This year I discussed with colleagues old and new whether to pre-read texts with students prior to study. The status quo of my training was to read the entirety of the text with the students in-class. Any pre-reading would be set as homework a chapter at a time. If you read almost any scheme of work on the TES, this practice seems still dominant.
Right now, my ideal is to provide students, from middle school onwards, a week or so to read the text independently. After that, I judiciously teach them a plot synopsis, discussing points of prediction as we move through the narrative together. The readers in the class will have finished the book, and those who haven’t read the text will likely not finish it independently, especially if, like some UK schools, modules are planned to provide 14 hours or so of teaching from start to finish, assessments included.
So to reword my claim, to simply read an entire text in class is a use of time we must question. A typical young adult novel, for example, can easily take eight hours to read, and that is without comprehension checks or essential discussion. If some students are not capable of reading the text independently in a week at home, then they would require substantial in-class directed reading time to ensure equivalent understanding with those who can. That is a dubious philosophy if we are to include the most able in the non-selective classroom. Of course, expert in-class reading is utterly essential, but this ambition is best served if the students know the story arc and genre expectations before in-class reading experiences begin.
At this point we need to acknowledge the reality that in some schools almost all students would not read independently, lacking both the personal concentration and support needed to read at length at home. I would also hazard a guess that in some of those schools, there are a fair number of teachers suffer the same – people who admit to not being able to finish books, difficult or otherwise. Shocking really. In those environments, a task-based approach is probably taken, albeit with the masterful skill to get essentially dysfunctional students who struggle with minimal expectations of behaviour and thought to do anything. I have been there before I qualified formally. Instead, I intend to continue teaching in schools where the institution expects the students to at least attempt all tasks expected. In those places, as my classroom has always been, difficult thought and powerful knowledge are baseline expectations, not lofty aims.
To those teachers fortunate enough to work those institutions, the ambition underscoring the pre-reading of texts is to approach the text as a narrative whole. With the teacher as the expert and wise navigator, students are taught what to notice: I think literature education is essentially about increasing the amount and intensity of conditions that students are able to notice. The nearest example of to this approach in the British AQA GCSE English language system is the ‘structure question’: something perhaps better termed as ‘the narrative question’. The question is flawed in that students are expected to read a 500-word extract in 5-8 minutes, and then plan and compose a written response in a further 10 minutes. The best thing I can say about this frantic requirement of action is that it is utilitarian: the weakest are not penalised for writing too little, while the best are hampered in how much they can write. Some invisible middle produces fragments of understanding to attain average marks. I say fragments of understanding because to absorb and consider the narrative choices of an extract in such a brief time does not really seem to acknowledge what whole-text appreciation is about. Instead this seems to be about noticing the artefacts of structure: is it first person? Is there a tone change? Can you identify sentence types? A number is given, students move on, and the essential experience of narrative is buffeted aside.
Another issue of not prioritising the analysis of narrative structure is our need to acknowledge that thought and experience are not linear: we do not separate our thoughts into subject, verb, object. The postmodernists knew this. However, writing itself is linear, at least in its creation. To represent the non-linear in a linear format is massively complex, and not really something you can teach without offering many situated examples from difficult essays. To do this in 15 minutes would challenge even Bloom and Amis, and not in a good way.
Another more fundamental in-class issue of not pre-reading a text occurs when studying plays. One example of this would be in An Inspector Calls. My students used to analyse Sheila at the end of Act 1 in close detail, but by the time we reach the end in our read-as-we-go-along philosophy those threads of character development would fade in a ‘let’s analyse everything later’ denouement or ‘create a character sheet’ independent task. Again, this is another example of how close analysis of language in plays is a flawed emphasis, and that tracking threads of conflict should be prioritised.
What would pre-reading in the KS5 classroom look like?
So if we are to promote a pre-reading culture in the literature classroom, what would it look like? As I lead our Key Stage 5 literature curriculum, we are seeking to establish pre-reading of the text in advance (every parent contacted prior to summer, students briefed and tasked face-to-face in advance). Some points:
1) We will quiz students, both digitally and analogue, with a support class after school at the end of the week for students not completing that reading sufficiently. Textual comprehension can be flawed if the students do not experience the text when reading, with important details becoming failed abstractions: that is a problem that can be addressed with practice and in-class discussion. When students are ignorant of basic plot points, though, then such minimum expectations must be tackled early and a culture of reading-as-discipline must be established. Whilst tiresome, and in some places impossible, this must happen.
2) Almost all, if not all, lessons will offer a recorded pre-reading time from our personalised study guides from which students will consider extracts and discussion questions. The lessons will therefore adopt a rhythm of didactic instruction to provide contextual frames of reference, and constructivist dialectic whereby students will hopefully argue abstraction into meaning. Socratic dialogue and expert teacher knowledge should aim to foreground the opinions of the best readers and to include the earnest strugglers as responsive to the classroom discourse. Above all, these lessons need to be meaningful, disciplined, and purposeful.
3) Together with this pre-reading time, we will offer a parallel program of enrichment reading which the very best and most earnest readers will enjoy, and in which all are included. Again, these are essays from Bloom, suggested readings and even places to visit and experiences to be had (visit Betty’s in York if you read Austen, for example!).
What criticism of pre-reading are righteous?
There are righteous criticisms of pre-reading that should be addressed. Firstly, there is the concern that students will not enjoy being told a plot synopsis of a text. Secondly, there is the fear that students will not experience the empowered excitement, the shared construction and negotiation of meaning that can come from in-class shared reading. To address both, I would guide you to reread Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, a great summary of the best in-class reading practices as of 2018.
Firstly, if students are to be given a plot synopsis, they must have time in advance to read the text. I said earlier that we should give students (Key Stage 3/Middle School) a week to do this, reasonably expecting two hours of reading a week for average student reading speed of 200 words per minute. That will total approximately 2500 words per week. Therefore, we should expect it to take two comfortable weeks for a competent student reader with usual demands on their time. If a student has not read the text in this time, then it is wise for them to be given a plot synopsis so that in-class teaching and discussion can cover the whole text. For those rare students who are passionate readers but struggle with very low reading speeds and comprehension, it can be professional to list a reasonable number of pages to read in this time with a general framework to contextualise them (50 pages, for example). For the plot synopsis to be fit-for-purpose, it should be delivered alongside a range of questions that require prediction (what might X feel about this? What might she do to Y as a result?). It is that co-construction of meaning and accessing of genre expectations that make the synopsis stick. Indeed, it is such discussion that confirms and confounds genre expectations in the first place.
Secondly, students must read key scenes in-class as a class. Ideally, those scenes must contain structural conflict or significance. Lemov says that we must provide successful experiences with difficulty for our students: to throw difficult Victorian literature at weak readers with no framing or modelling of inferences is lazy at best and debilitating at worst. As Lemov says, the teacher should employ expertly responsive pedagogy in that reading, judging whether to cover the entire text first, whether to read in a linear fashion with pauses, or whether to range a series of symbols or key points. Modelling an idiosyncratic and responsive reading approach with these basic tools is the height of literature teaching; yet to model such in-class reading is difficult and time-consuming. To do so for a 50,000 Key Stage 3 text would take 30-40 hours plus, and risks leading to the fatigue and the entropy of already diminished attention of students in 2018.
Finally, reading texts just to read them, or sharing readings just to share them is both worthy and noble. Terminal assessments should not lead our thought or ambition. Much of education, especially in literature and the humanities, is an ongoing process that requires much subconscious thought and reflective experience. Occasionally reading whole texts in-class without explicit study is ideologically sound (and, for me, entirely desirable). Pragmatically, though, providing students with many expert and sharp reading experiences that reinforce established whole-text expectations is more likely to lead to thought, and therefore learning, whatever that might be.
In the drops of time we share in class, expecting the pre-reading of texts is a foundation upon which I want my students to build their craft.
Lemov, Doug, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway. 2016. Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction. John Wiley & Sons.