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Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Problems with pre-reading

February 28, 2012

Pre-reading activities, the things teachers plan and do before reading a text, happen almost every day in elementary school. Pre-reading activities seek to improve a child's comprehension of a text by activating prior knowledge, and by providing time to pre-teach concepts or vocabulary students will encounter in a text. Pre-reading activities can be informal and quick, or they can be more formal, and incorporate strategies such as the Anticipation Guide or First Lines.

According to Shanahan on Literacy, two contributors to the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards "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." (Shanahan suggests those authors are now softening that message.)

What's wrong with pre-reading activities? According to Shanahan, problems include:

Hmmmm…there's probably some truth to each of those reasons, in some lessons and in some cases. But in general I share Shanahan's belief that what we need to do is to "sharpen and focus pre-reading to the benefit of students."

So, what does good pre-reading look like?

It's short, and it's focused on the text. It highlights story elements that are important to a reader's understanding (for example, an unusual setting or time period). Attention to Tier 2, or useful words, is reflected. And it sets kids up for the "a-ha" moment — the one where they're reading along and they say, "Hey! We just talked about that!"

I'm sure there will be more to come on this, but I'd love for your to add to my short list. What does good pre-reading look like?

UPDATE 3/26/12: If you're interested in reading Tim Shanahan's guidelines for prereading, here's Part 2 of his posts on prereading.


"Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself."Firstly, in dealing with children, it is paramount for teachers to chose materials they find interesting, and ones they know will entice their students. The question is often asked, "What is Pre- reading?" The process of skimming a text to locate key ideas before reading a text (or a chapter of a text) from start to finish is Pre- reading. The Pre-Reading Plan helps students activate prior knowledge as a starting point for better reading comprehension. The Pre Reading strategy guides students as they make associations between their prior knowledge and the central ideas in a reading selection. It helps them reflect on these associations, comparing how the new information reinforces, extends, or challenges prior knowledge.Lastly, it reformulates their prior knowledge in light of the new information. This dialogue between prior knowledge and new information greatly increases the students' ability to comprehend a text and to retain new information. Good Pre reading is like a key that open doors to great expectations. It stimulates students' interest and prepares them for something that will be an effective tool in helping them to read with understanding.

I agree with the author and the previous two comments that good--albeit brief, relevant, and meaningful--pre-reading can be essential for many children. Asking a simple question, for example, can help children create just one connection that brings them to that "ah-ha" moment during a reading activity. As adults, I think that making connections with the text is something we innately want to do and is valuable to the reading process; we should be teaching children to make connections as early as possible.

The research is quite clear that helping children connect what they will be reading to their own background knowledge is important. While I agree that it is more important to spend time actually reading rather than on simply "talking about reading," helping children link to their own interests and understandings is important. We should not do away with important pre-reading connections but we should make sure that they help - not hinder children from spending time practicing their reading. Reading is after all a "participation sport" and you have to DO it to do it well.

Pre-reading creates a bridge between the reader and the text infront of them. It can create excitment and a reason to continue to read if the going gets tough. Adults rarely pick up a book that they have no previous knowledge about. The same is true for children. Their knowledge base is smaller and pre-reading can make the link to their interests or form an interest from which to begin. All of these reasons make pre-reading worth it and contribute to understanding the text.

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"There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away" — Emily Dickinson