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It's time to review our hurdle rates in literacy

I was re-reading some of Lemov's (2015) chapters on effective teaching techniques the other day. This time some things he wrote in a particular section really stood out to me. It is one of the joys of reading, isn't it? As our experience, knowledge, and interest grow, or we read closely and more intentionally, we see or pay attention to things previously skimmed over. I am referring to the two pages that follow the heading, 'Hurdle Rate and Meaningful Reading' (p.180-181).

Hurdle rate

There are many definitions of hurdle rate available online.

"The term hurdle rate is the minimum rate that a company wants to earn when investing in a project. Therefore, the hurdle rate is also referred to as the company's required rate of return or target rate" What is hurdle rate? | AccountingCoach

"A hurdle rate is the minimum rate of return required on a project or investment. Hurdle rates give companies insight into whether they should pursue a specific project." Hurdle Rate Definition (

It all boils down to this. If I am putting my time into teaching something, I should be thinking about what I expect my students to demonstrate as a result of that time investment. I should be seeking to establish that minimum rate of return on my time as part of my lesson planning. Another way of putting it is, if my students are giving one hour of their time to a reading lesson, what are they getting out of it? What is their rate of return? Does it exceed the one hour time cost? What is the benefit, to me and my students, of me investing one hour in this lesson? As Lemov (2015, p.181) says:

"The question you'd ask in assessing any potential investment, then, is not "Will it make me money?" but "Will it beat my hurdle rate?" Will any investment yield a stronger return that the best alternative investment you know you could make? Businesses ask this question all of the time, and it results in their choosing not to pursue activities, even if they are likely to have a positive return, when there is a better way to invest the resources."

High and low value activities

I wrote recently about the precious resource of time in education. What we do with our time matters. High value activities (HVAs) and low value activities (LVAs) are concepts that come from the business field. We are seeing them discussed a little more in education now, but we really don't think about these concepts well as a general rule.

In education, I see LVAs as lessons or techniques that work for some students some of the time. LVAs usually involve time spent doing things that don't frequently, consistently, or significantly contribute to student learning goals. I see HVAs as lessons or techniques that work for most students most of the time and there is demonstrable, predictable yield.

If we think about the five keys to reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension) as an example, there are HVAs and LVAs, even if we say we are teaching all five keys to reading. It is the same in spelling or writing instruction. Most things work for some students some of the time, but we want to ensure we are selecting approaches, programs, or techniques that meet the learning goals and needs of most students most of the time. Here are some examples:

Word-level reading and spelling

LVA - teaching phoneme-grapheme correspondences in the context of words or texts encountered; teaching a sound or letter each week; teaching sight (whole) words as a primary rather than supplementary approach

HVA - teaching phonemic awareness and phoneme-grapheme correspondences together, following a set scope and sequence, with 30-minutes of explicit instruction per day, and multiple opportunities for practice and feedback


LVA - providing a synonym for the new word when it is encountered in oral or written language

HVA - intentionally pre-selecting high utility Tier 2 words from content/text ahead of the lesson, and explicitly teaching them by providing a student friendly explanation, providing examples of their diverse contextual use, then getting students to use the words in a range of ways immediately afterward using oral and written modalities

Reading comprehension strategies

LVA - explaining to students what the key strategies are then providing them with a list to refer to while reading; asking students to find the main idea

HVA - explicitly teaching the strategy of summarising over a period of weeks, using carefully selected texts, providing modelling, guided practice, feedback, and independent practice


LVA - writing a recount about the holidays

HVA - explicitly teaching sentence combining using subordinating conjunctions; explicitly teaching how to plan and revise a paragraph outline; explicitly teaching sentence expansion

The questions we should ask ourselves

First, we have to be clear on what our teaching and learning intentions are across the board. If we are not clear on what we are hoping to achieve, it is impossible to determine whether we are getting there.

Which approach, program, or technique will yield the highest, most predictable return in this circumstance?

Is my current approach yielding a higher return than the most reliable alternative?

What are the alternatives and how do I know their value?

With this new approach, program, or technique that I am considering, how confident am I that its anticipated return will exceed what I am currently doing? Is it worth it?

What are the HVAs that I can try to utilise more often?

What are the LVAs that I can work to eliminate?

In closing

We want to consistently invest teacher and student time at a reliable rate of return. We should have a large degree of certainty that what we choose to do in our lessons is going to yield more benefit for our students than any alternative. Most of the time, explicit teaching (I do, we do, you do) and a daily habit of reading, discussing, and writing across grades and subjects, are the highest value activities we have to hand. Let's embrace them.

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