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February 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 5

Text Prep

Frontloading can address gaps in academic knowledge so students are prepared to read complex texts.

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What does it take to comprehend a complex disciplinary text in science, social studies, mathematics, technical subjects, or other disciplines? Many of our conversations these days have centered on close readings, text-based questioning, and evidence-based responding. But what if what you need to know for satisfactory comprehension isn't in the text?
Authors and readers depend on one another—each is expected to contribute some of what is necessary for comprehension. Texts would be interminably long if authors had to tell readers everything they need to know. In effect, the reader's task is to reach an understanding with the author, a "meeting of the minds." The result is a fusion of what an author says (text-based considerations) and what the reader brings as prior knowledge and experience (knowledge-based considerations).
Background knowledge has long been established as a make-or-break variable for reading comprehension. In their research synthesis of factors affecting comprehension, Alexander and Jetton termed knowledge as "the scaffold for text-based learning." Literacy researcher P. David Pearson described this dynamic as a virtuous cycle: "Knowledge begets comprehension begets knowledge."

Building Bridges

Although all students bring an amazing array of knowledge and experiences to the classroom, this knowledge base is diverse and may or may not be a match for the knowledge demands of disciplinary texts. Gaps in academic knowledge—of the topics, concepts, practices, and vocabulary at the core of learning a discipline—can stymie even concerted efforts to comprehend a complex disciplinary text.
Frontloading, the scaffolding that precedes the reading of complex texts, anticipates academic knowledge gaps and builds bridges between the knowledge students bring and the knowledge demands of a text. Frontloading does not negate the reader's responsibility to work a complex text to achieve understanding. Frontloading should not be a foretelling of what the text says before students read; that's the reader's job to figure out. Instead, frontloading sets the stage for successful comprehension by establishing how this text intersects with the specialized knowledge building that has been in progress during the study of the discipline.
Following are three approaches to frontloading that are of particular importance to reading complex disciplinary texts.

Provide a Refresher

Author references to previous learning are a constant in disciplinary texts. Some authors implant these reminders to prompt readers to connect new material with prior knowledge. Although authors may expect students to mentally refresh what they've learned, we cannot trust that this will happen. It's tempting for students to peremptorily glide over such references without thoughtful pauses to integrate the new with the known.
In particular, students who come to the text with academic knowledge gaps benefit from a meaningful review of prior learning. Unfortunately, when an oral review is conducted, the persons who least need more practice verbalizing understandings—the teacher and a handful of knowledgeable student volunteers—tend to do all the talking. Such reviews tend to be cursory; the momentum is to move on to the new material.
In contrast, effective reviews ensure that every student is engaged in activating and verbalizing previously learned content. In these reviews, all students verbalize what they already know by sharing with partners or in collaborative groups, rather than merely through whole-class listening and sporadic participation. What follows are some ways that students can examine their knowledge banks as a prelude to reading a text that extends, qualifies, or questions prior knowledge.
Quick writes. Quick writes are an easy, low-tech method of review frontloading. With a timer set at a modest expectation (say three minutes), students respond to an informal writing prompt touching on relevant content, such as, "A science word I connect to volcanoes is ___ because ___" or "A common mistake when balancing equations is ___, so it's important to ___."
Quick writes are subsequently read and discussed with partners or in groups to expand the review. Or students can record their quick writes on sticky notes, which can be circulated among several students for a silent review of what their classmates recalled, and later posted on a board. Alternatively, the notes can be organized and summarized as a group activity. Many teachers find quick writes to be great class starters or wrap-up activities for those few extra minutes at the end of class.
Knowledge maps. Another review method engages partners or small groups in generating significant terms affiliated with a central concept. Group members must explain each term and justify its significance to understanding the central concept.
In one variation, groups can create a knowledge map—a kind of concept map exhibiting at least five key terms or pieces of information related to the central concept. For example, for the core concept "aristocracy," students may attach words like elites, ancient Greeks, and inherited wealth in advance of studying the French Revolution. A class knowledge map can be constructed by soliciting items from each group, with the expectation that each item be explained and justified.
Frontloading activities such as these are not intended to devolve into look-up-and-copy Googling exercises. However, after groups have exhausted ideas through collaboration, allowing students to consult their notes and class materials to augment their maps reinforces the usefulness of these resources.

Spark the Conversation

One of the most valuable scaffolding resources students have is one another. Collaborative conversations are rich ways to pool available background knowledge on a topic. How you start these conversations is key.
Thought-provoking statements. Proposing thought-provoking statements gets the conversation rolling and disseminates background knowledge. For example, in a culinary arts class, the statement "organic foods are healthier than nonorganic foods" will likely lead to lively conversation. For this prompt, students create a T-chart and jot down at least two reasons for "yes" and two reasons for "no." Next, students elaborate on their two lists with partners or in groups and later in whole-group sharing. Student conversations could surface a number of relevant background-knowledge hits. Some students may interject comments about the use of pesticides or antibiotics, genetically modified foods, food-borne pathogens, cost and availability, controversies over organic labeling, and so forth.
Arguable statements that cannot be categorically resolved are especially intriguing conversation starters. Students must use the texts to locate evidence that does or does not support the statement. They must decide whether the evidence is sufficient and reliable, and determine the extent to which future inquiry and research can contribute to understanding this issue.
Prediction and anticipation guides. In a variation of thought-provoking frontloading, prediction and anticipation guides present four to six arguable statements. In Figure 1, students respond to statements about a unit on digestion.

Figure 1. Mythbusters: Truth or Myth? (Prediction and Anticipation Guide)

What does the evidence say? Place a check in the "Truth" column if you predict the statement can be supported by scientific evidence. Place a check in the "Myth" column if you predict the statement is not supported by scientific evidence. Share with your partner your reasons for checking "Truth" or "Myth" and any evidence behind your choice.

Text Prep - table



__________The "average" American overeats on Thanksgiving.
__________Overeating every once in a while is relatively harmless, as long as you compensate by eating less afterward.
__________A person may feel sleepy after a heavy Thanksgiving meal because turkey contains a chemical that makes one drowsy.
__________A stomach can expand to hold an average of about six cups of food during a single meal.
__________ If you eat too much, your stomach could burst.
__________A big meal can trigger a heart attack.
Notice that each statement is written as an argument—a conclusion, generalization, explanation, or interpretation. None is a straightforward statement of fact (even the 4th statement, which looks factual, is a generalization and needs qualification). Merely asking students to respond to fact statements encourages a dynamic of "do you know this piece of information," which can lead to skimming the text for answers rather than careful reading to locate evidence. Also notice that students' personal opinions are not solicited.
After individual deliberations, students meet with partners or in groups to share which statements might be supported by the research. When they read the text, students annotate it by numbering places where the author talks about each statement.
Afterward, students return to their partners or groups to negotiate which statements can be confirmed by the evidence, which should be rewritten to be consistent with the evidence, and which have conflicting evidence and cannot be confirmed or rejected. The whole class then "argues" each statement citing evidence from the text.

Predict Through Vocabulary Knowledge

A third frontloading approach engages students in examining and speculating about key vocabulary lifted from a text they will subsequently read. In a sense, they will preview the language—the academic discourse—crucial to comprehension.
Some of the words selected should be review terms, some should be important general vocabulary likely known to students, and some should be domain-specific vocabulary that will be introduced in the text.
Rather than merely telling students definitions of difficult vocabulary, this process engages students in exploring the possible relationships between the words, sharing current knowledge about known terms, and predicting possible meanings.
Exploring related words. One vocabulary-frontloading option involves developing two lists of key vocabulary terms used by an author. Column A should emphasize domain-specific vocabulary and new terms introduced by the author. Column B should contain words that most students know, including general words associated with the topic. For example, the vocabulary lists in Figure 2 prepare students to read a biology text.

Figure 2. Sample Vocabulary Lists

Text Prep - table 2

Column A

Column B

biotechnologyWoolly Mammoth
donor animalback to life
biodiversityliving things
preserved tissueendangered
Vocabulary frontloading is intended to be a team activity. Partners examine the two lists, talk over current knowledge about the words, and decide on a series of plausible pairs that make meaningful links. A pair must connect a word from column A with a word from column B using prior word knowledge and predictions and then provide a rationale for the connection.
For example, some students might pair extinct with Woolly Mammoth, as this animal is now extinct. Others may pair extinct with survive, as extinct animals have not survived, or extinct with endangered, as endangered animals could become extinct.
The goal is on-topic conversation that explores key language of the text and anticipates material that will be covered by the author.
Vocabulary previewing. A variation of vocabulary frontloading provides students with key terms in the order they appear in the text. Partners talk over the terms and then write a predictive paragraph using all terms and following the list's order. The sequence can suggest to students possible relationships between terms and help them theorize about potential meanings of unknown vocabulary. For example, the following is a succession of key terms for a social studies text: redistrict, undemocratic, gerrymander, favoritism, incumbent, legislature, voters, constituency, majority, political party, hard-core base, reform, bipartisan commission.
The author introduces two terms that are probably new to students—gerrymander and bipartisan commission. The rest are either review terms or words that are generally known. The order of the terms provides students with an impression of what the author will tell them.
Both vocabulary-frontloading practices sensitize students to be alert for how the author uses this language. Vocabulary frontloading is an excellent setup for students to practice using designated words to write a post-reading summary of the text.

Why Frontloading Matters

Frontloading practices should be segued into the ongoing flow of knowledge building within a discipline. The reading of a text, of course, should be situated within the natural progression of learning about topics within a discipline. Instructional activities that develop disciplinary knowledge—classroom inquiry, hands-on activity, student collaborations, teacher presentations, and interactions with multimedia—all prepare students to read complex texts by introducing concepts and providing a baseline for further learning.
Frontloading focuses on assumed knowledge—what an author expects readers to know—that can derail comprehension if it's not acquired. Frontloading provides much-needed scaffolding for students who come to our classrooms lacking access to academic knowledge in their out-of-school lives. Particularly promising are frontloading practices structured so that students can take advantage of one another as knowledge assets—an untapped resource in many classrooms.

EL Online

For a discussion of how to get readers to persist and read more, see the online article "Building Stamina for Struggling Readers and Writers" by Paula Bourque.

End Notes

1 Alexander, P. A., & Jetton, T. L. (2000). Learning from text: A multidimensional and developmental perspective. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 3, pp. 285–310). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

2 Alexander, P. A., & Jetton, T. L. (2000). Learning from text: A multidimensional and developmental perspective. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 3, pp. 285–310). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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