To Preread or Not to Preread

By Suzanne Tingley, Scholastic Administrator magazine

“What’s being played out in front of us is a war for the soul of English/language arts.”
Wow! What are we talking about here? Book burnings? Censorship? Shutting down English/language arts instruction?

Hardly. It turns out that Alan L. Sitomer, California’s teacher of the year in 2007, was commenting on whether the Common Core standards forbid prereading activities.

In a nutshell, the latest raging debate among educators is over how much preparation students need before actually tackling a text on their own. Those who defend the Common Core standards believe that prereading can shift the focus of instruction from the text itself to other activities somewhat related to the text. Those who staunchly defend prereading see the activities as levelers and conduits to give students without experience access to the text itself.

As usual, it’s another fake dichotomy that educators love to set up.

Anyone with any classroom experience can tell you that every successful teacher has a giant bag of strategies that she can choose from depending on the students and the material. Sometimes it’s best to prepare students for what they’re about to read. Sometimes it’s best to let kids tackle the reading cold and then come back with real questions.

Still, in general the prereading approach needs to be revised. I’ve heard second graders complain that by the time they’ve gone over the characters and reviewed all the chapter titles and predicted what the book was about, they weren’t too interested in actually reading it. Teachers sometimes focus too little on the text itself and too much on peripheral activities supposedly designed so that students can “relate” to the text. Instead of asking, “Why were Jem, Dill, and Scout so fascinated by Boo Radley?” they ask, “What would you have done if Boo Radley carved a doll that looked like you?”

Teachers sell kids short when they think they can’t read, understand, and even thoroughly enjoy a book about something they have never actually experienced – Into Thin Air, for example. Besides, kids, it’s really not all about you.

I am a reader who never reads the preface until I finish the book. That’s when I care what it says and hope that it adds to my understanding of the text. I know kids like that.
But there are other kids who need some help – scaffolding, as they say. Like the kid who was assigned Drums Along the Mohawk in paperback – no prereading. As he finished each page, he ripped it out and threw it away. Maybe he could have used a little help.

In the end, we want kids to be able to read and understand text by themselves. We’re trying to develop independent readers. Reading is no different from all of the other skills we want kids to be able to pursue independently. We start out with lots of help, and then we slowly withdraw as they are able to handle it themselves.
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