Reading Reconsidered: Two Quick Thoughts


Last week I had the privilege of attending a two day training programme delivered by Erica Woolway, Maggie Johnson, and Doug Lemov.

The training was based on their new book, Reading Reconsidered.

It’s about teaching reading, of which I have no experience, and so the whole experience was packed with learning experiences for me, but two things have stuck out.

I’m not sure I was ever taught how to read

In one section, Maggie ran an extended model of Close Reading, as she would with her pupils.  She began by asking us to read the opening paragraphs of Grapes of Wrath.

TO THE RED COUNTRY and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

Then asked us to summarise the main idea of the passage.  I wrote:

That a severe drought has struck, causing all the plants, crops, and even weeds to die.

She then ran through her series of activities, and asked us to again summarise the main idea of the passage.  This time I wrote:

The sun has changed its nature, and now a losing battle is fought between a powerful and murderous sun, and the remaining, beleaguered, forces of nature still dedicated to life.

While the activity was heavily guided, and Maggie deliberately drew our attention to key words, phrases and imagery in the text, both the original and final words are my own.

I was struck by how markedly different they are.  In the absence of experience, I have no baseline to measure whether this is typical of all English lessons.  English teachers, please comment.

Important to me is that my first attempt followed my typical ‘reading quickly to get the gist,’ while Maggie’s activities forced us to spend a long time considering many deliberate choices made by the author.  It’s an activity I might suspect English graduates to have ready to execute as second nature, if needed.  For my part I’m not sure if I was ever taught to read like this at school.  It’s certainly not my nature now.


And I probably should have been

One point Doug made early on, both on the day and in the book, is that if you’re going to attempt to access university education, you are probably going to have to comfortable reading, on your own, a lot.  He distinguished between:

Learning to Read


Reading to Learn

Which I like.

As a physicist, I’m not sure I read a single book at university.  Actually, I think I read some for an essay on chaos theory that I wrote once, and maybe I read something on nanotechnology.  Mostly, though, I turned up to lectures, tried out some practice questions, and then did some exams.  Where I did read at all, I often abandoned it not long in – reading about science is hard.

By contrast, my friend had read the Feynman Lectures, and I’m sure took so much more from all of our lectures and study.  How much more could I have learned and understood if I’d done the same?

It got me thinking – perhaps even in subjects that aren’t literature heavy, such as science and mathematics, where you wouldn’t normally expect there to be much reading, or feel a ‘reading week’ a necessity, there is so much to be gained if a person has habituated the idea of learning by reading.  When not presented with materials to read, would they now naturally seek them out?  Would the math’s student reach for Georg Cantor’s work on Transfinite Numbers?

There’s only one school in the country that I’m personally aware of that has attempted anything like this, Michaela Community School.  In this post, Katie Ashford outlines all of the reading that takes place in all of the lessons – 6,000 words during school hours.  That’s 1.2 million per year, and 8.2 million over 7 years, assuming the reading work load doesn’t increase with age.  I’ve seen it in action, a little, and I saw every teacher in every classroom running the same reading strategies with the children.

Despite being averse to the idea of reading about mathematics to learn mathematical concepts – simply because it’s a linear communication system for concepts that rarely lend themselves to linearity – I applaud and admire the dedication to putting reading front and centre in their children’s lives; I feel I could happily give up 200 words a lesson to be part of that, and might even reason that there is value in the idea of reading in maths lessons.

At the training, a science teacher remarked that they can’t ask their children to learn science by reading, since, you guessed it, most their kids can’t really read.  There may be others, and I’ve love to hear about them if so, but this is the only example I’ve heard so far of a school taking that failure seriously, and determining to overturn it.

And while, as with mathematics, there are more effective and efficient methods for learning many scientific concepts at school level than reading, there necessarily comes a point in our lives when one has to read about science to learn more science.

How might I have approached university education differently if I’d spent every day at school reading 6,000 words, expecting to learn from them?


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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5 Responses to Reading Reconsidered: Two Quick Thoughts

  1. Pingback: Reviewing the situation.  | English Remnant World

  2. mrvieito says:

    Currently tearing through the self same book and wondering how and if we should/can implement this across the whole school. I think there is much to take from the book – the close read, the grouping of batches of text, secondary texts – it’s very powerful. From our school perspective I believe one of the factors holding our students back is their lack of background knowledge. Some of these strategies may well help us effect a change in this.
    Likewise, I think I need to chat to our English department to ascertain to what extent they follow this kind of rigorous instruction.
    I’m still on pg. 129 so no spoilers please. lol

  3. I had an excellent academic education (in a comprehensive school) where textbooks were used from age 9. I still remember huge amounts of what I learned from them (while I’ve forgotten much more of what I learned after 15 or so). (There is a window where memory is more retentive.) This also prepared me for reading to learn. As a side-effect, it also gave me strong mental models for how to WRITE academically: what vocabulary to use, how to structure arguments, transition phrases, etc. So many children today are expected to do academic writing without any model for what it should look like. No wonder they struggle.

  4. Pingback: Opportunity Cost – 2 – Mental Models for Education | …to the real.

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