The reader's task prior to reading is to activate his or her prior knowledge of the topic, to prepare the mind to interact with the new information contained in the text. Schema is another term for the prior knowledge base each reader possesses about a topic. Schema is a network of concepts, experiences, and associations that students bring to their interactions with the printed page.
Rather than just "diving in cold" and reading word by word with eyes tending to glaze over, skilled readers, like skilled athletes, ready themselves for the task. As an athlete prepares to exercise by doing warm-up exercises, so does a reader "warm up" the mind. Each textbook reading experience does not have to be an arduous and frustrating exercise if students realize that they possess some knowledge already and that this text material will augment what they already know.
Tasks of the Before-Reading Stage
In the before-reading stage, the teacher can use tasks and follow strategies to motivate students to engage in the reading process. One way to motivate students is to help them to activate their prior knowledge of the topic (schema). In general, the teacher can help students create a focus for their reading efforts, to set a purpose for the reading.
Strategies to Activate Prior Knowledge
The teacher can do much in the classroom to prepare students for their readings. Prior to class, the teacher can anticipate student needs by:
Previewing the chapter and determining which concepts are essential.
Reading over the material with an eye to student needs. How much foundation building will the students need to understand these concepts?
Asking "Where are the trouble spots in this chapter?"
Noting resources offered by the text, such as the glossary, list of objectives, margin notations, and end-of-chapter summaries and questions.
In class the teacher can help to build a bridge between information which is "known" and information which is "new." To build a bridge between known and new, the teacher can:
Review what has been learned to date.
Ask "What do we already know?" For example, in a business text's chapter on global business, recall that the previous chapter dealt with "U.S. Business."
Ask questions to draw on students' life experiences: "Do you know any companies that operate worldwide?"
"What problems do you think an American company might have overseas?"
Use the table of contents of the text to put the new topic in context.
Link new material to concept maps or webs of material learned previously.
Reviewing known material brings to the surface the knowledge that the students already possess; it establishes a "platform" for the new information. Students get the sense that they bring something to the task.
A second in-class strategy that the teacher can encourage students to employ is to look ahead, to survey a chapter or other reading. Looking ahead is similar to looking at a road map before taking a trip; it prepares the mind. To look ahead…
Skim through the chapter or section. Look at subheadings, pictures, and graphic representations to get an idea of what is coming.
Anticipate. Encourage students to write down their predictions of the concepts they will be learning and, afterwards, to compare their predictions with what they actually encountered.
A third in-class strategy involves questioning:
What do we want to know from this reading?
Take the chapter title and subheadings and turn them into questions, to focus the mind and create a reading goal.
Forming questions or predictions about the upcoming reading helps to create a focus for the student during the reading, so the student doesn't just stare aimlessly at the words on a page. Questions make the reading more active and purposeful.
As a fourth strategy, students can benefit from the use of K-W-L Charts to log their interactions with a reading (Vacca & Vacca, 1996, pp. 211-217). A K-W-L Chart is a table on which students can record their prior knowledge and new learning from their reading experience. K-W-L stands for the following three questions:
K = What do I know already about this topic?
W = What do I want to know?
L = What did I learn from this reading?
The first two questions are completed in the before-reading stage. The third question is completed in the after-reading stage.
A fifth in-class strategy helps students to build vocabulary and new concepts:
Prior to a reading assignment, introduce new concepts and vocabulary that the students will encounter in the reading.
For more details on vocabulary-building ideas, see the SEA Site module, Reading and Writing in Content Areas.
Students need overt instruction and practice in the before-reading tasks and strategies discussed above in order for those tasks and strategies to become part of their repertoire of study skills. It helps if the teacher can model the process and then encourage students to work in groups to practice. This "scaffolding" of strategy instruction helps students internalize the skills, so they will develop the ability to use them independently. Keep in mind that "to control the process, readers must understand the process" (Smith, 1995).