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Pre-Reading: Is This Necessary?

What is pre-reading?

In a Charlotte Mason education, each student’s academic year leans heavily on reading and narrating living books. To “pre-read” a book, the teacher will read it ahead of the student, marking words which may need further explanation, noting places which might need locating on a map or globe, making notes for context, etc. It is also commonly referred to as “preparing a reading”.

What is often done in pre-reading or preparing a reading?

  • connection questions/prompts which allow students to better connect prior knowledge to new knowledge are created

  • unknown words are listed or marked, including words which may need attention in pronunciation

  • locations or places mentioned in the book are listed

  • notes or flags for slurs and disparaging words/phrases are made

  • historical notes or other notes of importance pertaining to the chapter/book are written

  • picture study suggestions which may spark student interest are found

  • suggestions for resource support –for example, an audio of a trumpeter swan call for students to listen are added

  • narration breaks/pauses –a place in the chapter where a teacher may stop reading to give students a break are suggested

  • narration prompts offering students multiple, varied options for narrating are given

  • follow-up discussion questions/prompts which offer teachers and students suggestions for deeper discussion, especially about great ideas, are offered

Is all of this to be done for every chapter/reading of every book?

No. No, most pre-reading may include 2-3 of these elements, but certainly not all of them. Some of the most important ones include: connection prompts, words to know, locations to find, notes for historical context and notes for slurs. Most everything else can be added as they best apply and even the aforementioned should only be included when needed.

What should teachers guard against? Is there such as thing as “over-preparing” the lesson?

Yes, it is possible to “over-prepare” a lesson or reading. Teachers should certainly guard against spending more time getting ready to read a chapter then reading the chapter itself. They should definitely be careful not to interfere with what the child takes from the reading.

Here are some thoughts on what NOT to do:

  • When creating connection prompts, don’t give away what was read in the last reading –this is what the students should do. Ask general questions, such as share what you know of [insert major character/major event] from the last chapter. Ask questions as they fit the previous chapter which stimulate memory and interest such as, “Is Mr. Cob a good father?” [A question which follows a chapter in which Mr. Cob shows what a good father he is.] It’s important not to summarize what happened in the previous chapter or what will happen in the new chapter for students. Sometimes, if students are particularly young, stating the title of the previous chapter/poem or reviewing an illustration may help students recall the last reading. Follow the review of the previous chapter with a simple statement about what students will hear/read today. This will allow students to better connect prior knowledge to new knowledge. For example, you might say: "Share of what you know of castles". After a brief share, follow with: "Today we will learn more of castles". You can also allow students to predict what the new chapter might be about based on its chapter title.

  • Don’t spend too much time on unknown words. Students –especially younger ones– don’t need to look up a large list of words in the dictionary and write out their definitions. This is not why these words are listed. Simply pick out any that you think your specific students might need to better understand so that their ability to follow the story/reading is not hindered. Have a brief discussion about what the word[s] mean and move on. You might also prefer to write the words on a board and point out to students that they will come across these as they read/listen. If after seeing the word in context they still are confused about the meaning, then they can be further discussed.

  • It is not necessary to look up every place mentioned in a chapter or reading, but looking up some can often help students better follow the journey of a character if they have some idea of where they are “in the world” and where they are going. Directions are often forgotten, but can be essential in understanding the movements of a historical person. For example, when a historical figure is said to be in [insert location] but then travels east to [insert new location], students will have no idea what this looks like unless they spend time tracing this on a globe or map. Later, and after some practice with this concept, this may no longer need to be included in a pre-reading.

  • If catching stereotypes, slurs and other derogatory language is important to you, then pre-reading will help. I’ve often be surprised –even after reading a book for a second time– how language was used in older books. We love Understood Betsy, but there are a couple of times where her aunt is referred to as “fat” –sometimes in very unflattering words. I want to be prepared for these words. Hence –preparing the reading. Some teachers and parents are better at editing “on the fly” than others. But, I’d boldly venture to guess, that editing entirely “on the fly” does not always go perfectly –even for the best of us. It’s certainly easier when that has already been done.

How important is pre-reading?

Every family is different, so pre-reading amounts will vary according to each one. Some families do not pre-read. Some families do some pre-reading, depending on the books, levels, student’s needs, etc. Some families prefer for all books –except books set aside for free reading or pleasure reading– to be pre-read.

It’s important for each individual teacher/parent to decide what makes them the very best teacher that they can be. This will look different for everyone. Some educators forewarn against pre-reading, suggesting that it borders on taking over the lesson too much, imparting what the teacher wishes students to know over what they might take from the book for themselves. This is definitely to be guarded against. Simply reading the books in advance has little danger to offer in this area, but can offer tremendous rewards. Knowing the full account of what students are reading is always beneficial to teachers. It is the pre-reading notes which are then presented to students to “prepare” them for the reading where the potential for danger lies. Teachers can “over-prepare” students by leaning too heavily on these notes, digging in too deeply and giving them too much time and weight. This will overshadow what the book offers. But, a careful teacher can certainly put forth just enough so that students are given all possible opportunities to connect to the books, unimpeded, yet not have ideas not of their own pushed upon them.

Charlotte Mason did not want teachers to come between the student and the book, but this was largely based on books which she had chosen carefully –books which could be relied upon to impart knowledge in a captivating and memorable manner. If we apply this same idea to the books we use today, then we must be careful that they too are able to stand on their own -as hers did. If we are substituting modern living books into the curriculum, then this type of built-in safety net may not be as reliable. Preparing the readings for these books may help ensure they offer what Charlotte Mason expected.

In School Education, Charlotte Mason wrote: “The teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils’ mental activity” (180-181). She also wrote: “Our part is to remove obstructions and to give stimulus and guidance to the child who is trying to get into touch with the universe of things and thoughts which belongs to him” (18). From these quotes, we know that she found value in teachers being prepared. What “being prepared” looks like can include pre-reading.

How should I pre-read?

There are many different ways to pre-read. Certainly, choose whatever method works best for you. Some teachers use notecards, post-it notes, bookmarks or even write in the margins of the books themselves. Other teachers write their notes on a separate sheet of paper. Ebooks can be highlighted or notes inserted. Simply read and make note of what you think would be important to clarify for your students before you read it aloud to them or they read it for themselves.

What can I do if I don’t have time to pre-read?

Homeschool parents are busy; they are essentially handling two types of work at once: educating and parenting. If you are already overwhelmed, then consider these ideas: a) pre-read with the first child and use these notes for children who follow; b) pre-read only what is essential; c) buy teaching guides in which the pre-reading work is already done for you or d) divide books up between other homeschool parents, assigning 1-2 each to be pre-read, and share resources.

Pre-reading: Is it necessary?

From my perspective, it is necessary, but I certainly respect that others can achieve a quality Charlotte Mason education for their children without it. I value it a great deal –so much so, that I created the teaching guides and curriculum that you can find at the website. All of the guides include what I would have wanted to know before sharing a book with any one of my two daughters. It is my best effort to help homeschool families achieve a Charlotte Mason education, because I truly believe that her principles and methods give all children the best attempt at a superior education while still allowing them to be true to themselves.


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