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Opinion27th October 2016

Reading Reconsidered: A chat with Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Maggie Johnson

Teachers from the Ark network recently attended a two-day Reading Reconsidered workshop facilitated by Doug Lemov (author of Teach like a Champion), Erica Woolway and Maggie Johnson from Uncommon Schools.

The workshop aimed to provide teachers with the tools to deliver high quality literacy teaching and help drive results. We sat down with Doug, Erica and Maggie to talk about their new techniques for teaching reading, many of which we will be implementing in Ark schools.

Doug: If you look at the correlation between socio-economic status and outcomes in education, it’s twice as strong in reading than it is in maths. We needed to rethink the way that we were teaching reading. So that’s what this workshop is about – we tried to take on that quest.

Erica: Reading Reconsidered was a response to the fact that reading is harder to teach in so many ways. It’s not just that it’s harder to teach reading. It’s that all of the other subjects depend on a student’s success in reading.

Doug: We really believe in the idea of ‘practice’. We want to help teachers execute the ideas in the book by practising over and over. One of the challenges of being a teacher is that short term memory is limited. So what do you do if you have to make multiple decisions at a time in a complex environment, with a class of 30 kids, as you’re trying to teach Romeo & Juliet? To manage it, you practice things in advance, and build them into your muscle memory. That way you don’t have to think of them intentionally whilst you’re teaching, and your mind can be on Romeo & Juliet.

Kids need to read more non-fiction. In their primary and secondary years, students read 80-90% fiction. Then they go to university and they are expected to read 80 or 90% non-fiction. They aren’t prepared for that and they often struggle as a result, because non-fiction is more challenging. So one of the questions we ask is how to successfully read more non-fiction with our pupils and make it more engaging.

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Maggie: We want to maximise the number of words a student learns when reading any text. Research shows that the word gap between students who are economically disadvantaged and their affluent peers is dramatic – many thousands of words. And it continues to expand every year that they are in school. So in the workshop we explicitly address ensuring that teachers are maximising the number of words a child gains when they read.

Erica: Another piece of the puzzle is the synergy between writing and reading. Typically, what happens (at least back in the United States) is that we ask students to read. Then we discuss. Then we have them write about it. And by following that process, what you’re actually assessing is their ability to follow along in a conversation about the text, rather than their direct understanding of the text. So instead we encourage our teachers to have students read and then write directly from the text, and then discuss afterwards. After the discussion, they can revise their original writing, either to correct their thinking or add to it. So the read-write-discuss-revise cycle is really critical to developing them as writers.

Doug: One of the other big ideas we look at is ‘close reading’. A fundamental experience of going to university is reading text that is really challenging and above your comfort zone. We need to make sure students know how to struggle with a text. ‘Close reading’ is a set of tools that teachers use to help students understand the whole text.

We only do one session in the UK a year, and we’re glad it’s with Ark. We have immense admiration and respect for Ark’s teachers. They do incredible work. It’s great to learn from really smart educators, who deal with the same issues as we do in the US – but see them through a slightly different lens. We always learn the most at this UK-based workshop out of all the ones we run.

If you’d like to learn more about Uncommon Schools and find resources and blogs from the facilitators, you can visit If you’re interested in a career within the Ark network, please visit our Careers page to find out more.