Recently, I commented on the pre-reading advice of David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, indicating that I would soon follow with practical advice. In this entry, I fulfill that promise. Thank you to David and Sue for instigating these ideas, and for reacting to them along the way. I take full responsibility for the ideas expressed here (especially for any bad ones), but I appreciate the encouragement and debate that they provided (I'm sure it sharpened up the good ideas).
Currently, I am a principal investigator on the National Title I Evaluation. In that role, I have had to watch lots of classroom video over the past couple of months. These lessons are for preschool through Grade 3. Sadly, the previews to text are so thorough – painstaking and painful – that the only possible thing that students could be learning from them is that reading is unnecessary. I have watched 20-minute set ups for 5-minute reads. The blood is so sucked by these Dracula-like pre-reading sessions that the texts become lifeless. Why read if you already know everything that the text can possibly say?
Such lessons do not make me a big fan of pre-reading, so I have increasingly been won over by those who want to throw kids into the pool and get on with it. However, the common core will require that we use challenging texts and many students will struggle. Various supports, scaffolds, and motivation will be needed to allow students to read hard texts successfully. Furthermore, we need to remember that these are teaching sessions; it does not make sense to treat every text in the same way. There are times when teachers will want to focus student attention on certain aspects of a text, to try to strengthen particular reading muscles; revealing some text information ahead of time may guide that kind of heightened focus.
What counts as pre-reading? Let’s limit the discussion of pre-reading to explorations of relevant “prior knowledge,” purpose setting, contextualizing the text, previews of the information in the text, and any advice for the reader (“pay special attention to” or “ignore”). I would not include in pre-reading supports aimed at building decoding skills, fluency, grammar, or vocabulary. Such supports are beneficial and will be especially needed with common core, but preparation in these skills rarely ruins a book for the readers. Guidelines will be needed for those, too, but I will post such advice separately in a future blog entry.
There is a wealth of research showing the benefits of pre-reading. For example, providing students with information relevant to a text or making students aware of already-known relevant information improves their comprehension. The idea of providing students with or reminding them of relevant knowledge is not a bad approach, but it has run amok in America’s classrooms. I think in far too many cases, the “background” or “prior knowledge” step has become just a preview of what’s in the text—so the kids are seeing this information the second time on their first reading, or (just as bad) this information is only tangentially related to the text and therefore is useless in helping students meet the challenge of the text.
The lessons in which the teacher just tells her students the information from the text as a prior knowledge review are readily observable. Those previews that emphasize information that is irrelevant to figuring out the text may require some examples. I would include the previews that I’ve seen for The Old Man and the Sea. Kids struggle to appreciate that book, but I promise you no matter how much pre-reading information is offered about deep sea fishing or Joe DiMaggio, students will continue to struggle since that pre-reading information fails to address what is actually hard about that Hemingway classic.
Some texts may require no review of background knowledge, since the texts are reasonably complete, self-contained, and accessible. We might appreciate a particular aspect of such a text more with certain information provided, but, even without such information, we could still understand it quite well. Some texts are hard because they presuppose that a reader will have access to certain information or experiences, which is why I wonder about The Old Man and the Sea—few kids have the emotional experience to appreciate the old man’s regrets and resignation—which is why they can often retell the book, and still shrug, “so what?” I wonder if there would ever be enough time in middle school to sufficiently fulfill Hemingway’s very adult presuppositions; so, perhaps, that lovely book is a poor choice form middle school despite the tantalizingly-easy Lexile ratings. But, if it were to be used, then the type of background information to provide/elicit should be much more emotional, psychological, and inside-the-head.
So what guidelines make sense for pre-reading? Let’s try these:
1. The candle has to be worth the game. The amount of pre-reading should be brief and brevity should be determined in proportion to the amount and duration of the reading. If the text is a major undertaking (perhaps the students are reading a novella over the next 4-weeks), then devoting a half hour or more to pre-reading may not be overdoing it depending on the text. However, most texts are briefer than that and they are unlikely to require more than 1 week of lessons… in such cases, 5-6 minutes may be a lot. Definitely the amount of pre-reading time should be, proportionately, small when compared to the actual amount of reading. (In these examples, pre-reading sucks up less than 3% of the reading time—a tiny expenditure, if well done).
2. Let the author do the talking. There are exceptions to this guideline (see below), but basically teachers should try not to reveal information that students could gain simply by reading the text. Repetition may help learning, but if the text is just a repetition of what the teacher has already said, then students are missing out on the basic learning experience that reading provides. Repetition through discussion after the reading is a different breed of animal, that doesn’t spoil the quest that reading represents.
3. Pre-reading should provide a sufficient amount of information to give students reason to read, perhaps arousing their curiosity or sense of suspense. Look at these brief previews from a recent New Yorker magazine (the New Yorker usually provides the title of the article, a one sentence tease, and a one sentence caption of a photograph or drawing—thus, two sentences are the entire preview):
Profile: You Belong With Me by Lizzie Widdicombe
"Taylor Swift’s teen angst-empire."
"Swift hooked a previously unrecognized audience: teen-age girls who listen to country music."
The Obama Memos by Ryan Lizza
"The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency."
"Hundreds of pages of internal White House memos show Obama grappling with the unpleasant choices of government."
The Secret Sharer by Jane Mayer
"Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?"
"Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, faces some of the gravest charges that can be brought against an American citizen."
These masterful introductory blurbs tell essential facts about the articles, they provide a reason to read, arouse interest—and do so very economically. Each one of these previews is helpful in that it reveals the topic (though more a topic sentence than a topic), it would allow one to determine whether or not to read the text, and it would give the reader an anticipation set to start making sense of the text immediately. Imagine coming across great works of literature by accident and knowing none of the background; I wonder how many of us would have kept going with Moby Dick beyond chapter 2 or Ulysses beyond the first few sentences?
4. When you do reveal text information, be strategic. There are times when I may want to reveal something about a text ahead of time—not to ruin the reading experience, but to allow for greater focus on some aspect of reading that my students need to develop. For the same reason, there will be times, albeit more rarely, when I may want to hold back information commonly available to a reader prior to reading.
An example of this strategic reveal can be taken right from television… Colombo. Here is a traditional murder mystery, except it isn’t traditional at all. The show revealed who the murderer was in the first minutes of the show. Even the densest viewer would know who did it, who they did it to, when they did it, where they did it, how they did it, and why they did it. Crazy kind of mystery, except that strategic reveal shifts the viewer/reader’s attention away from trying to solve the crime to trying to anticipate how Columbo will solve it. Having this information so early, focuses your attention on the clues differently and, consequently, you end up with a different relationship with the protagonist—you’re no longer competing against him, but are collaborating with him instead—neat trick.
If I take David Coleman’s now-famous Birmingham Jail lesson and I want the major emphasis of the reading to focus on King’s authorial choices, I might give the students background information about how King provoked his own arrest in this case and in many others, explaining his provocation strategy and the kind of response it was intended to provoke in his opponents and his audience. I might have the students read the letter not to figure out what it says, but to find examples of statements aimed at two audiences (to provoke unreasonable anger from one audience, while eliciting empathy from everyone else).
You could say that I am short-circuiting the reading experience by jumping right to that issue, but I cannot teach every text the same way and I have to recognize that sometimes a text will only be used to get at some particular aspects of learning. David is correct that if a teacher is going to devote 8 days to this text in an English class, reading it multiple times with minimal outside information is a brilliant choice as it would focus student attention on how to scale such a challenging and worthwhile text. On the other hand, if this is one of six items in my social studies text set on civil rights, students will not only read it fewer times, but the lesson may require that they read both King’s letter and the letter that elicited it, and maybe even viewing the video of Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses. In the English class this might seem like a cheat—I’ve given the students background that they may be able to infer, while in the history class the idea might be to better understand King the tactician, so weighing his response choices may be the better way to go.
Obviously, my point is that there is not a single pre-reading approach that is appropriate. There could be many such approaches, each of which could be intellectually sound and pedagogically valuable. An evaluation of the quality of such pre-reading approaches would require knowledge of the text, a grasp of the purpose of the lesson, and an understanding of what students can already do.
David Coleman, and his colleague, Sue Pimentel, fear that such strategic focus can take over the whole reading experience for students (with the teacher or textbook always pre-ordaining some narrow or partial approach to reading). They rightfully are concerned that if every, or even most, readings are carried out in such a focused manner that students will never gain the power to scale, under their own power, the intellectual peaks of a text; that the student will always be dependent upon a Sherpa (the teacher) and special climbing equipment (the textbook apparatus) that will no longer be available when the school day ends. If you always conduct pre-reading in the same way, you are probably weakening rather than strengthening the reader.
5. Pre-reading can conceal rather than reveal. I have an activity I call, “Inventing the Author.” Students read a text with all authorship information stripped away. Their job in this lesson is to read the text, and only using information provided by the text to construct a biography of the author: Is it a man or a woman? Black or white? Young or old? Democrat or Republican? Somebody with whom you’d like to have dinner? How would this author feel about the Afghan war or global warming?
Again, each “fact” that is created has to have text evidence behind it. I’ve used this with kids as young as 7. We rarely read text without some information about the author, but if you want to get at issues of persona, voice, tone, or authority, giving students less information can be provocative and useful in forcing attention to these features.
David cautions that such a lesson may point students too far out of a text, because they obviously must rely on their understanding of people and not just on the text information. I look to the research on critical reading and see that it develops in response to children’s growing awareness of human intentions and their understanding of how people behave towards each other. Good reading requires an awareness that texts are created by intentional human beings and I find that such lessons help kids to bring their knowledge of the world to the text, in very appropriate ways.
6. Not all pre-reading has to take place before reading. Okay, obviously I’m cheating a bit here. I’m playing with the fact that we can read text in parts. Let’s say we have a 10-page story, and we read each page separately, stopping along the way to discuss the journey up to that point. Those pauses might look back (summarizing, talking about what the author has revealed so far), or they might look forward (hypothesizing, predicting, girding for the next part of the reading). Thus, “pre-reading” could take place after a considerable amount of reading has already been accomplished.
Why is that important? That a lesson might include several small pre-reads rather than a single big one allows the teacher to be wisely responsive in pre-reading choices. Back to Birmingham Jail: David Coleman distributes the text to students and has them read the first two paragraphs without discussion or teacher presentation (in other words, with no pre-reading). After a few minutes, he asks who King was writing to and why he is writing this letter. The students struggle to answer those questions and rather than just telling them, David might have them re-read; but for this second reading there was a bit of pre-reading preparation—that is, the students now have a specific purpose for reading. The answers are better on the second attempt, but their vagueness may reveal that the students don’t know much about King or what he did. At that point, David might choose to provide a few biographical facts that are not in the text, as that might help the readers appreciate the value of taking on King’s arguments.
You might cluck, “I would have done that from the beginning—I know my students.” And, you might have done so wisely. Perhaps. But the point is that having the students doing the reading without training wheels, so to speak, was not only respectful, but it gave them a chance to flex their reading muscles. In this example, it didn’t work out, but worse things can happen than falling off your bike when you are learning to ride.
The example should make it clear that no matter how smart we may be, we will not always anticipate correctly, but that such errors are correctible. Anticipation is only one arrow in the teacher’s quiver; responsiveness is another. I surmise that the teacher who always anticipates that students will require lots of pre-reading background preparation is a teacher who is likely to be weak in responsiveness. Pre-reading for the first segment has to be anticipatory, but the pre-reading provided as the reading proceeds has to be responsive to the changing landscape. (Thus — a point made forcefully to me by David Coleman — forging connections of text with background knowledge is essential, and yet, these connections do not always have to be made in advance of the reading).
As with the other guidelines offered here, this one has some cautions too. You might like the idea of no pre-reading preparation to start, only offering needed information along the way. And, why not? The image of a teacher so thoughtfully guiding students, never giving away too much, always being there in the nick of time with just the right amount of info is a heroic image. But if you always were to rely on this approach, you may be less likely to stretch students out, that is increasing the amount of text between the aid stations (and, if you don’t anticipate any gaps and simply turn the students loose on a long piece without any pre-reading supports, then the time cost of frustration and re-reading go up).
7. Teachers have to read the text first. To make any of these choices, the teacher has to know the text. This might seem obvious, but way too often teachers forego reading the text ahead of time, relying on a teacher’s guide to carry them along. (This approach is one of the reasons some of our colleagues oppose core program materials; they think it fosters this kind of laziness). In fact, even with a really good textbook, the teacher has to (a) read the selection, (b) decide what the purpose of the reading lesson is, (c) think about what the students bring to the text, and (d) decide what pre-reading information to provide and when to provide it to accomplish the purpose. This process might be made easier by a good core program, but adjustments, choices, and responsiveness are always necessary. (This planning process would be even better if undertaken by a group of teachers rather than each one in solitary.)
So, briefer, more strategic and more responsive pre-reads should be the hallmarks of common core reading lessons.