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.