Reading & Literacy

Common Standards Ignite Debate Over Prereading

By Catherine Gewertz — April 24, 2012 11 min read
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Sparked by the Common Core State Standards, teachers and literacy experts are arguing about the role of a time-honored pillar of English/language arts instruction: classroom activities designed to help students understand what they are about to read.

The attacks on—and defenses of—"prereading” are unfolding largely in cyberspace, through online forums, blogs, and email exchanges. What’s triggering them is educators’ reactions to the new standards and two key explanatory resources created by their architects: a set of “publishers’ criteria” and videotaped sample lessons.

That trio has created an impression in some quarters that the intent of the standards is to “ban"—in the words of one blogger—prereading and instead ask students to approach texts “cold,” with no upfront assistance. That would represent a sharp turnabout from current practice.

Even as the standards’ authors insist that their aim is not to abolish prereading, but to curtail and revamp it, the debates persist, pitting schools of thought on reading instruction against one another. Teachers are asking themselves how to honor the heart of the practice, which is intended to help all students access text from a level playing field, but also to learn from its mistakes.

The debates, some in the field say, open the door to a broad-based re-examination of how to approach reading instruction.

“What’s being played out in front of us is a war for the soul of English/language arts,” said Alan L. Sitomer, a Los Angeles high school teacher who was California’s teacher of the year in 2007.

Interpreting the Standards

If the debates over prereading are a war, one of the battlegrounds has been the standards themselves, with critics claiming that they eliminate prereading.

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But defenders of the standards argue that they do no such thing. The documents call for students to be able to read “independently” and “proficiently,” without “significant scaffolding"—instructional supports—by teachers. The standards also note that students may have added need for teacher assistance when wrestling with material above their reading level.

“If someone is reading that as eliminating prereading activities, they’re reading it incorrectly,” said Kelly Gallagher, an Anaheim, Calif., high school English/language arts teacher and the author of Readicide and other popular books about adolescent literacy. “But once you get into the publishers’ criteria,” he said, “it gets murkier.”

Written by the two lead writers of the English/language arts common standards, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, those criteria were designed as guidelines for the development of curricular materials that embody the standards.

But the criteria also include instructional strategies, and that inclusion has prompted many educators to accuse the writers of violating a promise made in the introduction to the standards: They “define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”

“What’s in the publishers’ criteria is at odds with the ‘defining the what and not the how,’ ” Mr. Sitomer said. “I am a big, big fan of the standards. But when the authors of the ‘what’ wade into the ‘how,’ it carries an awful lot of weight, and this is baggage that the movement doesn’t need.”

“There’s a disconnect between the standards and what the publishers’ criteria say about prereading,” said P. David Pearson, a professor of language and literacy at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.

Publishers’ Criteria

The parts of the publishers’ criteria that have many teachers up in arms advise that “text should be central” in instruction, “and surrounding materials should be included only when necessary, so as not to distract from the text itself.” Publishers, the criteria for grades 3-12 say, “should be extremely sparing in offering activities that are not text-based.” When “productive struggle with the text is exhausted, questions rather than explanations can help focus the student’s attention” on facets of the text that can aid in comprehension, they say.

“I’m concerned that some teachers may read this and think, ‘Ooh, I shouldn’t do any prereading activity with my kids,’ ” said Mr. Gallagher. “I think that’s an incorrect reading. And it’s not in our kids’ best interest.”

Mr. Coleman points out that the criteria specifically allow for scaffolding. But it’s scaffolding that “enables all students to experience the complexity of the text, rather than avoid it,” he said.

Such strategies, he said, “should not pre-empt or replace the text by translating its contents for students or telling students what they are going to learn in advance of reading the text; the scaffolding should not become an alternate, simpler source of information that diminishes the need for students to read the text itself carefully.”

The K-2 criteria echo those themes and allow for scaffolding “when necessary,” “prior to and during the first read” that focuses on “words and concepts that are essential to a basic understanding and that students are not likely to know or be able to determine from context.”

No ‘Ban’

“The publishers’ criteria never, and very clearly don’t now, in any way abolish or ban prereading,” Mr. Coleman said in an interview. “They are very clear that strategic uses of prereading that don’t pre-empt the text are consistent with the standards. We need to ensure that kids actually grapple with text.”

He added that the criteria have been revised repeatedly, based on the input of teachers, literacy experts such as Mr. Pearson, and others. On the topic of prereading and scaffolding, the most recent version takes care to “leave room for a wide range of instructional approaches” that engage students in reading, while at the same time “setting some basic parameters based on the standards,” such as ensuring that scaffolding “does not pre-empt or replace the need to read the text,” Mr. Coleman said in an email.

Mr. Coleman acknowledged, however, that in speaking engagements and videotaped sample common-core lessons, he might have contributed to the impression that common-core authors want to eliminate prereading.

In those settings, he has been frank and emphatic about his view that prereading activities have “spiraled out of control,” he said. “I appreciate that my words encouraged a one-sided view, and I am trying to be more careful in my public statements to take a more nuanced view,” he said.

Mr. Coleman has company, though, in his view that prereading strategies need an overhaul.

“What they are reacting to is really appropriate,” said Tim Shanahan, who chairs the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education. “There is some really bad prereading going on out there, and the field has just sat on its hands. So the notion of someone calling us on it is fair.”

As part of his current research, Mr. Shanahan has been viewing scores of videotaped K-3 reading lessons, and a startling portion of them are “atrocious,” he said. In one kindergarten example, the teacher spends 20 minutes preparing children for a six-minute reading.

By the time they actually read the book, “there wasn’t a single shred of an idea in there that the kids didn’t already know,” he said. “What they were learning was that reading [the text] wasn’t really necessary.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Shanahan said, “just because lots of people are doing it badly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all. The question should be, how can we do prereading better?”

In a blog post penned in response to the hubbub over prereading, Mr. Shanahan, who served on one of the panels that helped shape the common standards, offered six guidelines that should shape the practice, from keeping prereading brief and strategic to making sure it “reveals instead of conceals” the text.

Ignoring Research?

The debate about prereading has angered many educators who cut their teeth on the research and theory that helped forge such strategies.

“To argue that meaning resides solely in the text is antithetical to several decades of research which shows that meaning is in the interaction of reader and text,” said Karen K. Wixson, a literacy expert who served with Mr. Shanahan on the writing team for the common standards and is the dean of the education school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

In the current move to curtail prereading, Mr. Pearson hears the echoes of the “new criticism” of the late 1920s and 1930s, which focused solely on text for meaning and helped shape literacy instruction for many years.

He also sees a reaction to multiple strands of thought that have reshaped it in recent decades: the idea that studying an author’s life is important to understanding a text; the view that “directed reading activities,” such as supplying background information or word definitions or helping students predict what might happen in a text, are key aids to comprehension; and the recognition that people learn new things best when they connect them to what they already know.

But when sound ideas wander into excess in practice, Mr. Pearson said, a backlash can’t be far behind.

“In too many classrooms, the actual text never enters the discussion,” he said. “It’s all about kids’ feelings about it, or their experiences related to it. The teacher spends 45 minutes wallowing in that space, but never gets into the information in the text.”

An overreaction to weak practice, however, risks dispensing with valuable strategies, he said.

“I think they’re making too much of a fetish out of this” push to curtail prereading, Mr. Pearson said. “When you read, the two fundamental things you use to construct meaning are your knowledge base and your version of what the text says.”

Many teachers view prereading strategies as indispensable and see the attempt to restrict them as naive and even disrespectful, given the vacuums in background knowledge many students bring to school.

“I am dealing with kids who are just as smart as kids have always been, but they’re coming to me with much narrower prior knowledge and understanding of the world,” said Mr. Gallagher, a 27-year veteran who teaches at the predominantly low-income Magnolia High School in Anaheim, Calif. “You have to know things to read things.

“I wonder if the framers of the standards understand the high level of frustration that some of my 9th graders have,” he said. “If help from the teacher comes too late in the process, it won’t matter, because they’ve already tuned out.”

To prevent that, and make sure his students can understand what they are about to read, Mr. Gallagher said he has “to do quite a bit of framing to get my kids to the point where they can wrestle with the text.”

But the prereading debate doesn’t need to be an either-or, he said. The key is to make sure that scaffolding “leads students to the wrestling match.”

Reversing the Order

Christiana Stevenson, a second-year teacher at Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, has found that she can accomplish both aims—background information and context for students, as well as a “cold read” of the text—in reverse order.

Using that approach, she had her students read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” without any preparation. As they asked questions, she guided them to more information about civil disobedience and the clergymen’s criticism that prompted his letter.

“After we did the cold reading, we talked about that stuff, because that content knowledge is really important with something like this,” Ms. Stevenson said. “But it’s not at all bad to do it after the first reading. Then it was the kids who were driving the understanding. The conversation led to more and more. And then we reread it with more background knowledge. It worked out really well.”

Employing both cold-reading and prereading strategies is necessary to good literacy instruction, said Doug Lemov, the author of Teach Like a Champion and the managing director of the New York City-based Uncommon Schools charter school network.

“Students need to be able to encounter a text, often a disorienting one, and make sense of it on a first read,” said Mr. Lemov. “Common core is right in saying our students need to be able to do that. But I also think that over the long haul, one of the biggest barriers to reading success and comprehension is the knowledge deficit. We need to close that knowledge deficit.”

To do that, teachers have many strategies at their disposal, he noted. They can supply information upfront, when appropriate. They can plan a cold reading but assign texts leading up to it that will fill in knowledge gaps. They can ask students to read a group of surrounding pieces in conjunction with a central text.

“Reading the same thing multiple times is good. Prereading is good. Reading multiple texts is good. The best ‘prereading,’ ” he said, “is reading.”

At Uncommon Schools, where Mr. Lemov supervises middle-grades literacy, teachers have been using a technique they call “embedded nonfiction,” which they find effective, he said. When reading a novel, they assign four or five nonfiction texts on a related topic.

Recently, when reading Lily’s Crossing, a novel set in World War II-era New York City, students stopped after a couple of chapters to read an article on the rationing of supplies during that time, he said. They gained additional perspective on events in the novel with other such articles as they went through it.

“Now, the novel makes more sense because you understand about rationing, and the nonfiction article has meaning because you have come to care about Lily and seen it through her experience,” Mr. Lemov said.

The practice grew from observations within the charter network that students absorbed content better on the second, third, or fourth reading of related materials, he said. Given those observations, cold reading is challenging for students since it “implies reading in a low-absorption-rate context,” he said.

Reading from multiple sources on a topic, combined with rereading, can address that problem, Mr. Lemov said.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Common Standards Ignite Debate Over Student ‘Prereading’ Exercises


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