Pupil-led enquiry: the reading problem

It is widely known (and I think accepted?) that a person’s ability to comprehend something they read is closely tied to their prior knowledge of that subject. This creates problems for using reading to teach new knowledge, because pupils often do not know enough about the topic they are studying to comprehend easily what they are reading. Giving a child a book and saying ‘get on with it’ is, in this way, quite an inefficient way of teaching them.

This is a point that Doug Lemov makes in his new book on learning to read, in which he recommends that teachers use a variety of strategies to check that pupils are understanding what they are reading as they go along: a teacher who has close oversight over what is being read (down to the word and sentence level) is able to intervene quickly if a misunderstanding emerges. It is for this reason that most of the reading that takes place in my lessons is whole-class reading aloud, as this allows me to check for understanding as we go.

Now my teaching is very much over at the ‘teacher-led’ end of the ‘teacher-led-to-pupil-led’ spectrum, but I do recognise that there are many who support giving pupils greater independence, perhaps advocating more project-based learning or independent research. Yet when pupils are given a problem and then asked to create a solution, where do they go?

The answer? A teacher. That teacher might not be the person they call their teacher. That teacher might be the author of a book. That teacher might be the author of a website. It might be someone who stars in a documentary that can be found on the Internet. Although other methods might be used (e.g. interviewing someone), in practice reading is the principal means by which pupils create solutions to problems when they have been set a task with a greater degree of independence.

And yet in all of these cases, we are relying on the pupil to be able to grasp what they are reading in a way that allows them to solve the problem at hand. An author (of a book or website) is in no position to spot a misreading or a misconception, or to tailor what is being read to the prior knowledge of the pupil. A book is in effect a lecture delivered through the medium of text. Even a book written specifically for children can only guess at the prior knowledge that a typical reader might have. The same applies for documentaries: these are lectures, supported by brilliant graphics, but again the creators have no way of checking whether or not what is being said is the same as what is being understood.

In short, the principal means by which pupils learn in independent research are the thoroughly traditional staples of reading and listening to lectures, without much support in place.

Teacher-led instruction also relies heavily on reading and listening. Most of my lessons involve large periods of time being spent reading books and listening to me explain things. The difference, of course, is that this reading and listening is punctuated by regular questioning. I ask pupils what they think a sentence means, and if they have misunderstood I can explain it. After giving an explanation I get pupils to answer a few questions, after which I then re-explain anything where those questions reveal that misunderstandings have arisen. Although I do not always (or indeed perhaps rarely) get it ‘right’, I would say much of my teaching is highly interactive.

I have not always taught like this, but I have gradually shifted more and more towards teacher-led instruction over the last ten years. At first I felt guilty about it, and indeed in part this shift came about as I did not have the time to put together the resources needed for more pupil-led enquiry. More recently, however, I have stopped feeling bad about this, and realised instead that teacher-led instruction is a perfectly legitimate approach to teaching, and one that I need to continue to develop.

Which is not to say that pupil-led enquiry cannot work. But I have yet to see an argument that persuades me to make a shift back in that direction.



7 Comments on Pupil-led enquiry: the reading problem

  1. Michael Fordham // 23 April 2016 at 18:27 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Richard Joyner // 23 April 2016 at 21:25 // Reply

    “I have gradually shifted more and more towards teacher-led instruction…” This pretty much sums up how I have approached teaching over the last two years – I have to say that in a non-selective school in Kent it works

  3. Darryl Tomlin // 24 April 2016 at 09:08 // Reply

    Interesting to read this – I have made much the same journey as mine. In fact I can remember that when I did my teacher training 10 years ago, I specifically remember writing something about ‘avoid stultifying textbooks’ in one of my reflective journals, and yet 10 years later, I find myself resorting to the stultifying textbooks more and more! I also feel guilty for resorting to a more teacher led approach, but it is strange that we should feel like that given that History has been presumably been taught like that more or less unchanged since the age of Herodotus! It is only in the last few decades or years that we seem to have gained this impression that we should feel guilty for using textbooks. I’ve even found myself sometimes feeling bad about using the textbooks, so i’ve found alternative resources myself and printed them out that more or less replicate exactly what is in the textbook! Or, making students watch a video that delivers exactly the same content as the textbook, because I feel guilty about textbook heavy lessons…and then making them read the textbook anyway.

    So yes I completely agree with you here, although my only concern about teacher-led reading is where we are encouraging students to read independently, which is really what they need to for the controlled assessment and also for study at A-level.

    • Michael Fordham // 24 April 2016 at 10:08 // Reply

      Thanks for the comment. Lemov’s book on reading is quite good on moving towards independent reading including things like re-writing the text, marginal annotations and having ‘stop points’ where the whole class come back together to discuss what has been read.

  4. The need for prior knowledge to read effectively was what led me to use highly-structured role-plays at degree level when teaching 15thC history. These role-plays were very teacher-centred as I was the ring-master, asking questions and moving the narrative forward, interrogating students about their choices in role but (as explained endlessly on Thinkinghistory website) the activities gave students a grasp of names, events, motives etc so they could then read articles in EHR, Speculum etc etc with far more confidence and far more effectively. Such sessions took place about every 4 – 6 weeks when starting new topics.Therefore i think ‘teacher-led’ can be contain a more varied range of activities than the article may suggest – these activities demanded constant concentration and thought to be ready to answer questions and make decisions. But I am quite keen on textbooks too though they never have enough pages for the variety of approaches I want to include.

    • Michael Fordham // 24 April 2016 at 12:32 // Reply

      Thanks for the comments Ian. One of the things I like about many of your activities is that they are essentially teacher storytelling with pupils used as props – I still do this from time to time. It’s all a far call from ‘pupil-led’, ‘research’ or ‘discovery’ activities as the teacher is always on hand to pick up misconceptions, to ask questions and to tailor the explanation for the particular moment.

  5. So glad to have found this blog! I am currently a student teacher in America and my first classes at my university on the philosophy of education were dauntingly ‘progressive’ and ‘student centered.’ Though I learned a lot I was intuitively skeptical. I kept wondering ‘how in the world do these kids get the content knowledge??’ The idea of general skills in order to compete on the job market seemed to be self defeating if there is no foundation of basic knowledge. I had struggled to figure what all of this means. Thankfully, through endless research I found this! Right now I am also leaning toward a teacher-led style.

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