David Coleman, an author of the Common Core State Standards, is adamantly against prereading strategies, in which students are asked to think about ideas from a text before reading it. (The Common Core State Standards do seem to allow for some prereading, but he is personally against it.) In the video, Bringing the Common Core to Life, he attacks (his word) the three most popular ways teachers introduce texts. He uses "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" as a sample text.
According to Coleman, teachers introduce texts by
- Providing background information (e.g., King was a great leader… He wrote the letter because…)
- Assigning prereading activities (e.g., having students predict what might be in the letter)
- Announcing a mini-lesson on a skill (e.g., today, we’re going to do main idea, and you’ll read the letter looking for the main idea)
Coleman is against these methods because he says they’re not how real readers read. He argues that people in the real world do not have background knowledge before they read. They don’t make predictions or think about themes. He says, imagine if we were watching a movie and he kept stopping it to make predictions and ask questions. He says that we would throw him out immediately.
I guess David Coleman and I live in different worlds. In my world, readers often do have background knowledge before they read. When I begin a novel, there’s a pretty strong chance that I’ve read The New York Times Book Review, or the summary on the back of the book, or some Amazon reviews. Or a friend recommended it to me, and told me a bit about it. I don’t go into it completely blind. Also, when I watch a movie, I constantly ask questions and make predictions in my head! (Is she going to end up with that guy? Who committed the crime?)
I don’t think it’s realistic to expect students to always jump blindly into the text. That’s not how they’re going to read in college or after school, especially not in the digital age, with so much information hitting them at from angles. I do agree that prereading activities can be problematic when they tell students exactly what to look for (to the point where students feel they can’t look for anything else or have different interpretations than the teacher’s). But done in moderation, in the right ways, prereading strategies are a very helpful and realistic way to get students engaged in a text. When I was a student teacher at a tough high school in NYC, I had to teach Macbeth. I started with fun prereading activities on prophecies and power, and the students were excited to read the play. If I hadn’t done that—if I had just told them to start on page one—I don’t think they would have been very motivated to plow through Shakespeare’s language. In fact, I bet some of them wouldn’t have even tried. Yes, I did help students look for big ideas, but they found plenty of other excellent ideas on their own. I didn’t spoil the text for them; I just tempted them to want to open it.
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