June 14, 2016

What vs. How & Pre-reading Strategies (Introduction)

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This week we are taking a close look at the common pre-reading strategies we (educators) use with students and how those strategies do (or don’t) really align with the Common Core. Of course, we first need to set the stage and take on the paradoxical idea that the Common Core only tells us what to teach, but doesn’t tell us how to teach. In the video series on EngageNY, David Coleman states, “…because the standards try as much as possible to stay silent on the means of achieving what you need to know, the high school standards present what it is you need to be able to do” (Bringing the Common Core to Life, full transcript, p. 13).*

In reality, the authors of the Common Core really couldn’t develop the what of the CCSS without some ideas about the how. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t other ways of designing instruction that can help students meet the objectives of the Common Core State Standards. Nevertheless, to ignore the instructional suggestions of the authors of the Common Core State Standards is both naive and stubborn. So, while the authors of the Common Core State Standards intentionally stated that the standards don’t tell us how to teach, they go on to produce videos and documents that are designed to give us insight into the very how they say they don’t tell us. We know that the authors of the CCSS have ideas about how to do the work of teaching the standards because A) it would be political suicide to write standards without any idea of how to reach them, and B) because they tell us they do.

We are not suggesting that their ideas are sound (or not), we are merely suggesting that they exist and that it seems wise to familiarize ourselves with them because A) they may save us some time, and B) because we can’t evaluate them until we orient ourselves to them.

To set the stage for this week’s blog posts, we present the following excerpt (in italics) from Bringing the Common Core to Life, which describes three traditional practices in literacy education: 1) presenting background information, 2) pre-reading strategies, such as predicting, and 3) articulating a summary of the text. We have bolded the references to each of these in the text below and we will talk about each one over the next three days. Please note that this is NYSED’s transcript of the video demonstration by David Coleman, so there are understandable transcription errors and the text has a conversational tone.

And I thought I would begin by making myself as unpopular as possible by attacking the three most popular ways of beginning. The most popular way first, I should give you background information and an account of the letter before we begin so you can get oriented.  There was a great man, Dr. King.  He wrote a letter while in jail because a set of clergymen had sent him a letter saying he should slow down.  This is his ringing defense of nonviolence, of the distinction between just and unjust law.  We shall read it to together, etc.  What you have effectively done as a teacher when you do this is you’ve replaced the letter from Birmingham Jail with a simpler text, your summary, that now kids will quote back to you.  And because of the overwhelming power of self love, those answers are of course correct.  Kids are very artful at this.  So that’s the first escape from the text is to summarize it in advance.  You would be stunned in curricular materials how often a text is trivially summarized before it begins.  If this is all King had to offer were those conclusions, we should not do the work of reading the letter altogether. Number two, pre-reading strategies.  So then there’s a lot of work you can try to do before the letter like you might try to predict what he’s going to say or where he was or you might try to compare it to other prison letters.  You might to try to do several pre-reading type approaches.  Forgive me, but I am asking you to just read.  To think of dispensing for a moment with all the apparatus we have built up before reading and plunging into reading the text.  And let it be our guide into its own challenges.  That maybe those challenges emerge best understood from the reading of it.  And that maybe we don’t have to force a whole set of additional activities that prepare you to start.  I’ll give further examples of this later. And the third typical introduction would be the strategy of the weak.  In other words  we have a purpose for reading this letter, it’s to reinforce our understanding of the main idea.  Nothing could be more lethal to paying attention to the text in front of you than such a hunt and seek mission.  Why not instead let King set the agenda?  Why not dare to read the mystery  of what’s on King’s mind?  Why not let those strategies emerge to solve real problems rather than constantly interrupting us or setting an agenda?  I’ll talk more about this later.  But one great benefit, teachers, to the core standards is you know how you’ve been teaching a hundred lessons every year and over the course of years on cause and effect and that’s one of the reading strategies.  I’ll give you one today.  I punch you and it hurts, cause and effect.  There’s no need to do it over and over.  When have you read a  difficult text ever in your life and said,  “I’ve got it now. It’s a cause and effect text not a problem and solution text.  Now, I’ve got it.”  We lavish so much attention on these strategies in the place of reading, I would urge us to instead read.Just think for a moment of a film and the way we teach reading typically.  If I were to go to a film with you, imagine before it started, I want you to do a bunch of pre-film watching strategies.  Then I ruthlessly interrupted you as it unfolded and said, “There’s a train.  Have you ever been on a train ride?  What does this remind you of?”  You would kill me before we were five minutes through.  Why then is this appropriate with reading, which is also a task of deep observation and attention, where the author’s story is the most interesting one to start with whether it’s informative or a narrative?  So I ask you to let kids into that story and try to talk about what that looks like.   So let’s open King’s letter with that in mind and begin with it.  I ask you to please read to yourselves the first paragraph following “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.”  Since I’m accelerating, I’m going to act like you’ve had time to do that and then read it to you out loud (pp. 16-17).

Tomorrow, more about ways to introduce text before reading.


*Please note, elementary teachers and students don’t appear to be included in this statement, so there is great confusion surrounding the degree to which these ideas apply to elementary instruction, if at all.


  1. I am an elementary teacher and I’ve been thinking carefully about the Common Core and pre-reading strategies and this example helps me decipher what I agree and disagree with in regards to book introductions. I completely agree that publishers have offered texts with “teacher guides” that take away the purpose for reading by divulging too much information prior to interacting with the text. In addition, the guides offer a multitude of questions for each page of reading and these questions often distract students from the topic at hand, particularly with informational text. So, when David Coleman states “We lavish so much attention on these strategies in the place of reading, I would urge us to instead read”, I completely agree. A reader should be allowed the time and cognitive space to process text without interruptions at every turn. With that being said, I think we need to offer enough pre-reading strategies to orient the students to the text and give them access to the topic, particularly if it is new. As always, it comes down to knowing your students and offering just enough support to lead them into the text without taking away their independence or interrupting their processing. It’s the craft of teaching and it’s being overtaken by scripted programs. I’m hoping David Coleman meant to give some of the power back to teachers and students to just “read”.

    • Tracy,
      On close reading of your comment, I particularly liked how you used text-based evidence from the post in your comment when quoting David Coleman about time spent on the strategies or time just reading. 😉 If I could make a text to text connection about your comment where you said, “I think we need to offer enough pre-reading strategies to orient the students to the text and give them access to the topic…”. This actually reminds me of two things. One, the use of Text Sets *as* a “pre-reading strategy” where it’s real purpose is a content exposure strategy used before, during and after reading and learning about a new topic or a topic that kids *really* dive into for the first time. For example, Christopher Columbus might not be a new content topic, but do they know CC deeply? Understand both sides of the argument for his journey? Understand how in some way, their lives are or are not different because of him? I’m just throwing a few deeper understanding questions out there that a Text Set might answer for kids when we “give them access to the topic” by exposing them to lots of books, of mixed media, genre, reading levels and formats. Text Sets transcend all of these and give all kids access to the content, regardless of reading level and prior content knowledge. Text sets, when used as a pre-reading strategy, I believe set kids up for learning deeply and accessing the topic/content through other texts not the teacher’s (or publisher’s) background knowledge of information about the topic/content…again, diving back into texts to interact with new texts. Also, Beck and McKeown came out with a recent (almost three years ago now) research study that they conducted over a two year period that examined the role of strategy instruction vs. content instruction. This study would support David Coleman’s point that “we lavish so much attention on these strategies in the place of reading, I would urge us to instead read” because Beck and McKeown found that the content student group outperformed the strategies student group in reading comprehension, on several different measures, and the findings were consistent from year 1 to year 2…which tells me that it’s not much important that they know and can say “I’m making an inference” while reading as it is for them to be making inferences while reading. I agree with Mr. Coleman, that too often teachers spend time making sure kids know and use the label of the strategy work, where Beck and McKeown would just say to have kids share their thinking about the text and then say, “I like your inference about __” and label it for them, where the strategy label is secondary to the actual thinking work about the text.

      Information about text sets can be found on the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project website.

      McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., & Blake, R. G. K. (2009). Rethinking comprehension instruction: Comparing strategies and content instructional approaches. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(3), 218-253.

  2. I think this example is particularly confusing because it is demonstrating reading a historical text in English class, and the overall context is unclear. I’m not going to (re-)watch this, but I think we’re supposed to understand that this selection is supposed to fit into some larger curriculum in some way, but it is not specified. Of course, whatever has been done in preceding classes is itself a form of pre-reading, as well as the students’ understanding of the overall thrust and direction of the unit.

    This is one of the things that makes Coleman’s presentation much more confusing to teachers than it ought to be.

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