UPDATED...Lemov vs. Coleman: Pre-reading activities help or hurt?

UPDATE Feb 8: Spoke to Doug L. He says:

I'll explain in detail Thursday, but for now, there’s no lemov vs common core. I LOVE common core and see 99% synergies with how I think about reading.

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Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote a great blog post for English (and social studies) teachers.

It's about David Coleman, who is leading the Common Core work in English. He proposes a "focus on reading and re-reading grade-appropriate texts and using effective, text-dependent questions to guide lessons and class discussions."

Kathleen writes:

The vision is compelling....that said, there is one part of Coleman’s vision—specifically, his rejection of using “pre-reading” strategies to help prepare and provide context to students before they dive in to a complex text—that is likely to send shock waves into reading classrooms around the country, including those who are using the strategies suggested by Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion.

I've met David Coleman a few times and he seems like a sharp guy. I've known Doug since 2001 and I know he's a sharp guy. So I enjoyed reading the author lay out a debate on technique.

She describes two key disagreements. One is:

1. Lemov suggests that “champion” teachers effectively pre-teach targeted background information, give students pre-reading summaries of the text, and “introduce key scenes before students read them.”

Lemov argues that “lack of prior knowledge is one of the key barriers to comprehension for at-risk students and it affects all aspects of reading, even fluency and decoding, as struggling with gaps soaks up the brain’s processing capacity.”

Lemov does emphasize, however, that these pre-reading mini-lessons should be short, and razor-focused on filling gaps, rather than on generating discussion. “Ten minutes of teacher-driven background and then getting right to reading is usually worth an hour of, ‘Who can tell me what Nazis were?’ Efficiency matters.”

Similarly, Lemov notes that the best teachers use summarizing effectively—they begin a class by summarizing what the students read the day before, and by “front loading” information and scenes that they will encounter today.

This is exactly the kind of practice that Coleman warns against, arguing that it’s precisely these kinds of summarizing and pre-reading activities that effectively give students “Cliff’s Notes” versions of complex texts and let them off the hook for engaging with the texts themselves.


The second issue she raises:

2. Pointing out for students key “focal points” while reading

Lemov notes that students “learn to determine what’s worthy of attention with time and practice. Without years of practice, readers often make questionable or nonstrategic decisions about what to attend to. They notice something of tangential relevance but miss the crucial moment. The trapeze artists are in full swing, and they can’t stop looking at the cotton candy seller. They see three details but fail to connect them to one another.”

To help students hone this critical skill, Lemov suggests that “champion” teachers

“steer them in advance toward key ideas, concepts, and themes to look for. Which characters will turn out to be most important? What idea will be most relevant to the story discussion? In addition, they advise students what’s secondary, not that important, or can be ignored for now.”

I am sure that Lemov and Coleman would agree on the problem—that students need to learn how to determine what’s worthy of time and attention. But Coleman values teachers who resist the temptation to point out key focal points and instead plan very strategic—often very humble—text-dependent questions that force students to go back into the texts themselves and recognize these focal points.

She concludes:

Gap-closing schools have to maximize every moment because every moment wasted simply adds to the already significant achievement gap between rich and poor.

But, in reading class, have schools gone too far in their quest for efficiency and not left the space for students to learn the persistence they will need to do the kinds of analysis that will be required of them in the years ahead?

I think there's a ladder here of efficacy.

a. Low rungs: very few kids actually doing the assigned reading. Teacher feels choice between constantly summarizing/spoonfeeding or failing tons of kids.

b. Middle rungs: kids generally doing assigned reading, but the pace/energy isn't so hot. Lots of tangents in class discussions. Lots of confused 8th graders because nobody explained the basics of Nazi Germany before they started reading Anne Frank. Many kids emerge without even a great Wikipedia level understanding of Scarlet Letter a month or two later....

I think this is where Doug is targeting his advice. Middle rungs.

c. Higher rungs: kids reading and understanding the book solidly. So there are tradeoffs, of whether to get kids to move their understanding from solid to excellent (teacher-driven)....


whether to have kids engage more of a struggle to find certain meaning themselves...a kid probably ends up with self-generated random nuggets and the value of having done it themselves.

Good problem to have. If you have this problem in a school where kids arrive way below grade level in reading, you're probably teaching at a high level (and have colleagues doing the same).

Seems like Coleman could say (and maybe he has, who knows):

If you have a classroom (or school) where kids are already consistently doing the assigned reading, and deriving a fairly decent but imperfect understanding of the book's "basics" -- plot, theme, characters, conflict -- then you have a choice for "advanced teaching" that involves tradeoffs.

Many teachers in high-poverty schools would stop reading the sentence after "consistently doing the assigned reading."

What do you make of all this?