I tried out the very first step of scaffolded literacy today. I’m busting through a novel with both my German II and German III/IV class, and decided to try out doing an intensive pre-tell of the story where I told them everything that would happen in the story before I read it. I did a quick comprehension check following my pre-tell (generally 8-9 on the average, so that worked) and then just turned them loose to read the actual selection in groups of 3 or so.
Guess what? I still floated around to supply necessary vocab support, but the groups were WAY better at staying on task and working through the selection than normal. Because they knew where the story was going, people didn’t feel the stress to not appear stupid that often crops up. You know that feeling; some students find something else to talk about than the book because they don’t want to be exposed as the kid who doesn’t get it. That problem was removed, however, with the pre-tell. Students started pushing themselves to figure things out, and even my most squirrely groups were keeping after it.
After we were done reading, I asked my students what they thought. Not only did everyone overwhelming say they preferred this way, I also saw relief in their eyes. The “Hey, I got to be one of the smart people today” looks. I could get used to that.
This made me think of a comment made by a favorite German professor of mine about Bertold Brecht (who strived for an “alienation effect” to make his plays social tools rather than just entertainment). Brecht didn’t want people to get too caught up in his plays because he wanted his bourgeois audiences to be provoked rather than amused. As a result he was always reminding the audience they were watching a play by telling them what was about to happen before it did. In German, then, he was not buying into the standard practice of creating “Spannung auf den Ausgang” (or suspense for how it ends) but rather “Spannung auf den Gang” (or suspense for how it happens).
And that’s what we’re doing by telling the story before we read the story. Our students are freed up to focus on how the words come together to create meaning instead of worrying that they’re about to get lost. Isn’t that why we’re reading these books in the first place?