Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf

“The good readers of a society are both its canaries -which detect the presence of danger to its members- and the guardians of our common humanity.”

In her follow-up to Proust and the Squid, Wolf explores the possible effects of digital reading on our brains.

As 2019 was drawing to a close, I sat behind a young family on a flight. At one end of the row, the mother leaned over her youngest as he haltingly read a beautiful looking storybook to her in French. She aided him in sounding out complex words, rewarding him ‘bien’ when he got tough ones right on his own. At their side, his older brother was devouring ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ in English on his Kindle. Their dad was across the aisle reading a magazine. Behind them, I was finishing Maryanne Wolf’s surprisingly optimistic reflection on the reading brain in a digital world. Watching them, I was daring to hope with Wolf that maybe we can act wisely enough to forge “ever more elaborated reading-brain circuits capable of ‘endless forms most beautiful’”, despite current challenges.

Reader Come Home identifies a worrying trend in reading in this digital age: we are all, including Wolf herself apparently, losing ‘cognitive patience’, falling victim to a ‘hyper-attention’ which makes the kind of ‘deep reading’ crucial to the brain’s reading circuitry far more difficult. In Wolf’s descriptions, these concerns do at times seem pretty unassailable. Doug Lemov’s review of the book certainly doesn’t find much hope for our reading futures. Yet, for me, the book drove home the need to exploit the opportunities that technology can bring, without losing our hard-won reading brain circuits. Wolf hopes that “we possess both the science and the technology to identify potential changes in how we read and thus how we think before such changes are fully entrenched in the population and accepted without our comprehension of the consequences.” Although, like Lemov, I doubt how ready the wider educational community is to stave off these consequences, like Wolf, I’m keen to cling to some hope. 

This new decade, inspired by Wolf, I wanted to pause and reflect, setting a few ‘reading resolutions’ for my classroom and wider school. I’m also recording these resolutions here to hold myself to account, so I’ll try to write a follow up later in the year. 

Reading Resolutions

“I want to reclaim and rechannel their capacities from attention to insight”.

  1. Modelling ‘deep’ digital reading: 

As an English teacher concerned about the distractions inherent in digital reading, I have generally avoided reading on digital devices in lessons or have only used them for short, skimming style tasks. Interestingly, Wolf made me reconsider this. If devices do, as she says, inherently encourage young minds to adopt a ‘reading light’ mode, one of mere ‘attention’ and if this is my students’ dominant mode of reading, I perhaps have a duty to explicitly show them another way. This year, I’m going to try to work to do this in some of my lessons, working with digital text, but still requiring students to make predictions and complex connections, finding ‘insights’ even when reading in this form. 

“Some parents may read less because they are deferring consciously or unconsciously to the perceived ‘better reader’ on the screen, particularly if parents speak a language other than English”.

  1. Ensuring effective reading at home:

This was a big take away of Reader Come Home for me. It’s not at all a surprise that family reading habits are the most accurate predictor of young people’s own. In fact, this year I presented to our parents on this very issue, asking them to be good reading role models to their teenagers. However, I realised reading Wolf that I don’t really know what advice we give the parents of our primary children, especially when it comes to digital devices. In our first week back, I’m going to find out and see if I can share Wolf’s recommendations with my colleagues to ensure it’s the best it can be. 

“Their brains are masterpieces of cognitive and linguistic flexibility, which we can see in fascinating ways.” 

  1. Learning from dual-language learners: 

Working in a diverse international school I have seen plenty of examples of Wolf’s claim that dual-language learners have more verbal flexibility than single-language ones. Interestingly, Wolf pins her hopes for a digital reading biliteracy on this comparison. Yet she also reminded me of the power of the reading brains in my classroom and the potential connections I have perhaps been neglecting. I already spend a lot of time discussing vocabulary with students, but now I will try to more consciously encourage them to draw links to their home languages too, perhaps just by asking for synonyms and antonyms in their language to start with. 

“Human beings were never born to read. The acquisition of literacy is one of the most important epigenetic achievements of Homo sapiens.”

Wolf begins Reader Come Home with this important reminder of reading’s value and fragility. Thanks to her, I hope to begin my teaching in 2020 helping my students appreciate it too. 

The Learning Rainforest Fieldbook by Tom Sherrington

The Learning Rainforest Fieldbook feels a bit like the teaching equivalent of those beautiful tomes of graffiti art or street photography found on stylish coffee tables. It’s not just the beautiful design by Oliver Caviglioli either. It’s the innate flickability it seems to have. Tom Sherrington says that the book started as a way for him to capture the unique voices of the great schools he gets to visit as a consultant. He’s definitely achieved this aim and I loved flicking through the book to ‘visit’ some schools I’ve wanted to visit in real life for years. 

The beautiful landscape design of the Fieldbook

Each case study includes an introduction from Tom, an overview of the school and a detailed exploration of something they’re doing which exemplifies a ‘rainforest’ principle from the original book. I loved the inclusion of the student profiles most of all though. It’s a really interesting way to look at a school and probably a very revealing one too. Each student was asked for their most recent: 

  • School trip;
  • Extra-curricular activity;
  • Science experiment;
  • Book/play studied in English;
  • Subjects studied;
  • Learning highlight;
  • Most interesting/challenging topic;
  • Favourite teacher;
  • And favourite feature of the school. 

After reading the book, I asked my Key Stage 4 mentor group the same questions and it immediately revealed the huge breadth of extra-curricular opportunities they have here. I think it’d be a great way to get a feel for a school you were thinking of teaching at or sending your children to as well. 

As an English teacher, I really enjoyed the study on developing academic language from Charlotte Bowyer at Mercia Learning Trust and Georgina Black’s study on modelling in English at Gordonstoun, Moray. I’d also recommend that any school struggling through a negative OFSTED judgement read Ken Brechin’s case study on ‘conserving’ the rainforest to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel as long as teachers and leaders continue to put students first.

Overall though, the beauty of this gorgeous volume is that there’s so much in it that is of relevance to teachers across subjects and roles in schools around the world. This is perhaps the most refreshing thing about the Fieldbook: it doesn’t offer one set of criteria for an excellent school. It showcases and reflects on various models which all privilege slightly different paths towards the same intended destination. 

‘The Expert Teacher’ by Darren Mead

It’s interesting that in the age of such prominent anti-intellectualism as Trump, Brexit and fake news, the discourse around teaching and learning seems to be becoming more and more rooted in research. Yet, while the popularity of books like Tom Sherrington’s guide to Rosenshine’s Principles and Hattie’s work on evidence-based teaching suggest that teachers are reading more research than ever, we often lack the time we need to spend working out how the research applies to planning within our subject-disciplines. This is the focus of Darren Mead’s new book ‘The Expert Teacher’. In the sub-heading, he uses the phrase ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ to describe the expert understanding of how best to teach the stuff we need to help students understand. Over the course of 336 surprisingly humorous pages, Darren explores numerous practical methods to help teachers work towards this kind of expertise. 

Like Phil Beadle, who has written the foreword to ‘The Expert Teacher’, I was first introduced to Darren as “the Jimi Hendrix of teaching and learning”. As an eager NQT, this title made Darren almost intimidating as the first training session he gave us in about 2011, entitled ‘metacognitive wrappers’. I won’t lie; the book is pretty intimidating too. It is, however, unabashedly so. Darren says that good lesson planning should be “complex and rich” and so is ‘The Expert Teacher’. As the awesome ‘further reading’ list at the end of the book shows, he seems to have read all the research there is and tries to capture much of it here. The book is impressive in scope, covering a huge range of pedagogical challenges from planning to teach threshold concepts to how what we know about memory should influence our teaching. Yet Darren’s writing is engaging and funny throughout; his passion for the beautiful complexity of what happens in classrooms is blended seamlessly with constant references to research. All this makes ‘The Expert Teacher’ an extremely enjoyable, if challenging, read. 

Given its breadth, it would be impossible to summarise ‘The Expert Teacher’ here, but I do want to explore some of the ways it has already influenced my teaching.  I loved Darren’s description of pedagogical content knowledge as the ampersand between ‘teaching’ & ‘learning’ and the way he works through four ‘interacting forms’ of pedagogical content knowledge:

  1. Knowing how to represent knowledge so that it can be learned;
  2. Knowing how to organise or sequence knowledge so that it can be learned; 
  3. Knowing which concepts and ideas are difficult to learn and how to help students learn them;
  4. Knowing which knowledge is important. 

When I reflect on what makes the great English teachers I’ve worked with great, it’s clear that Darren’s list is pretty exhaustive. Early in my career, I remember being amazed by how sharply more experienced teachers saw the big picture of student progress. Now, as a head of department, it’s something I want to work towards clarifying together with my colleagues. 

In this context, I found the chapters on planning curriculum narratives particularly useful too, especially Darren’s focus on avoiding the problems associated with massed practice. The idea of interleaved practice is something that my department struggled with last year as we planned a new KS3 curriculum. We ended up planning our schemes around key tier 3 vocabulary which we revisit at regular intervals, but I still wasn’t entirely sure that this was resulting in true interleaving across the department. One simple method Darren advocates is using homework tasks consciously structured to take advantage of both massed practice and interleaved practice, prioritising difficult concepts by revisiting them more often. Darren’s claim that “even broad brush strokes at this level help to prompt more detailed thinking for lesson planning” has reassured me that at least my department is at least headed in the right direction and has prompted me to reevaluate homework across the department, to see if we can also use it to aid spaced practice more effectively. 

My Kindle edition of ‘The Expert Teacher’ is very liberally highlighted for a good reason: this is a book that requires close attention, but definitely repays it. 

‘Rosenshine’s Principles in Action’ by Tom Sherrington

When Tom Sherrington released his booklet on Rosenshine’s Principles this year, there seemed to be quite a bit of criticism around how these ideas were “nothing new”. It’s quite ironic that this online negativity seemed to be coming from the same direction as the usual criticism of “the latest education fads”. What’s actually refreshing about Sherrington’s book is that it focuses on taking this useful, already concise and instructional research and adding even more guidance for teachers on how to put it into action. This clearly shouldn’t be read as an academic paper and it doesn’t do much to critique the original research, but I think it is extremely successful at bridging the research-classroom divide, which is exactly what it sets out to do.

Early on, Sherrington says that he thinks Rosenshine’s principles have value because they are authentic, seeming to be common-sense to most teachers. While I think this is true, there’s much more to this book than common sense. Like any good lesson, Sherrington also pre-empts potential misunderstandings and provides examples across various subjects so that the focus is on implementing the principles well.

The streamlining of Rosenshine’s 17 principles into just four strands also makes them even easier to follow. At a time when the demands placed on teachers and teaching can feel overwhelming, a breakdown of good teaching into these four, sensible elements is a relief. This is especially true since it only takes a couple of hours to read them all. I also like the order Sherrington follows, for example, beginning with ‘Sequencing Concepts and Modelling’ since these principles are more relevant to the planning stages of teaching.

A lot of schools will be handing out copies of ‘Rosenshine’s Principles in Action’ to new teachers this year and for good reason: this is an ideal set of shared values to form the basis of planning and improving teaching across institutions.

A useful visual summary by Oliver Cavligioli

‘Slow Teaching’: A Quick Classroom Manual by Jamie Thom

When the coolest teacher I’ve known retired from my previous school a couple of years ago, she gave a sharp and inspiring leaving speech. She advised us ‘young ones’ that giving ourselves time for life outside of school would only make us better teachers. Jamie Thom’s book, ‘Slow Teaching’, is a similarly positive reminder that this is a “unique and wonderful profession”, but that “nobody can function well in the workplace when it is dominated by stress and anxiety”.

Working with Jamie, my colleagues and I of course took every opportunity to make ‘slow’ puns at Jamie’s expense, but what’s actually at the heart of this book is a focus on reflection. Each chapter ends with a list of ‘slow questions’, which encourage us to take the time to think about and evaluate each particular aspect of our teaching. This isn’t a preachy or didactic ‘how to’ guide. Instead, ‘Slow Teaching’ emphatically encourages us to take ownership of our classrooms and spend our limited time wisely, not on ‘mindless marking’, but on strategies which have been proved to have an impact on students. This, combined with Jamie’s honest reflections on teacher stress and his thorough summaries of recent pedagogical thought, is what makes ‘Slow Teaching’ a great manual for good teaching.

It’s probably not surprising that this book, by an English teacher, has such a lengthy bibliography, but it is still one of the real strengths of ‘Slow Teaching’. The uplifting quotations which open each chapter range from Ghandi and Dickens to Doug Lemov and Geoff Barton. In addition,  every section is rooted in research collated to concisely offer practical and impactful strategies. I found the chapter on questioning to be a particularly excellent example of this. In just 8 pages Jamie covers the value, pitfalls and most effective approaches to this crucial aspect of teaching. It would be excellent pre-reading for any CPD session focused on questioning. If, like me, you’d like to read more educational theory, but struggle to find the time, this book is a great summary of key ideas from many recent texts.

Perhaps sadly, I think another highlight of this book for most teachers will be Jamie’s sincere and self-deprecating reflections on the effect teaching can have on the rest of our lives. I don’t know of another teaching book which even touches on sleep and yet insomnia is something familiar to everyone in our profession. Jamie’s advice is simple: cut down on caffeine, do some exercise, curb the use of electronic devices and commit to a routine that prioritises rest. But this is advice I think we have all needed to hear at one point or another and it seems strikingly relevant with exam season looming too.

Overall, ‘Slow Teaching’ is an ironically quick read, which I would definitely recommend to teachers at all stages of their careers.

READING RECONSIDERED’ by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway

“An exceptional reader can learn to do anything, no matter…how long the journey to mastery.”

If I’m completely honest, there’s only one method from Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ that I adopted fully in my own classroom, despite my intentions to take on more when reading the book a few years ago. This is the ‘control the game’ method for group reading. Like much of TLAC, it’s incredibly simple, but has been powerful in all of my classes to ensure that every student reads aloud and that every student is actively reading every text we explore as a group. (It is described in more detail below).

As an English teacher, and due to my success with Control the Game, I was excited to find ‘Reading Reconsidered’, Lemov’s collaborative ‘Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction’. Though much of the book is targeted at US reading standards, my discovery of it could not have been more timely. It is not only the English department who are having to deliver more challenging material for the new GCSE specifications and it is certainly true that our students, especially at Key Stage 4, are often not as well equipped as we would like them to be to tackle 19th century non-fiction or archaic sources.

Lemov’s discussion of the decline of the canon is balanced and thoughtful. Unlike our new curriculum, he doesn’t assume that old texts=good texts. One line that rang depressingly true for me, when considering our students and the new specifications in particular, pointed out the power that the “cultural capital” of the canon affords:

“Members of the upper and middle classes often take for granted knowledge that marks them as educated and sophisticated. They can hear a reference to Hamlet or Dickens (in a classroom, a coffee shop, or a book) and join the conversation…Knowledge of the books that educated society takes for granted is a powerful tool, though perhaps only not having it would make you realise that. A culture of reading that doesn’t consider this cultural importance has a disparate impact on those who are less likely to acquire cultural knowledge by other means. It is their best chance to be included in the secret conversation of opportunity.”

Like TLAC, the focus of this brilliant guide is ensuring that all students have the kind of education they need not just to get to college/university, but to be able to continue to access challenging texts when they get there, at the same level as their peers. Lemov identifies ‘Five Plagues of the Developing Reader’ which stand in the way of this. These are clearly recognisable problems from our own classrooms. His solutions are not prescriptive, instead he offers suggestions for text choices to ensure that all of our students are exposed to these problematic characteristics through more approachable texts early on. This is something that helped me to look carefully at how I deliver the ‘pre-complex’ texts that Amy McVay has already introduced to our KS3 English curriculum.

If you’re still assuming that this is just a book just for English teachers, I’d urge you just to read Chapter 3, which focuses on Non-Fiction and Chapter 5, which explores various approaches to reading inside and out of the classroom.

The sub-title of the book, ‘A Practical Guide’, is an extremely apt one. It’s definitely a guide that I will go back to repeatedly (in fact, I returned the copy to the library and bought myself one). It is the kind of instruction in reading teaching that I wish I’d received during my PGCE. It is intelligent, carefully researched and enthusiastic about literature. Although there’s no module on reading for pleasure, you can hear the authors’ excitement about reading and what it can do for their students in every section.

Control the Game:

This is a method for controlling whole class reading which can be easily adapted to different texts and classes. It definitely works as well for non fiction as for fiction.

  1. Ask all students to follow the text with a finger. This is crucial and must be enforced. At any point that the teacher stops reading for discussion, Lemov recommends a “placeholder signal” to remind students to keep their place. “Freeze” has worked well for me.
  2. Designate a student to read aloud, while the rest follow along. Unpredicatable duration is crucial, do not let students know how long they will be reading, so they must be paying attention to the text and every reader.
  3. Vary the length of sections (keeping them all quite short) to maintain unpredictability, but also to allow differentiation.
  4. Name a new student at random or jump in briefly yourself. Again, this must be unpredictable. Repeating readers once or twice in the lesson is also useful to maintain this unpredictability.
  5. Try to ensure that, at least over time, you hear from every student. Enforce audible volume and expression from all. I have found that with weaker groups I can pick up the energy of the reading by taking over briefly myself before passing back to another student. This can also be useful for particularly tricky sections of text, especially if they don’t know when I’ll pass back to them, so are reading along more carefully too.

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