Pre-reading: How much is too much?

A staple of effective reading comprehension instruction is the whole-class, guided reading of a complex (and challenging) text*. Guided reading provides students with explicit instruction on how to comprehend texts and it is important that the texts chosen are quite challenging for that group of readers.

When we use a challenging text we often need to give an introduction and background to the text – a pre-reading. The purpose of a pre-reading is usually to activate the schema that students have regarding the context of the reading, to discuss the purpose of the text and to fill students in on any appropriate background information. Pre-reading primes the students to construct a more sophisticated representation of the text than they would have without the pre-reading session. Essentially, pre-reading is a scaffold teachers use to help students comprehend texts that they would not be able to understand as fully on their own.

Sometimes, however, the pre-reading process can take over guided reading. In the quest to provide readers with key information about a text the temptation is to teach background information to the point where the pre-reading becomes so elaborate and lengthy that it overwhelms the reading of the text itself.

Pre-reading can devolve into sessions where a teacher tries to extract every piece of knowledge a class has about a topic (“This text is about penguins – tell me everything you know about penguins”). The positive effects of focusing students on topics can be accomplished in a simple statement (“This text is about penguins”). Other pre-readings attempt to preview all aspects of what is in the text leaving few interpretations to be made while reading. If reading the text is just a repetition of what the teacher has already said in the pre-reading then students are missing out on the whole point of the reading exercise.

A good pre-reading session is informed by predictions of the comprehension difficulties readers may face when reading a difficult text. It really does take time to read a proposed guided reading text carefully, note the problems that readers might encounter as they move through the text and then make decisions about what aspects of those problems need to be addressed in the pre-reading and what will be left for during and after the reading of the text.

Some of the questions teachers can use as they are considering what to use in the pre-reading are:

1. What is this text about?

Sometimes the particular topic of a text is something that students may find difficult to place early in a piece of writing. Priming their attention to topic/genre/author intention may be important. This priming around topic and genre can be very simple: “This is a story about pride” or “This is a science text about gravity”.

2. What pieces of knowledge are required to make sense of this text?

There will be instances where it is important to make sure that students know some key ideas before reading a text. The key here is not to overdo it by including things that are not relevant or are included in the text. Knowing that a battle occurred in Balaclava and the British suffered grievous losses would be helpful prior to reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade”; however, a discussion of the causes of the Crimean War would be less useful.

In some cases knowledge gaps can be addressed during the reading process as well as in pre-reading. If discussing required knowledge in the pre-reading would spoil aspects of the reading, it is preferable to do this knowledge work during the reading process or perhaps afterwards.

3. What vocabulary needs to be unpacked and can it be done during the reading?

The use of particular vocabulary is a major impediment for some students. This is particularly true for domain-specific language or words whose meanings have an integral role in the comprehension of the text. For example, believing “acrimonious” means “happy” can have a huge impact on the comprehension of a treatise on divorce. The question a teacher needs to ask is: Which of these words do I need to define in the pre-reading and which can we work on together as part of the guided reading process? The teaching of three or four words as part of the pre-reading should be about the limit.

A class spending 30 minutes on a pre-reading session for a text that takes 5 – 10 minutes to read is not a good investment of time. In the end, this time may actually detract from the purpose of reading the text together as students have already had the text comprehended for them.

* Not to be confused with Guided Reading as defined by Fountas and Pinnell (Pinnell, G.S., & Fountas, I. C. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.)

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