Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing—writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing—writing that helps students increase their comprehension of texts in all disciplines. The 2000 report of the National Reading Panel states, “Teaching students to use …writing to organize their ideas about what they are reading is a proven procedure that enhances comprehension of the text.” Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading, a report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation (2010), listed that the #1 core instructional practice effective in improving student reading is to “have students write about the texts they read.” Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the first in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.
“Open your novels, and start reading chapters 1 and 2.”
“Open your textbooks to page 104 and begin reading the chapter.”
“Here is an article on deep sea diving. Read it, and then we will discuss.”
How many times have students heard these directions, opened their books, and drifted off or read on automatic pilot, surprised when they arrived at the end, or even employed “fake reading”? Or when motivated to actually read, read with little comprehension, word after word, to get to the end. As readers, they employed no background knowledge, no map, and no purpose.
Before-reading (or preview) response is crucial to activate prior knowledge, helping readers to make sense of new information and construct meaning from text. Also, before-reading response prompts readers to set personal purposes for reading. Activating prior knowledge and setting a purpose for reading are considered two of the most valuable reading strategies.
A preview response is a reflection based on previewing or skimming an upcoming text, focusing on text features, such as titles, authors, pictures, illustrations, subtitles, graphics—features that differ based on the text being previewed. Response can be oral or, more effectively, written. In a preview response readers make inferences about, and predictions of, what will be read, and such response can be effectively implemented in all disciplines with all texts.
For example, in English-Language Arts, students are given, or select, a novel. The teacher takes them though preview steps:
1a. Look at the front cover: the title and any subtitles, the author’s name, any artwork or pictures.
1b. Write down whatever you are thinking, feeling, predicting, or questioning.
2a. Look at the back cover and any inside flap, and read the excerpt or summary, any reviews.
2b. Continue your response, adding to or revising any previous thoughts.
3a. Read one page, noting author’s style, tone, word choice and complexity, reading level.
3b. Add to your response, modifying any speculations.
The class attempts #1 together, orally:
“The Giver. Seems like a person who gives something to someone else or is giving something to a lot of other people. I wonder what he gives.”
“I see an old man. Maybe someone is giving something to him.”
“Or maybe he is the Giver.”
“The man looks like Santa Claus. Maybe this book is about the origin of Santa Claus.”
“He doesn’t look real happy. He looks kind of worried. And pretty old.”
“There is an award. It must be a good book—or well-written.”
“The corner looks torn, like we are peeling back and looking in at something.”
“Oh, yeah. Is that a sunset or a fire? It’s orange and the only color on the cover.”
“The author is Lois Lowry. She wrote the novel we read in sixth grade, Number the Stars! Maybe this book is about the Holocaust.”
The novel is not about the Holocaust, but that doesn’t matter; readers have been activating prior knowledge about the author and her writing style and giving themselves another purpose for reading—to find out if this novel is set during the Holocaust.
Ceire wrote an Anticipation Response to Angela’s Ashes, a memoir she selected to read individually:
The picture on the cover looks like a poor little Irish boy, and I don’t read many books about Irish people. I’m not sure why since I have a lot of questions about my heritage. I wonder if the author will talk about the potato famine. Or maybe it has something to do with the IRA. I wonder what part of Ireland the author is from, or if he’s even from Ireland. I am pretty sure he is; his last name is McCourt. Maybe the book has something to do with the Holocaust. I don’t know if the Irish had much to do with the Holocaust but the title makes me think of the gas chambers.
Ceire has activated background knowledge on Ireland, Irish names, the potato famine, IRA, and the Holocaust, and has many questions that facilitate setting multiple purposes for reading. She also attempted to connect the new reading to past classroom readings on The Troubles of Northern Ireland and the Holocaust, an important brain-based learning strategy.
Preview responses can be employed in other disciplines with new material, such as beginning a new textbook chapter or reading an informational article. Students can browse the text features—title, subtitles, pictures, graphics, and any material or terms that stand out—and make inferences, predictions, and connections, activating any prior knowledge and setting purposes to read. Preview response to nonfiction and informational text is valuable in all disciplines.
As an example, for a new textbook chapter students are given preview response directions:
- Skim (preview) the upcoming chapter, only looking at text features, such as
— The title and subheadings
— Photographs, illustrations, and cartoons
— Charts, graphs, timelines, and maps
— Any bolded or italicized terms
- Choose 3–4 items, words, phrases, or graphics that capture your attention
- Write a 5-minute Preview Response, incorporating any prior or background knowledge you have, or think you have (you may have none), showing what you are thinking, anticipating, inferring, predicting about the topic, asking any questions of the text, and making any connections to previous learning. There are no wrong responses.
- You may write informally, but legibly; this is not an essay. Use “opinion” words—I am thinking, I predict, possibly, could be…
An example is a response written by an eighth grade science student when previewing a chapter on “Solutions” in the textbook Physical Science. This response focuses on the chapter title, a picture, a diagram, and a subheading from the beginning of the chapter:
When I look at the title “Solutions,” I think of a homogeneous mixture because solutions dissolve things like sugar, etc., and have the same composition mixture throughout the whole thing. For example, when I make tea, the sugar molecules mix throughout the water equally. In Section 1 I see a picture of a hummingbird drinking the hummingbird juice. I think of the sugar and the food color combining together and going throughout the water and being equal. That’s how I know it’s a solution. I notice a diagram of a cube and the words “Calculate surface area,” I wonder what that has to do with solutions. I see the subheading “Temperature,” and the word reminds me of how temperature affects many things, like things dissolving in solutions, speeding up or slowing down the process of the molecules breaking down in water.
A sixth grade class read news articles about the Civil Rights Movement. They were first asked to scan the title, subtitles, and any photographs and captions of their articles. They were then to choose two or three of these text features and write a response, previewing the article. Jolee wrote a response based on the article title, a picture, and a subtitle.
When reading the title “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last March,” I remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Also in the picture, on the signs the people are carrying, it says, “I am a man,” and I know that sometimes in the past African-Americans weren’t counted as people, so this is a big protest. What was this march about? The subtitle “Black City Workers Suffer Injustice” makes me ask, How were the workers treated with injustice? Were they beat or not paid or was it that they were given too much work and not enough pay? I don’t know what this march was about, but I want to find out.
Jolee’s teacher can ascertain from her response that she has some prior knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement and the history of black men in America; Jolee’s inferences will lead to connections and critical thinking as she reads the article, and her questions will allow her to set a purpose for reading.
In math class students scan the upcoming textbook chapter and predict if they are going to be taking a familiar concept one step further or they are going to learn a new mathematical concept. Students might note new symbols; greater numbers; longer, more complex word problems; the introduction of graphics; or new academic terms in the subheadings. When readers note the familiar, they activate prior knowledge; when they note something new, they have questions and set purposes for reading.
Preview response also facilitates students’ anticipation of what they are about to read. One teacher reported that after his sixth grade boys wrote a preview response about the upcoming science chapter, they couldn’t wait to start reading to see if they were “right.” He heard murmurs of “Yes! I knew that!” as they commenced reading the chapter.
Teaching students to write a before-reading response promotes previewing text to be read and entering the text with more engagement and motivation, leading to increased, and in some cases, deeper comprehension through the curriculum.