Teach Like a Champion versus the Common Core: Do pre-reading activities help or hurt struggling students?

Last week, I wrote
a post
about how reading instruction would change when aligned to the
Common Core. Specifically, I outlined the vision of “close reading” that has
been promoted by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, the two chief architects of
the CCSS ELA standards, which puts the focus on reading and re-reading
grade-appropriate texts and using effective, text-dependent questions to guide
lessons and class discussions.

The vision is compelling—I believe in the power of close reading
and I also agree with Coleman’s point (made clearer in his comment on the post I wrote) that reading strategies are important only
inasmuch as they are used to support comprehension of difficult texts. (They
are not, in other words, an end in themselves.)

Its hard not
to be biased in favor of one’s own interpretations of a text when it repeated
back to you.

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
. And, while the decision about whether or not to download
background knowledge and information to students before reading may seem like
small potatoes in the context of our larger Common Core implementation
discussion, it actually gets to the heart of a key debate about the long-term
impact of “gap-closing” schools.

Coleman argues that by telling students a little about the
stories they are about to read, teachers replace complex texts with a simpler
version—their own words—and subtly encourage students to parrot back them what
they said, rather than to engage in and draw conclusions for themselves. That,
in turn, creates a classroom environment that encourages mimics rather than
strong, independent readers. After all, if we tell students what is most
important, then ask them questions about what’s most important, aren’t we most
likely to hear what we’ve told them to say? And try as we might, its hard not
to be biased in favor of one’s own interpretations of a text when it repeated
back to you.

It’s a compelling argument. But for those teachers who have
built instruction around the strategies outlined in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, following it
would also be a significant departure from their current practice.

Both Lemov and Coleman agree on the importance of close reading
to drive reading instruction and student comprehension. But Lemov’s vision
differs from Coleman’s in at least two important ways.

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.

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.

What Lemov saw in his best
teachers could amount to “spoon feeding” answers to students.

The difference
may be small, but its impact may be significant. What Lemov saw in his best
teachers could amount to “spoon feeding” answers to students. It might let kids
off the hook by putting most of the heavy lifting of reading on the teacher’s
shoulders. And it could be one factor that contributes to the ongoing struggle
that gap-closing schools have in helping their students learn the kinds of
life-long independent reading and analysis skills they will need to be ready
for the rigor and demands of college and beyond.

Of course, the
challenge these schools have is real. As I mentioned in a previous
post
, 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?

There is no
easy answer—and there is no one right answer. But how schools approach these
and other strategic questions in the months and years will go a long way
towards determining the long-term impact of Common Core.

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