Pre-reading strategies get banished to the detention room of bad practices…


Last spring, a number of pieces appeared about David Coleman (Common Core’s co-author), telling us to stop teaching pre-reading strategies. When I asked folks attending Common Core trainings at my district, they had no idea what I was talking about. Clearly, the message has gotten out to the consultant/trainer class over the summer. Here were a couple slide from a recent meeting:

Text-based Questions and Answers:

  • Questions that can only be answered with evidence from the text.
  • Can be literal, but should also include analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • Focus on making meaning at the word, sentence, and paragraph level as well as larger ideas, themes, or events.
  • Focus on difficult portions of text in order to enhance reading proficiency.

Why Text-Based Questions and Answers:

  • More time is spent inside the text than outside.
  • Equity — conversations outside the text privilege students who have had certain experiences.
  • Analyzing text is more challenging than talking about experiences.
  • Forces multiple reading, making pre-reading and “front-loading” activities less necessary.
  • Allows students to glean important information from the text rather than the teacher (often done as a summary prior to reading).

Now that equity argument is a new one. Rather than front-load for kids without the experience, or having kids make connections to their own lives, just have them keep re-reading the same bit of text, over and over, and eventually it’ll sink in. This is so counter to experience as to be infuriating. While they never say students cannot bring in outside information from outside the text, the implication is they shouldn’t. This presents a problem as there is no way that students can do synthesis of the ideas from a single text without bringing in ideas from other sources. But, as we’ve seen, much more energy is spent on telling us to stick to the text, which only lets you get up to inference level analysis. You get what you ask for. While the standards say they want students to analyze and synthesise, if you spend more type telling students that they need to cite the text, and telling teachers to teach students to cite the text, then they will focus not on the ideas but on the citation.

Okay, deep breath. Here is a piece from Burkins and Yaris blog, Connections Under Fire | Burkins & Yaris. They are writer/speakers, and write blog posts on Common Core.  I recommend them to anyone frustrated with what they are being told to do on Common Core, and are looking a more reasonable approach. Of course, you might not have any choice about how you do your Common Core implementation, but I always find alternatives to be helpful. To sum up, what you want to avoid with connections is:

  • The connection overtaking the current text for content;
  • The connection not allowing students to really read or understand the current text;
  • The connection getting the student off-track and wasting time;

This makes a lot of sense, and we’ve all had situations where this has happened. I’ve also seen kids get off-track with connections because I didn’t do pre-reading, and they brought their “connection” to the table whether I asked them to make them or not. Without a discussion, we weren’t able to put it in context. Example, there is a story of Russian pogroms in the fifth grade ELA text. Students read about Anne Frank in the fourth grade. Many mix up the pogroms with the Holocaust, so you have to point out the timeline, etc. to show them this is before that, and more importantly is part of a long trail of anti-Semitism in Europe.

To sum up, it’s all about figuring out when a given strategy is needed, and when to leave well-enough alone. I’m not going to pretend I have that all figured out, but a new list of standards is not the answer to that particular problem, listening to students and adjusting my practice is.


4 Comments to

“Pre-reading strategies get banished to the detention room of bad practices…”

  1. October 17th, 2012 at 11:35 pm      Reply David B. Cohen Says:

    Okay, let me get this straight: are you saying that your students will think about things you didn’t tell them to think about, and remember their own life experiences without prompting?

    But sarcasm aside, I think we’re getting into another big curriculum and pedagogy debate where the greatest failure would be staking out a position on the edges. We’ve been through this with phonics and “whole language”, with writing, with math. I see the rationale behind the common core statements, and then you expose the problems with taking that as an edict for all time, space, and lesson plans. The same tension existed when I was a grad student almost 20 years ago. I remember writing about my concern that I was seeing lessons and assignments that allowed students to go so far into the personal realm that you really couldn’t judge how well they understood a text; you can’t argue with “Just like the protagonist in the novel, I’ve also had to overcome personal challenges; let me tell you about them.” But at some point, if you don’t help students see a reason for reading, you miss an opportunity to improve their reading skills and experiences. It’s just that the reason for reading doesn’t have to be uniquely personal.

    Thanks for your updates on this important topic.

    • October 18th, 2012 at 6:18 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      David, I think your point about staking out a position at the edges is what I’m afraid is going on, but I also fear that what opponents of pre-reading/connections are doing is creating a straw-man and trying to paint anyone using these strategies as being at the edge, when how many use these strategies is much more nuanced.

      Example, I do a LOT less pre-reading prep with the students I currently have because they are largely middle-class and on grade-level. I spent a lot of time building background and having students make text-to-self connections when I had more language learners, etc. I didn’t do that based on my classes demographics, but what they seem to bring to the readings. I monitored students and adjusted my practices accordingly.

  2. October 18th, 2012 at 6:34 am      Reply Kim Yaris Says:

    I think David Coleman’s lack of pedagogical knowledge and experience came through in his speaking about the role of connections. From reading the standards closely and carefully, I know that critical thinking is a key component of their intent and part of thinking critically means doing higher level work like inferring and synthesizing. NOBODY can infer or synthesize without drawing upon their background knowledge which means that they are connecting. When working with teachers to develop Common Core style text-based questions the issue of how much background knowledge is needed to infer often becomes a sticking point. Grade level complex text makes assumptions about the knowledge base of the reader. To fully analyze and evaluate the text, readers must call upon that knowledge and when they don’t have it, that’s when things go awry!

    Thanks for the plug for Burkins and Yaris and thanks for introducing me to your blog, as well!

    • October 18th, 2012 at 6:25 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      Thanks for coming by. Glad I’m not alone is seeing the difficulties inherent in downplaying background, while still demanding synthesis. I notice that recount is used a lot more in the standards. A co-worker who attended a Math training was told that even though language is being used that is “low” on the Bloom’s scale, the intent is for them to do higher-level thinking. That seems a bit ambitious as they are trying simultaneously to roll-out new standards, and redefine existing terms used in pedagogy.

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