Recently, there has been hubbub over whether we should spend time on pre-reading activities. Pre-reading refers to the stage setting that typically precedes shared and guided reading in elementary and secondary classrooms. David Coleman and Sue Pimentel who ably spearheaded the English language arts common core have been telling teachers not to engage in pre-reading activities and as a result some districts and states have already started banning the practice.
Why is this such a big deal? The background reviews and purpose setting of pre-reading are truly mainstays of American reading education, and many teachers wonder whether kids are going to be able to make sense of text without these supports. It’s times like these when many teachers start grousing about whether these experts have ever taught school (they have).
I disagree with the idea of banning pre-reading preparation, and I’ll continue to tell my students and my publishers to stay with the practice, but I fully appreciate why David and Sue would want to eradicate it. (I myself have occasionally thought about punching out a teacher during picture walk.) Prereading is often so badly implemented that it could not possibly have any good result. However, rather than ban a beneficial practice badly used, I will argue for a sound implementation. (In fact, I received emails from David and Sue just last week admitting that they have been, perhaps, too vociferous in their opposition to what could be a good approach, and we will continue a conversation towards giving my supportive counsel to teachers on this point in the future).
The idea of pre-reading has a long history in American education. In the first third of the Twentieth Century, the reading of literature in the academy was rife with author study; the idea being that one couldn’t read and appreciate fine works without a rich awareness of the author’s biography. This approach dominated high school and college classrooms and the publishing industry itself (the inclusion of extensive forewords, introductory chapters, and other similar apparatus were the norm). The New Critics bridled at this “read everything but the text itself” approach (which eventually imposed its own over-bearing rules for reading—like the requirement of avoiding the “intentional fallacy,” as if author’s don’t have intentions that can be considered interpretively by readers).
In elementary classrooms, pre-reading became a touchstone upon the publication of the teacher’s guide in basal readers. Previous to the 1930s, teachers were pretty much on their own when it came to lesson support, but the basal reader teacher’s edition changed all that. The directed reading activity (DRA), typically introduced the child to some background information, pre-taught the hard vocabulary, and provided a specific reason for reading the first page(s) of the selection. Of course, this scheme that started with basal readers in the 1930s, is now the normative practice recommended in pretty much all textbooks for teaching anything at any grade level. (In many programs, the pre-reading steps were referred to as background and motivation).
In the 1960s, winds of change (sort of) began to blow with Russell Stauffer’s ideas on prediction and anticipation as the basis of pre-reading. His directed reading-thinking approach (DRTA) didn’t so much overturn the DRA as redirecting. Instead of the teacher providing relevant background information and a reason to read, she would now guide the students to preview the material and make predictions (the predictions being the new purposes or motivation—read to find out if you were right).
The by then shop-worn practice gained an important boost in the 1970s and 80s with the research on schema theory which showed how important “prior knowledge” (that is the information that someone has prior to reading). The idea was that the more relevant knowledge you had, the better you would understand and remember the new information (P. David Pearson’s “building bridges between the new and the known”). Schema theory and prior knowledge research provided intellectual support for pre-reading instruction; research showed that previews could improve recall, inferencing, disambiguation, and put readers in a better position to recognize problems in a text.
The practice gained even more adherents with the advent of “guided reading” (this is where the “picture walk” comes in). Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell have pushed hard for strong pre-reading preparation for young children.
So, with such a venerable history, why would Coleman and Pimentel (and Shanahan) be so disgusted with the practice? Let me suggest five reasons.
1. Pre-reading takes too much time away from reading.
I recently watched a primary grade pre-reading that took 20 minutes—the reading itself only took 5. I wish I could say that kind of thing was the exception, but I see many instances of bloated, overly extended pre-reading sessions in classrooms at all grade levels (pre through high).
Much of the pre-reading set up that I see is deadly boring. The kids would get a good laugh if they knew that these activities were meant to be “motivation.”
3. Pre-reading commonly focuses on the wrong information.
There is no question that some texts pre-suppose particular knowledge on the behalf of the reader. A good preview or background session can make sure that kids have such knowledge available so they can engage in a reasonably strong first reading of a text. Unfortunately, teachers and publishers often provide background review focused on information that doesn’t actually need to be reviewed. (My favorite example is having middle school students read “The Old Man and the Sea.” That book is tough for 12-year-olds as they lack the emotional experience of the old man. You can review deep sea fishing, the Florida Keys, and Joe DiMaggio until the cow comes home and it won’t improve their understanding of the old man and his human plight).
4. Previews can ruin the reading experience.
A good background review can be motivational, creating a useful anticipatory set. Too often, unfortunately, the background reviews that are provided just tell the student what the text says (and sometimes even what it means). For too many kids, the challenge of a reading lesson is trying to remember what the teacher told you the text said/meant all the way to the end of the reading so they can tell the teacher back what she told them in the first place. If the information is in the text, then let the kids read it in the text. Telling them the information ahead does not increase motivation, but instead removes any legitimate reason for reading the text at all.
5. Previews are rarely purposesful.
What you know before you read a text can have an important shaping influence on where you put your mental attention. A good introduction can give kid valuable support for engaging in a particular kind of reading (and remember we are trying to teach kids how to read effectively, we are not just reading). Too often, the pre-reading activities are generic, repetitive, and fail to provide students with any guidance that would increase their power with text. Somebody has to read the text ahead of time and make a determination of what is hard about it and why it needs to be read. That information should guide the shape and focus of the pre-reading (should we tell students anything about the author or should that be an outcome of the reading? Is it better to know the genre or to try to describe the genre based on this specific instance? etc.).
Now that you see the problem, in my next blog entry I’ll try to give some positive guidance for pre-reading lessons that I would encourage (and that I think David Coleman and Sue Pimentel could support). No reason, in my opinion, to ban this venerable practice, but there is much reason to try to sharpen and focus it to the benefit of students.