Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.06.15Text Selection: A Tiny Teaser from Reading Reconsidered

Teach Like a Champion 2.0 comes out tomorrow. I’m excited and at the same time, I’m a tiny bit distracted as I am “on deadline” writing, with Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, our magnum opus (that term is tongue in cheek) on literacy: Reading Reconsidered.

Writing, I am reminded every time I am foolish enough to attempt it, is like crawling down a deep dark hole- you are digging desperately for daylight, you think, but sometimes you are just digging deeper and deeper.  Writing I am reminded every time I am foolish enough to attempt it, is like stealing some cut rate magician’s magic wand. You go in with half an idea of what you want to have happen. There’s some gesticulating and sweating and then, bang, something brought to life. It ain’t yours really and you have no idea where it came from.

Anyway, it helps to crawl out of that hole (or put down the wand) sometimes and share a few bits.  I did that all last winter when I was writing TLaC 2.0 and it kind of helped to keep me going.  So in that spirit here are three quotes from the chapter I’m writing this week, which is on Text Selection. I hope it piques your interest. And maybe that you’ll comment and pique mine. And if nothing else here is proof that something is happening down that deep dark hole I crawl into every morning.

  • Of course many high school students struggle to read Dickens. Exposed only to benignly appealing youth fiction written after 1980 and chosen for them because it is easily accessible, they arrive at Dickens’ doorstep and desperately glance around in search of Spark Notes. Students need experience reading diverse types of texts and taking on the challenges they pose—texts with different narrative voices, representing different genres, written in different periods, building different types of knowledge.  We tend to assume that a basic skill like assessing character motivation is fungible across books, but is it? Will assessing the protagonist’s motivation in fifteen scenes from Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key set a student on a course that leads to the ability to understand Oliver Twist’s motivation? Or Fagin’s?  Perhaps, but just as likely not.  The Magician’s Nephew is an engaging text written to appeal to the imaginations of young readers but one that also happens to be 60 years old and that uses the more complex syntax and distinctive vocabulary of that era. Its narrative structure draws more explicitly on the Victorian tradition. It is, in short, a starter kit for students who one day aspire to read Dickens. 
  • We believe teachers should consider not just whether each book their students read is “good” but what the totality of the texts they choose for students accomplishes.  The books students read and study in school, let us remember, are a finite commodity. From fourth grade through twelfth a typical student will probably read and intentionally study 60 or 70 books in English and reading classes; hopefully more but surely many students will read far fewer, alas, and these books must form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works within and interacts with society.  Teachers, and indeed society, we argue, cannot afford to leave to chance whether or not students will have read an unresolved ending in which good is not rewarded or a book in which where society is not what it claims to be, just as they cannot afford not to leave to chance whether students have read satire or a book written before 1900. Students who arrive on a college campus not having done these things are dead in the water.
  • Truth be told, teachers are increasingly socialized to approach the task of choosing what to read as a bit of an after-thought.  Most teachers would never say that out loud. We certainly don’t think that what our students read is irrelevant, but the reality is that we have come to believe that when we teach reading we are teaching students how to read, so decisions about what to read seem, by contrast, far less important.  Teach a book—any book–the ‘right way’ we believe–by fostering rich discussion, say, and drawing students awareness to depth of characterization and the role of figurative language–and kids will learn to read equally well.  The million dollar question of course, is to define ‘the right way,’ but for many teachers text selection boils down to choosing something relatively engaging for kids to read so there’s a viable platform for asking questions, analyzing text- practicing the skills of reading in whatever manner they define them.  If kids will like it, that’s probably enough. The result is a narrow approach to choosing what students read and, we argue here, less learning overall.  What students read shapes how and how well they learn to read, and in a wider variety of ways than we see reflected in common discourse.  Understanding the role text choice plays in teaching students to read and broadening our present approach to selecting text is therefore an area of immense opportunity.




4 Responses to “Text Selection: A Tiny Teaser from Reading Reconsidered”

  1. Sharon Johnson
    January 6, 2015 at 11:57 pm

    I love your thinking about cross-year text sets, essentially, as a way to unlock the complexity of texts from different eras, cultures, etc. When the text is less accessible to students, it is also important to build up students’ background knowledge. You could give my son a text on baseball written far beyond his “reading level” in Old English with every technical term in the book and his comprehension and analysis would be strong because he has such a vast depth of knowledge that he can anchor to as he navigates a complex text. Supporting students by building content background is a call to action for cross-discipline collaboration. If the History teacher is teaching about the political, economic, and social backdrop for a time that an English teachers selected text takes place in, concepts and perspectives in the texts are easier to understand- leading to strong comprehension of character motivation, theme, etc. This kind of professional collaboration in secondary schools is logistically challenging and requires strong staff culture, but not impossible.

    • Doug Lemov
      January 7, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      Thanks, Sharon. I really agree with you. background knowledge is such an important–and frequently overlooked–factor in determining how much students take from their reading. Been noticing this in a different way with my 6 year old. She’s the youngest of our three and the first to be a little reluctant to read on her own… she just took a little longer than the other two. But once she started to decode she suddenly started decoding “pollen” and “hibernate”… we realized it was because she knew those words so familiarly before she could decode them… her head is chock-full-of-science and history because we talk about it all the time and she’s seen 10 thousand nature videos. Anyway, i think you’re spot on… hopefully you’ll see that reflected in Reading Reconsidered!

  2. Kate Tarca
    January 8, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Hi Doug. I am intrigued by your contention that kids will be “dead in the water” if they arrive at college never having read any texts with certain qualities. I guess my question is, how do we develop that list of qualities? You’re saying that students need to read a satire and a book written before 1900 and a dystopia and a text with Victorian syntax… How did you decide on those criteria? What else is on your list? How do we build the comprehensive list of these criteria so I can make sure my students hit them all throughout their reading career?

    • Doug Lemov
      January 9, 2015 at 2:28 am

      Hi, Kate- great question. I’m working on a list of some of the most important topics and categories for inclusion in Reading Reconsidered. A couple of the important things that teachers might overlook are 1) narrative complexity- a story told by more than one narrator or one with an unreliable narrator and or one with multiple stories being narrated at once 2) archaic text–gotta read stuff that’s more than 100 years old 3) non-linear time sequence. Then of course there major genres. Reading Reconsidered will hopefully have a text selection analytical tool in it but it’s still several months away. If i had to make a “bet guess” list i think i’d get together with three to five other teachers and do my best to aggregate their wisdom. what the groups comes up with might not be perfect but it’ll probably be pretty good. and better than just flying blind. And if you have thoughts on the matter–either yours or those of folks you talk to–please do share them with me and colleen and erica as well!



Leave a Reply