Each month I will be reviewing a different text designed to help English teachers and faculty leaders to develop a robust and engaging curriculum. I’ll be discussing them primarily from the point of view of a teacher or leader in an Australian context, and exploring the balance between theory and practice.
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In Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction, Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion and managing director of Uncommon Schools in the US, partners with Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway in an exploration of close reading with a focus on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Alongside various classroom activities, the authors provide a reasonably robust theoretical grounding and examples – including videos via the linked website and included DVD – of the strategies in action.
The book is split into two parts: The Core of the Core, and The Fundamentals. The first, as the name suggests, provides a definition of the reading skills central to the American CCSS with sections on text selection, close reading, nonfiction, and writing. The second half of the book is more concerned with the theory of vocabulary learning, oracy, and what Lemov, Driggs and Woolway refer to as “frameworks”: the various theoretical lenses through which a text can be viewed.
Though clearly aimed at an American audience, there is a lot of worthwhile content for an Australian teacher of English. For example, in the first half of the book the authors present a clear argument for appropriate text selection, with explicit directions for a faculty team. This is followed by a detailed definition of Close Reading in which the authors go beyond the stock CCSS definition and even perform something of a close reading exercise on the definition itself, further defining the constituent words. For a teacher, leader or faculty looking to develop their understanding of close reading, I’d argue that this is one of the clearest definitions I have found (other than my own, of course!).
The definition is followed by many practical examples of lesson activities, all developed further through classroom examples either in print or in the accompanying videos. The chapters on nonfiction and “writing for reading” are equally useful, presenting numerous strategies that could easily be lifted straight out of the book and into the classroom.
After the comprehensive and practical first half of the book, however, the second part feels a little flat. “Approaches to Reading”, the first chapter in part two, essentially argues, “read more” and suggests a few ways of monitoring the participation of students during sessions of reading aloud. Other than a brief nod to “struggling readers”, there is little consideration given for students outside of the mainstream, such as EALD or students with special educational needs. The directive here is to “control the game” of class reading by “switching frequently” and unpredictably to keep students on their toes.
The chapters on vocabulary instruction and reading systems also feel a little light, with fewer practical strategies than the first half of the book. The final chapter, “Toward Intellectual Autonomy”, is barely more than a brief overview of various “frameworks” of textual elements such as characterisation, genre, literary devices, and author’s intent: nothing ground-breaking here.
Texts are used to anchor the activities throughout Reading Reconsidered, which sometimes provides a helpful example of how a strategy can be applied but could also be a source of frustration for an Australian reader. The authors flip back-and-forth on the view of “canonical” works of literature, acknowledging the idea of a canon is perhaps “past its use-by date”, but also lamenting the loss of the “cultural capital” of removing the classics from a text list. Ultimately, the authors promote the development of a more diverse “internal canon”, which certainly sounds like a good thing. Nonetheless, many of the subsequent examples in the book are drawn from a limited pool of texts that constitute part of a distinctly American canon, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Outsiders.
Text selections aside, I’d still recommend this book to an Australian English teacher or faculty leader based on the strength of the first half. The articulate, well-grounded, and practical exploration of close reading as a core skill would be useful in any classroom, and there are strategies throughout the book that could easily be adapted and used right away.
- Clear and useful definition of Close Reading
- Practical and versatile strategies throughout
- Thorough discussion of text selection processes
- Part Two falls flat
- Examples are US text-centric
- Lacks discussion of students with additional needs
Interested in a practical guide to Close Reading designed with the Australian teacher in mind? Join the mailing list for updates on my upcoming publication: Practical Reading Strategies