Monday, January 16, 2017

On Reading

Brilliant interview with Doug Lemov @ EconTalk:

Russ Roberts: So, one point you make--you make it a lot in the book--is: This is hard. And teachers need certain strategies and skills to help students prepare to read difficult texts. And I couldn't agree with that more. There is a tension, I think, in modern American life and certainly in education toward making life easier. And that conflicts with this goal of grappling with difficult texts. Talk about close reading--the idea of close reading and how that relates to this.

Doug Lemov: Yeah; I think, close reading, maybe I'll start with why. Close reading--it's the important thing to be able to do in a reading class. Close reading to me is the set of skills that you use when a text is outside your comfort zone--when it's above your comfort zone. And I would just like to take your listeners back to college, or university, but say particularly college, the first time you'd really been stretched, when you were holed up alone with whatever that book was that was incredibly challenging to you and you weren't sure you could make sense of it. It was really hard to be successful in higher education, and most often in your professional life is to be able to read things that are not easy--that are out of your comfort zone. And increasingly, you know, leveled text is winning the day in our schools. And the notion is--my kids get this advice often from their school, 'Read a page of a book. If there are more than 5 words you aren't sure you understand, put it down. It's too hard for you.' Look, I'm sorry, but if those are my kids and that book is Slaughterhouse-Five or that book is Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice or, you know, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, I say, 'Pick it up and struggle with it.' And one, read a great text; and two, understand what it means to struggle and how you struggle. And this is something we have struggled as teachers to teach, which is: How do you struggle with a book? What do you do when it's hard? We tell kids to re-read, for example. But we don't always tell them how to reread and what different ways to reread are. And we tell them to look at the text, but we aren't necessarily as rigorous as we could be in showing them what types of questions you ask when you are first just trying to establish meaning; and then to analyze meaning. And I think that part is super-important as well, because the second--I think the first reason for close reading is it's so important for kids to be able to struggle with things that are challenging. But we also focus a lot--the second reason is we focus a lot on what I would call 'gist reading.' Which is, we read something--we read a Shakespearean sonnet, and we say something like, 'What is this sonnet about? Shakespeare is describing the fickle nature of love.' Great; now let's have a conversation about whether love is fickle. But understanding the gist of that sonnet, and understanding each line of the sonnet, and how it contributes to the meaning. And how meaning is made. And all the subtleties of the argument is very, very important. I mean, in a practical sense, if you are my lawyer I want you to understand more than 'Hey, this is a document about the rights of citizens.' I really need you to understand every line--what rights, how, and to whom. And if you are my doctor I need you to understand a little bit more about, 'Hey, this is a document about the importance of glucose levels on health.' So, understanding more than the gist is really important. Understanding how meaning is made and being able to deconstruct it is really important, especially when you need to be able to struggle with the text. And so, close reading I think helps students overcome those challenges. And generally, you know, we've been asked to do it by the new SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and by the Common Core. But there's been very little guidance for teachers on how to do it; and so what's tended to happen has been they've continued to do what they've ordinarily done and now they call it 'close reading.'

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