Pre-reading Strategy Introduction

One of the most powerful things that you can do to make reading part of your content-area instruction is planning purposeful pre-reading instruction and activities.   In this module, we will present strategies that you can choose from.   By the end of this module, you will have strategies for examining the texts that you have selected for your project, and for making the content easier for students to read and learn. In order to do that, we will have to consider the nature of comprehension as a cognitive process. Then we will introduce strategies to choose and use. As you go through this content, we will ask you to prepare some materials. It is in your best interest if you use the texts and concepts from your unit as you complete these short exercises.


Read the passage below. What details stand out to you?

 The two boys ran until they came to the driveway.   "See, I told you today was good for skipping school," said Mark.   "Mom is never home on Thursday," he added.   Tall hedges hid the house from the road so the pair strolled across the finely landscaped yard.   "I never knew your place was so big," said Pete.   "Yeah, but it's nicer now than it used to be since Dad had the new stone siding put on and added the fireplace."  

There were front and back doors and a side door that led to the garage which was empty except for three parked 10-speed bikes.   They went to the side door, Mark explaining that it was always open in case his younger sisters got home earlier than their mother.

 Pete wanted to see the house so Mark started with the living room.   It, like the rest of the downstairs, was newly painted.   Mark turned on the stereo, the noise of which worried Pete. "Don't worry, the nearest house is a quarter of a mile away," Mark shouted.   Pete felt more comfortable observing that no houses could be seen in any direction beyond the huge yard.

The dining room, with all the china, silver and cut glass, was no place to play so the boys moved into the kitchen where they made sandwiches.   Mark said they wouldn't go to the basement because it had been damp and musty ever since the new plumbing had been installed.

 "This is where my Dad keeps his famous paintings and his coin collection," Mark said as they peered into the den.   Mark bragged that he could get spending money whenever he needed since he'd discovered that his Dad kept a lot in the desk drawer.

There were three upstairs bedrooms.   Mark showed Pete his mother's closet which was filled with furs and the locked box which held her jewels.   His sisters' room was uninteresting except for the small plasma TV, which Mark carried to his room.   Mark bragged that the bathroom in the hall was his since one had been added to his sisters' room for their use.   The big highlight in his room, though, was a leak in the ceiling where the old roof had finally rotted.


What if we asked you to read it as if you were a real estate agent? A burglar? Would your comprehension be different?


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What happens when we comprehend? See if you can experience it. Read these three book reviews (Kintsch, Toye, Franzen) and then think about which book would be easiest for you and which would be more difficult? Why do you think so? Use the unit template to respond to these three books. What if you had to read these three books in school. Would any one of them be especially daunting? What if a teacher were there to make that book more accessible to you? We think that that is precisely our job as teachers. If reading is to be a part of learning (rather than a test of what we already know) then we have to make reading more meaningful. That means that we actually have to decide what to do before our students read to ensure that they can be learning while they read. Part of the reason for that is the nature of the comprehension process itself.

A good description of the comprehension process was described by Kintsch. As you make your way through any reading, from clause to clause and sentence to sentence, you are building an internal representation of meaning. As you continue reading, you also expand and refine this structure. Had you been asked a question after reading, you would have referred to this internal structure to answer. We might compare that structure to a house. You build it from the ground up, on a foundation of prior knowledge, and it has an overall design or blueprint plus numerous details such as the individual boards and bricks and shutters. Just after you have finished reading the passage, chances are you can clearly recall many of the details, just as you might envision details of the house or building in which you now live. But after a time your memory for details of the passage will fade, although you may still be able to remember its gist. Think back to a house you lived in long ago. It is likely that a similar process has occurred with respect to your memory. You still retain a general idea of what the house looked like but many of the details elude you. The same is true of the "reading house" you construct as you read.

What are some reasons that readers don't comprehend? Remember that students who are learning in new knowledge domains likely have limited prior knowledge on which to build. Prior knowledge can take many forms, including vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge, and text structure knowledge. It is important to make a distinction between vocabulary and background knowledge. Word meanings are essential, but they are only one component of the knowledge necessary to comprehend. Such knowledge may include experiences and individual impressions that cannot be captured by a single word and that amplify and enrich one's definitional knowledge. If you want to read more about this, here is an interesting article written by a linguist.

Contending with limited vocabulary and background knowledge depends on the gap between what the student knows and what it is necessary to know in order to comprehend. If the gap is too large, it may not be possible for a teacher to facilitate adequate comprehension. Imagine having to read a technical research report in the field of mathematics. Take a look. Limitations of your prior knowledge base might well be impossible to overcome. Even with the assistance of a tutor knowledgeable about the topic, the amount of background building required might be prohibitive. In the case of a student, materials that contain a large number of unfamiliar words and that refer to ideas and experiences that are also unfamiliar are likely to be frustrating no matter what the teacher does. In such cases, it is better to locate alternative materials. But in cases where that gap is not too wide, a teacher may be able to bridge it by pre-teaching the vocabulary and by building the prior knowledge needed to comprehend.

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Of course, familiarity with the topic and with the words an author has chosen are not all that is required to comprehend. In order to build a mental representation of text content, a reader needs to be able to approach the reading task strategically. Just as a carpenter must be able to strategically use a variety of tools in building a house, a reader must employ a variety of strategies if an acceptable reading house is to be constructed. Even with assistance, the final product maybe problematic. The reading house may need work. Like a master carpenter overseeing the work of a novice, a teacher can help a student improve the mental representation of text content after reading has been completed. All of this is to say that teachers have three opportunities to improve text comprehension. The actions they take before, during, and after reading can do much to ensure adequate understanding.

This discussion may seem very theoretical, but the implications for the classroom are enormous. In a short story, for example, if the protagonist enters a luxury hotel severely underdressed, the author will not bore you with details about the decorations in the lobby, the fact that there is a concierge, that a door man is there to welcome him.  The author will expect your schema for a fancy lobby to be activated instantly.  But imagine the reader who hasn't been to a fancy hotel (or seen one in a movie); comprehension might be compromised.  Anderson and Pearson (1984) used schema theory to explain the strong relationship between prior knowledge of ideas and concepts contained in a text to an individual's ability to comprehend that text.