as most schools would, her school asked her to have him re-tell what he remembered without reading the actual text.  (The book was about frogs, I think)  They were emphasizing knowledge development—retell the facts—over skill development—practice decoding- very unconventional, but just maybe very powerful.   I’d been thinking about what this might look like inside the reading classroom where we often ask skill-based questions exclusively, and at the expense of fact-based questions. Just possibly we then find that the lack of factual knowledge keeps our kids from being able to use their skills.

I thought about Behind Enemy Lines.  As a teacher I’d been trained to ask questions like this:

  • What motivates Emma to aid the confederate soldier? [Answer: her sense of duty and humanity].
  • What does she learn about herself? [That her loyalty to the human race is stronger than her loyalty to the Union].
  • Who else feels a strong sense of duty to someone else in the book?


Indeed those questions would have made for an interesting and worthwhile discussion, I hope.  But if I was really committed to addressing the knowledge deficit, and if I’d chosen this book for my class (or child) because it was historical fiction, I might have thought about some additional–and different–questions:

  • “What does Emma tell us about what soldiers died of during the Civil War.  Is it surprising in any way?” [Answer: Emma notes that far more soldiers died from disease than battle and typhoid fever was a leading killer.  Most people think more about more dramatic combat deaths but this is true about almost every war].
  • “Is there anything in the text that tells us why so many soldiers might have died from disease during the Civil War? [Alan, the soldier, recalls how when he started to get weak and could not keep up with his regiment, he was left behind with no food or shelter to care for himself. He wasn’t able.  Students might also note that Emma knows there’s nothing she can do but comfort Alan–there’s no medicinal cure as we might hope there would be today.]

Think of how powerful these facts are, both in understanding the Civil War but also events throughout history: some deaths get more attention than others because they are dramatic; in every war soldiers have died mostly of sickness; nursing used to mean comforting in death as much as bringing back to life etc)

But I think many of us are trained to think of such questions as “second rate” or “not my job” as English teachers.  I KNOW I did, and I am not suggesting that teachers ask them only.  But if I didn’t ask any such questions I would be leaving to chance whether my kids learned any history from the historical fiction and I’d be socializing them not to seek to unlock bits of knowledge from what they read.  If I did ask these questions, a couple a day, every day, I would slog away at the knowledge deficit and teach my students how to attend to important facts and reflect on them as they read. This might cause them to absorb more. So in an ideal world, perhaps I should be asking both types of questions.

I’ve been writing a chapter for the forthcoming book Reading Reconsidered about reading more non-fiction and getting more out of it, specifically to make headway against the knowledge deficit.  But this morning it finally crystallized for me that perhaps we struggle so much to build the knowledge that turns our students into readers not only because of what we choose to read but because of our habits of questioning, which often don’t value building knowledge or teach students how to do it.

Just a thought.  Love to hear yours in response.


13 Responses to “On Reading and Building Knowledge: My Morning “Behind Enemy Lines””

  1. January 14, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    A very timely post for me. I am in the middle of reading Text Dependent Questions, by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. While, I haven’t completed the book yet your post reminded me of a few takeaways from that book and other learning experiences I have had.

    I agree there is a place for knowledge-based questions when studying fiction, but we do have to be selective and craft questions that help students uncover knowledge that is crucial to a bigger understanding as opposed to “did you read it” questions that appear on a typical study guide that accompanies each chapter of the text..

    By asking (and answering) questions that involve key ideas and details and general understandings, a class can develop a shared understanding of a text and more than likely be better equipped to dive into a deeper discussion.

    • Doug Lemov
      January 22, 2015 at 11:16 am

      Very useful comments. Thanks, Drew!

  2. Meg
    January 15, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    This is all particularly interesting given the number of studies that show student performance on standardized reading tests is in many ways tied to the amount of background knowledge students have walking in to the test. Of course this is not to say that skill proficiency is unimportant or irrelevant, but a child with some factual knowledge of the Civil War is apt to outperform one who doesn’t on a standardized test passage dealing with the Civil War, even if the questions are technically addressing central idea and citing evidence. It makes me think of a conversation I had with an 8th grade ELA teacher the other day where she was raving about the depth of interpretation she was getting from some students about the poem “Invictus”, which relies heavily on some Greek mythology allusions in the first stanza to establish the mood. The game changer was the factual knowledge about Greek mythology students had (perhaps inadvertently) picked up from the Greek mythology/Lightning Thief unit they did in the 6th grade. With the prevalence of mythological allusions everywhere in literature, it made me wonder if the development of factual knowledge there was in fact as big a value-add for students as the skills they practice with it.

    • Doug Lemov
      January 22, 2015 at 11:24 am

      So interesting. You comment suggests a variety of ways teachers could not just “slog away” at the knowledge deficit (and, as you point out, its connection to reading comprehension) in general but in a coordinated and intentional way. We often assume that coordinating across classrooms or disciplines has to happen contemporaneously- you teach the civil war in history while i read a novel about it. that involves a lot of logistics. your post suggests we don’t really need to do things at the same time for students to see the connection. The mythology unit that your colleague suspects drove the invictus conversation happened two years prior! (kudos to her by the way for building long term durable knowledge). By the way your post also suggests a key idea colleen erica and I discuss in our forthcoming book on reading- that coordinated text selection is a powerful thing. that is, your colleague knowing that every student in her class read mythology in the previous years meant she could refer back to it in her conversations and reliably know every students gets what she’s talking about. shared knowledge base=deeper, richer discussions.

  3. January 16, 2015 at 5:58 am

    Why is it you think “retelling facts” isn’t “skill development”? I would argue it certainly is. I am teaching US history this year (in addition to the usual math) and I spend a lot of class time having the kids just sit and silently read narratives (newspaper reports, historical summaries, analysis, whatever). Then I have them summarize it, either with bullet points or (as a longer, more painful exercise) a written paragraph or two. Sometimes I just have them recount it orally.

    Larry Cuban came to visit my class once (he wrote about it here: and I was surprised to learn he thought I was in the middle, but leaning towards skills. I would have thought I was more content based. I want my kids to remember what they read, see, and hear.

    But if having them write down and summarize the facts they’ve learned (and not in any methodical way) is skill development, or teaching them to read about history, to read for content, is skill development, then why isn’t having them retell facts also skill development?

    • Doug Lemov
      January 22, 2015 at 11:30 am

      well generally i agree with you. i just think that the standard distinction many educators draw is between skills and knowledge. as most dichotomies are, it’s probably a false one, but it’s very persistent- one of the most common beliefs about education is that we should be teaching long term fungible thinking skills and not filling kids heads with “mere knowledge” when they can just look facts up on the internet. But actually, i don’t think it works that way. as Daisy Christodoulou points out in her amazing book Seven Myths About Education you can’t really think deeply without knowledge. I’ve been wrestling with ways to build more knowledge in the classroom–especially given its connections to reading comprehension and it strikes me that there’s a whole line of rigorous and equally legitimate questions that many teacher dismiss because they don’t build “skills” and so are “lower order.”

  4. January 16, 2015 at 7:07 am

    Glad to hear you are writing a book about using nonfiction in the classroom. I’m convinced it is an underused learning strategy, especially when I consider how much of my new learning from books/blogs etc.

    I find a lot of information nonfiction (not the literary narrative type) is “good but not great” – which is a shame, but perhaps it is the quality of the information rather that the writing that excites and inspires.

    Looking forward to your book (any publishing date available?)


    • Doug Lemov
      January 22, 2015 at 11:34 am

      Yeah, great point, Ben. A colleague of mine similarly points a finger at the authors of youth historical fiction. he says they write books that are set in a historical period without seriously engaging the facts and mindsets of the period. the good news is that a librarian friend of mine points out that nonfiction is the fastest developing and improving part of the canon of scholastic books. “We’re already light years from where we were just ten years ago in terms of high quality, readable nonfiction for students.” Hope she’s right!

      Hoping you’ll see the book in sept or october.

  5. January 16, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Not sure why we need to ask children questions about their reading at all. When I was at school we used to do comprehension. But we also read a great deal. And wrote a great deal. You could tell what we’d picked up from the reading by the writing.

    Knowing that I was going to be asked questions about a book I was reading, then and now, would significantly reduce my enjoyment and appreciation of it, because there would be no guarantee the person asking the question would pick up on something that’s either relevant or interesting.

    • Doug Lemov
      January 22, 2015 at 11:41 am

      it’s a fair point, sue, but i think many people would say that such a strategy would lead to a disproportionate impact. vocabulary and knowledge assimilation–and maybe “reading skills” if you think there is such a thing–are subject to the matthew effect- those who know more learn more. one of the obligations of a teacher is to help students who don’t know as much see new things in a text. a certain amount of asking kids about what they are reading is probably necessary to make sure everyone is reading and comprehending, among other things. it’s also necessary if you want to have a classroom where there’s a shared conversation about the book. Your own personal reading of a book is a great thing but i think most people would say that at some point we all want to talk about the things we read and engage other people’s interpretations. That involves asking specific questions: what happened here? what did you think of it?

  6. Natalie Wexler
    March 18, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    I’m glad to see this focus on background knowledge and vocabulary as being crucial to reading comprehension–and learning in general. But, especially for many low-income kids, a book one week on the Civil War and another the next on, say, butterflies won’t be enough to instill real knowledge. You need a coherent curriculum that allows kids to spend several weeks on a topic and really absorb the knowledge and vocabulary that go along with it. In later grades they should circle back to some of what they’ve learned previously, and then build on it. And, ideally, you’re asking kids to write about what they’re learning as they go along, in a structured way, both to ensure they understand it and that they grapple with it in a way that will make it stick.

  7. Doug Lemov
    May 8, 2015 at 11:56 am

    All good points, Natalie. I agree about the importance of a coherent curriculum. To be fair most teachers don’t control that so part of my interest here was in thinking about things that teachers can do in a day to day sense to address knowledge issues. But ideally we’d do both-have a coherent curriculum and tweak our teaching to build knowledge.

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