Two weeks ago I looked at one of the recommendations found in the Common Core Standards Publisher’s Criteria for Grades K-2 and 3-5, which attempt to lay out some guidelines for designing Standards-based reading curriculum. In addition to questioning strategy instruction, both Criteria also offer caveats against front-loading information or engaging students in pre-reading activities that provide them with access to a text’s ideas without actually grappling with the text itself.
Like the criteria about comprehension strategies, questioning front-loading is a ‘biggie,’ especially when it comes to providing background knowledge which students might not have. No less an expert than Doug Lemov, for instance, the author of the hugely popular Teach Like a Champion, cites pre-teaching background material as one of the techniques effective teachers use. “If students don’t really know what a Nazi is when they start reading ,” he writes as an example, “they’re not going to get what they need to out of Number the Stars or The Diary of Anne Frank.” And so he advocates providing students with that information before they crack open those books “because it prevents misunderstandings before they crop up rather than remediating them afterward.”
There are certainly times when I front-load information. I give students vocabulary words, for instance, when I want them to practice a particular kind of thinking without getting hung-up on unknown words—though more often I don’t because I want students to see and experience how they’re still able to construct meaning without knowing every word. But I’m not sure I ever front-load information to circumvent misunderstandings because I believe that confusion and uncertainty are part of the reading process.
Students need to experience how readers work their way from confusion to understanding, and that process can get short-changed if we front-load too much. I also want students to see that if they read closely and attentively, connecting the dots of details together and considering what significance they might hold, they’re capable of comprehending and understanding without extensive prior knowledge. That’s because most narrative texts are what I call ‘self-contained worlds’—that is, they provide the context and knowledge readers need to understand them, provided they read carefully enough and attend to the details they encounter.
To show you what I mean, let’s see what could happen if we don’t front-load information about Nazis before opening Lois Lowry‘s Number the Stars by first looking at the opening of a book I doubt we’d provide background knowledge for: Suzanne Collins‘s YA dystopian novel The Hunger Games. Here’s a slightly abridged version of the book’s opening, which I invite you to read, setting aside what you might already know to see what you can make of the world you’ve just entered by connecting and fitting details together.
Provided we’ve managed to ignore all the hype about the book and movie, we won’t know for several pages what ‘the reaping’ is, but by connecting details in the first paragraph, we can infer it’s a source of bad dreams. And while it may be an occasion for gifts, as evidenced by the goat cheese, it’s also associated with shuttered houses, empty streets and sleepless nights, which doesn’t make it sound like fun.
We also don’t know where we are, other than some place called District 12. But the clues give us the sense that it’s a dreary, bleak place, where people sleep on rough canvas sheets and walk down black streets with hunched shoulders. And with the word ‘hunger’ from the title in mind, we might also infer that it’s a place where there might not be enough food to feed even a mangy cat. There is, though, something sweet and heart-warming about the siblings’ relationship that stands in stark contrast to the other details. And the tension between that bleakness and sweetness, along with our desire to learn more about what’s happening, is what keeps us turning the page.
Now let’s look at the opening of Number the Stars and think about what a reader who knows nothing about the Nazis or World War II might be able to make of it, using the exact kind of thinking we just applied to get an initial feel for the world of The Hunger Games.
Without any knowledge of geography or history, we can infer here that we’re in a place called Copenhagen and that, at least in the first half of the passage, it seems like a nice-enough place, where girls race and laugh on their way home from school down streets lined with shops and cafés. But then something happens and the whole mood changes as the girls encounter two soldiers with rifles, tall boots and cold, glaring eyes who speak a language that’s different than theirs despite the fact that the soldiers have been in the girls’ country for three years. We do not need to know that they’re Nazis to comprehend the fear they inspire. Nor do we need to know the word ‘contempt,’ since there will be other places in the book to pick up the fact that many people in this place called Copenhagen feel something else about these soldiers that eventually leads them to great acts of courage.
In fact, not knowing who the soldiers are and why they are in this place allows us as readers to feel and experience the full horror of what’s happening, as that awareness dawns on us slowly, as it does on Annemarie. And it’s not knowing that keeps us reading and makes us want to learn more, just as it does in The Hunger Games. For that’s what narratives give us: the opportunity to not just ‘know’ what happened in Denmark in the 1940’s but to emotionally and empathetically experience it ourselves as we enter a world that the author has created through carefully chosen details that give us what we need to know in order to make meaning. That’s not to say that, as teachers, we shouldn’t bring history in at some point to expand and enrich our students understanding, only that we might benefit by waiting till the students are curious and engaged in the book and have something to attach that information to.
In the end, I think it all comes down to purpose and what we want students ‘to get.’ If we want them to ‘get’ information about the Holocaust, there’s far more expedient ways to do that than reading a novel. But if we want them to get how readers construct an understanding of everything from the setting to the theme from the details the author provides, while also experiencing the power of narratives to move our hearts, not just our minds, we’d do better by teaching them the process of meaning making than by front-loading facts.
That’s the gift and enlightenment we can give to students—not facts, but the tools to make meaning.