By Tim Shanahan
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.)
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 purposeful.
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.).
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).
Reprinted with permission of the author.