How to help a child frontload information before he reads

Frontloading means preparing a child to read new material by loading his mind ahead of time with information which will help him understand the new material.

Good readers either consciously or subconsciously do this before they read something new, but many poor readers do not. For new readers and poor readers, parents and teachers need to model this activity until the child makes it his own.

But how should a parent or teacher model frontloading?

• For a work of fiction, many teachers discuss ahead of time the setting, characters, plot, and problem the students are about to read about. If any parts of it are familiar to the students, the teacher will point them out, connecting the new with what the student already knows.

Students shouting I Know to teacher

• Some teachers prepare a list of vocabulary words the child will encounter in the new reading. Often, the children write down definitions of the words and use those words in sentences so when they see them in the text, the words will be familiar.

• For stories in reading textbooks or for nonfiction information in textbooks, teachers sometimes discuss what the title could mean and what the subheadings could mean. If there are illustrations, the teacher asks the students to describe what is happening or what information is shown in the table, diagram, map or political cartoon.

According to Kylene Beers, a long-time reading teacher and author of When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do, these prereading techniques often work with skilled readers but not with struggling or passive readers. She offers other prereading strategies to reach them.

• Because struggling readers often skip reading titles, captions, and subheadings, and rarely page through a reading assignment to see if there is any nontextual information, they need to be assigned to do what good readers do naturally, often with a teacher’s direct instruction.

• One kind of direct instruction in prereading is using an “Anticipation Guide.” Before a reading assignment is given to a student, the teacher—or parent of a young child—reads the selection and composes a short list of ideas from the reading for the child to respond to. For example, if the child is reading or being read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the list could include ideas like, If a child gets lost, does the mother and father stop thinking about that child? Or, Is there such a thing as a magic stone that can make people invisible? Together the adult and child can talk about these ideas which the child will encounter later in the book.

• Struggling readers often begin reading as if every reading—for school or for pleasure—is a cold read. While they are reading, they do almost no predicting what might happen next. Yet good readers do this all the time. One thing a parent can do is to pause as she is reading and to ask the child, “What do you think is going to happen next?” If the child shrugs, the parent might model some options—“Well, I think Sylvester will never come back to his family,” or “Well, maybe Sylvester will find a different magic pebble while he is invisible.” Gently encourage the child to respond, discussing the possible outcomes of those predictions.

For more ideas on prereading activities that can activate a child’s prior knowledge, see Beers, K., When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003. This book, by the way, is one of the best I have read about how to teach reading—useful ideas that have been tested by teachers.

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