ERWC: Designing Prereading Activities

Once you have chosen a text to build a module around, read it carefully with students in mind. A technical writing book I have used in the past (Technical Writing: A Reader-Centered Approach, by Paul Anderson) advises writers to “make a mental movie” of their readers reading their document. How will they respond to each part while they read? This is also good advice for assessing texts you are going to teach. Imagine your weakest and strongest students reading the text. What words will they stumble over? What concepts will require some background knowledge to grasp?

Another important concept is what I call the “effort to benefit ratio.” If the text is very difficult, how will students feel after they put in the effort required to comprehend it? Does the struggle have a big payoff? Will students feel proud that they have read and understood this text? Or will they feel like they wasted their time? And of course, you should also think about how you can scaffold the text to reduce the difficulty. How much scaffolding you provide depends on the students and on the text. Scaffolding should also be in the form of strategies that students can internalize and transfer to new texts and situations.

The ERWC Assignment Template is designed to facilitate the development of a sequence of activities that will help students interact productively with a text, to read it, think about it, use it, and write about it. However, after working with the template for a while, I developed an outline form of it that I used as a sort of cheat sheet when writing modules. That cheat sheet eventually turned into “Appendix A” in the new Common Core-aligned version of the full template (page 33). I will use the “Appendix A” version in these module-writing posts.

I will use Michael Kinsley’s Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Mayor Bloomberg’s war on soda: Why does New York’s mayor want you to stop guzzling sugary drinks?” as the basis for this discussion. We have used this article in several ERWC professional development sessions. I usually divide the participants up into several groups according to the major sections of the Assignment Template and ask them to design activities for their section. They quickly find that they need to send runners to other groups, especially the one working on the writing assignment, to design their activities effectively. This article has several debatable issues embedded in it, and should be appealing to high school students.

Getting Ready to Read

The first cell in the template is called “Getting Ready to Read.” The cheat sheet question for this cell is “What could students do to help access background knowledge relevant to the text?”

Students should have an easy time getting into the soda banning article. Many schools have banned soda sales on campus. Students are likely to be somewhat aware of controversies about the health effects of drinking soda. One possible activity might be to have a discussion starting with two questions: “What do you know about the health effects of drinking soda? How do you know it?” This could start out as a “T” chart with the first question on the left and the second on the right. After students have filled out the chart, they can share them with a partner or a small group to see if there is agreement about the facts. The “How do you know it?” question could lead to discussions of sources and authorities, and might lead to some internet searches to find more information. They may also find out that Bloomberg’s attempt to ban large servings of soda was eventually defeated in court.

When teachers respond to the ERWC curriculum, they sometimes complain that some of the texts are “dated” and need to be replaced. Any curriculum based on Op-Ed pieces and expository texts will have this problem to an extent. However, in most cases, as in this case, the article is not really dated at all. First, it does not matter for our purposes that Bloomberg’s ordinance was defeated in court. The core issue—the extent to which a government should attempt to protect citizens from unhealthy decisions—remains. It is not as if one court can decide this issue once and for all. Second, the rhetorical situation and the rhetorical strategies deployed by the author remain interesting and useful to analyze. Our purpose is teach strategies and enhance skills, not to teach the latest information on the issue at hand.

Exploring Key Concepts

The cheat sheet questions for this section are “What important concepts or questions in the text should students think about before reading it? What tasks or activities would help them focus on these concepts?”

Our previous activity, “What do you know about the health effects of drinking soda and how do you know it?” has already introduced some important concepts. The other concept, which has been mentioned in this discussion but has not been introduced to the students, is how much government should protect its citizens from bad decisions. Do we want to live in a so-called “nanny state”? What would that mean?

Here it might be useful to have a discussion of the many ways that laws limit our freedom. We have

  • Speed limits and traffic laws
  • Age limits for buying tobacco products, alcohol, and spray paint
  • Noise ordinances
  • Laws against indecent exposure
  • Anti-smoking laws

Are these laws similar to Bloomberg’s Big Gulp soda ban? Students may decide that in the other cases, one person’s actions may cause harm to others, but in the soda case, the harm only comes to the person who decides to drink the Big Gulp. Of course, that point is debatable too. We also have laws against suicide. Is drinking soda a slow form of suicide?

The important point is that we want students to be thinking and talking about the issues relevant to the text before they read the text.

Surveying the Text

The cheat sheet question here is “What do you want students to notice in or about the text before they read?”

In a short article like this one, without subheads, there is not much to survey beyond the title, the author, and the length. In a longer work, such as a novel, surveying the text is an important step. In the 1984 module, I asked them to flip through the book to see what they noticed. What they usually notice in such a flip test are the large bold slogans “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength.” Other slogans are “Big Brother is Watching” and “Down with Big Brother.” A discussion of what these slogans might mean is a useful introduction to the book. In Brave New World, I asked them to

Examine your copy of the book, and make note or discuss the following:

  • What, if anything, is on the cover?
  • What does the cover art mean?
  • Are there any blurbs from reviewers or critics on the back or the front? Are there pictures?
  • Is there a summary of the novel on the flyleaf (if present)?
  • Is there a short biography of the author or other explanatory materials?
  • Is there a Foreword or an Afterword? Who wrote them? Do you think you should read them? If so, when?
  • How is the book divided? Are there chapters?

The Into the Wild module asks students to do similar things and then to read the “Author’s Note.” One of the goals of the ERWC is to instill in students the habits and strategies of fluent academic readers. What would such a reader do before reading such a text? That is the guiding question for this section.

Making Predictions and Asking Questions

The cheat sheet question for this section is “How can you help students make meaningful predictions or assumptions about the content or arguments of the text before they read?”

Making predictions about what the text is going to be about, the stance of the author toward the issue, the way the arguments will be developed, and the way the text will be organized are all things fluent readers do, both consciously and unconsciously. Less fluent readers often make less useful predictions, such as “The text will be difficult,” or “The text will be boring.” However, the activities we have done so far with this text have probably already initiated a lot of speculation about what it will be like.

With a short text like this one, I might have the students read the first paragraph and stop. Kinsley writes

The basic case against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest crusade — to outlaw the sale of extra-large sugared soft drinks — is Libertarianism 101: In a free country, people should have the right to do what they want, even if it’s bad for them.

This short paragraph presents one of the basic arguments of the text: government should not prevent people from doing what they want, even if it is unwise. However, students might not know what “Libertarianism” is, and they may not know that in college the number “101” usually indicates an introductory course. If the reader has this knowledge, the meaning of the reference is clear; if the reader doesn’t, it is baffling. Op-Ed writers tend to toss off humorous references of this sort quite freely. When such a reference connects with the reader, it makes him or her feel like an insider, in on the joke. When the reader is puzzled by such a reference, the opposite occurs. It is as if the bouncer at the door of the night club is saying, “Sorry, you don’t meet the dress code.” One of the main functions of the kind of scaffolding we do in ERWC is to prevent this sort of blockage from happening.

Because Libertarianism is increasing in prominence in our society, and because its basic principles are relevant to the main issues of this text, some exploration of the concept, depending on the nature of the student population, may be in order.

One effect of making predictions is the creation of a desire to see if the predictions are right. This desire is the main force that propels a reader through a text. Without predictions, the reader will not be engaged in the text. In this case, the question the reader has might be “Is this writer in favor of banning large sodas?” The answer, based on the title and the first paragraph, is probably “no.” However, it is never quite that simple.

Understanding Key Vocabulary

The cheat sheet question for this section is “What words in the text are crucial to understanding, yet might be difficult for some students? How can you help students learn these words?”

The writer of this article assumes that he is writing for a newspaper-reading, college-educated audience that is interested in politics. The vocabulary level is fairly high. What words you choose to focus on depends on several factors including

  • How crucial is the word to an understanding of the text?
  • How useful is the word in reading other similar texts?
  • How familiar is the general vocabulary of the text to the student population you are targeting?

For example, “libertarian” is crucial to this text, while “sop,” in “a sop to my dignity,” in paragraph four, is not. The word “sop” is archaic, not particularly common, and so I would not emphasize it much. The following words and phrases, however, are both crucial and useful:

  1. Secondhand smoke (Someone is smoking, but others in the area breathe the smoke)
  2. Pharmaceutical drug (A medical drug sold by a pharmacy)
  3. Less-intrusive alternatives (A different way that doesn’t bother people as much)
  4. Outright ban (Completely prohibited without exceptions)
  5. Compelling (Sometimes “forcing,” but in this case “persuasive” or “convincing”)
  6. Majority owner (The one who owns the most stock in the company, more than 50%)
  7. Obesity epidemic (Large numbers of people who weigh more than doctors think they should)
  8. Evade (Escape or dodge)
  9. Entertainment venues (Theaters, night clubs, and other places where people go to be entertained)
  10. Loopholes (Originally, holes in the wall of a fortress to shoot arrows through. Now, a provision in a law that lets some people not obey it)
  11. Guzzling (Noisily drinking large quantities)
  12. Nannying (Taking care of children)
  13. Mandates (Things that must be done)
  14. Far-fetched (Unrealistic)
  15. Stigmatize (To single out a particular quality, characteristic, or behavior such as smoking or gambling and treat people badly because of it)
  16. Absolutists (People who make no compromises)
  17. Trivial (Unimportant)
  18. Authoritarian (A person or government that tells people what to do and what not to do)

Putting the words and phrases in a list and having students study and memorize canned definitions before reading is NOT the best way to encourage vocabulary development. Students acquire vocabulary by having various experiences with the words. Seeing a word in a list is not much of an experience. However, you might show the students the list and say “As your read the article, you may encounter some words and phrases that are unfamiliar to you. Some of them might be on this list. It is normal for readers to encounter unfamiliar words and phrases. That is how they start to become familiar. Underline words and phrases that are unfamiliar. Check the list to see if the definition helps. If the word is not on the list, add it and ask about it.”

More strategies and activities for prereading, reading, and postreading can be found in Appendix C of the Assignment Template (page 41).

In this particular article, one of the biggest problems is the ironic tone. We will deal with that in the next section.

4 thoughts on “ERWC: Designing Prereading Activities

  1. Matt B.

    Dr. Edlund,

    I really enjoy reading your posts on ERWC modules. The posts are loaded with tons of practical tools and insights that are easily transferable to other (non-ERWC) learning environments. It seems like one of the recurring tools built into ERWC modules is strategic planning. Has there been any work done where teachers using ERWC modules record their expectations/learning outcomes and then record the outcomes at the end of the module? I can’t remember if the ERWC includes space for this work in the modules, but it would be interesting to see compiled data reflecting the accuracy with which teachers were able to anticipate their students’ success and shortcomings in a given ERWC module.

    1. guitarsophist


      In the i3 study and in the Professional Learning sessions, there has been time for reflecting on teaching. However, although student reflection is built into the modules, teacher reflection is not overtly included.

      I am glad you are finding these useful, and that you are posting comments. Comments are useful, but most visitors don’t post.

      I am working on another micro module built around an article about the NASA Messenger probe, which is currently in orbit around Mercury, but soon to crash into the surface. ERWC has been talking about branching out into science teaching.

  2. John,
    I really liked the the question of the payoff for students, a sort of cost-benefit analysis of the worth of the learning vs the effort to learn it. I haven’t thought of it that way before, but it really could be a big part of the motivation for reading. There are lots of great ideas in this section that I think module writers would benefit from. The vocabulary section struck me as a bit overwhelming, though; with nearly 20 words indispensable for students to know (yet we know they can’t absorb more than 6-8 in a week or so), how do we address that? Do you suggest glossing the text? Or is it enough to have more vocabulary added in with each reading or each cell?

    1. guitarsophist

      Mary, I set up the list as a sort of glossary: “As your read the article, you may encounter some words and phrases that are unfamiliar to you. Some of them might be on this list. It is normal for readers to encounter unfamiliar words and phrases. That is how they start to become familiar. Underline words and phrases that are unfamiliar. Check the list to see if the definition helps. If the word is not on the list, add it and ask about it.”

      My approach to vocabulary is to create multiple experiences of important words. Seeing a word in a list is an experience. Reading it multiple times in context is another set of experiences. Discussing a word with peers, perhaps helping another student begin to understand it, is another. None of these experiences in isolation is sufficient for a student to acquire a word, but together they add up to something significant.

      Do you think we should divide these words up into tiers or levels of difficulty or something like that? I usually don’t do that, but my approach to vocabulary is more intuitive than informed!

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