What Lemov makes clear here is that there is something important happening when we share reading, indeed not a singular something but a whole bunch of somethings. The complexity of reading has been well documented (Scarborough’s reading rope makes this very clear). Through the reading process, our students are acquiring vocabulary, developing phonological and grammatical knowledge, applying comprehension skills and background knowledge, and shaping their reader identity. All this from reading just a sentence – if there was ever a gold star for ‘value for money’ then surely reading would be awarded one!
And it doesn’t stop there. Lemov isn’t just talking about the knowledge based gains; he is talking about sharing reading as a way to connect students. During the lockdown periods, one of the most fundamental losses for our students has been that of interaction. Even in the best virtual classrooms, interactions have been ‘watered down’ through the adherence to safeguarding protocols and students who would previously have been the first to respond in the classroom are disengaging for a whole host of reasons. What better way to develop knowledge AND connect students than through a really brilliant read?
A carefully selected class reader can support students to develop a range of knowledge through a single source, as well as helping to build positive learning behaviours. The act of reading the new text can support decoding (procedural knowledge), skimming, scanning and vocabulary exploration (substantive knowledge) and inference making (disciplinary knowledge). Equally important are those learning behaviours that are found in a ‘good’ English student: successfully interacting with others, having the confidence to read aloud, giving a well-considered opinion and talking about their feelings.
Short stories are a particularly effective way of delivering a ‘class reader experience’. The ‘challenge’ that Lemov talks of doesn’t necessarily need to come from language and structural complexities; it can come from the ideas. I have seen the use of picture books containing limited words spark interesting discussions in a secondary classroom. One of the benefits of studying a short story is that the reduced amount of content allows space for exploration through dialogic teaching (Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion 2020). This relationship builds a collaboration between the teacher and students, with everyone becoming a learner. Interest is engaged and ideas sparked, explored and evaluated. Students are encouraged to think hard first, share with others and consider all perspectives before they communicate their own ideas either verbally or in written form. Such an environment gives way to some often left-field conversations and debates; some would call this ‘unnecessary hinterland’ that students could do without and yet it is often this hinterland that makes the text altogether more interesting and engaging for our students. The balance has to be struck between knowledge that engages and illuminates the text, and the knowledge that is nice to know (see Hill and Howard 2020 Symbiosis: The Curriculum and the Classroom). The process of engagement is absolutely essential in developing the pathways for knowledge and learning behaviours to be established. As we know from the recent lockdowns, those students who engaged the least made less progress in acquiring knowledge and developing positive learning behaviours. If we want to build the foundations for a successful English student, then engaging them is the first step and what better way than with a (short story) class reader.
Rebecca Geoghegan is a secondary English teacher and former whole school Literacy Lead with 15 years experience of teaching KS3, GCSE and A Level.