Hey; It works!

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?


8 responses to “Hey; It works!

  1. Nathan – this is the first I’ve read about pre-telling the story.
    I’m just finishing up a blaine reader with my 3s…so you are saying that the process would be richer without any suspense? that if I tell them in 8-9 sentences of TL what is going to happen…and then let them translate in groups of 3..and then you ‘discuss’ the content with them, it’s all better?

    Maria in Newport News, VA


  2. I’ve had much more success with pre-telling than with not, not only with stories but with songs as well…although I wish that I paid attention to what I was doing and realized that the pre-telling was the reason for the success and therefore used it purposefully. It takes people like Nathan and Michele to make me analyze what I’m doing and the results I’m getting, therefore actually making me a better teacher instead of just a teacher with lots of different ways to do the same thing–and for that I am forever grateful! If students understand the content in familiar language, they experience greater success interpreting new structures. They are able to identify not-so-obvious cognates because they have a context. As Nathan said, their suspense then comes from “what structures are used/what can I figure out?” versus “what will happen?”. My students are always more excited when they understand something without help than when they finally understand it after I’ve explained it to them. I want them to be more excited about learning the language than the content through which it is acquired!! What better way than to rob them of the thrill of a good cliff-hanger! Bwah ha ha…


  3. Hi Maria. Actually the 8-9 was the average score my students gave me on their comprehension check (holding up fingers on a scale of 1-10 on how well they understood). During the actual re-tell it’s pretty much anything goes: I acted things out, used props, wrote key words on the board, spoke in different voices, basically created the movie in their head as best I could so that it would sustain them through the reading. And to be honest, this was just my first attempt at trying the scaffolding literacy approach that MJ has been writing about: go to the “Category” list on the right hand column and choose “Scaffolding Literacy” for more (and better) details. You can also just scroll down because this has only been up for a couple weeks or so. Then for reading you can do it in groups, as a class, do the reading yourself, etc. I often will mix one or more of those after starting with small groups, but go according to your preference. There’s more I could do with focusing on a key sentence, which I’ll try in the next couple of days, but even just doing that simple pre-tell really makes a load of difference. Try it out!

    You know, Martina, I’d never even thought of trying that out with songs. If anything I think that would be more important there because getting the general meaning out would help students better get a feel for how well the music matches the words. Students like songs for how they make them feel more than how they make them think. Doing that pre-tell there could speed up the learning curve for getting the “feel” of a song down and then you could focus on a line to get stuck in their heads for the rest of the day! And yes, I also love getting to be the one who drops the big plot reveal on them rather than letting the book do it. Am I selfish that way?


  4. Misty Adoniou

    Hey guys, just happened across your blog and so pleased to see the Scaffolding Literacy (also known as Accelerated Literacy) is proving worthwhile for you in your own teaching contexts. And, Nathan, I LOVE that analogy with the German – “Spannung auf den Ausgang” (or suspense for how it ends) but rather “Spannung auf den Gang” (or suspense for how it happens). I’ll quote you on that 🙂


    • Oh Misty! I’ve been meaning to write to you for — well, ever since you were here!! Did you like the Blaine Ray book?

      (“MJ” is also Mary’s Anchorage coffee hound–just in case you didn’t make the connection.)

      I just had the most wonderful finals in my English classes (off topic here guys) — based on having done the model sentence with them of a “hook” to an essay. They wrote the best essays all year.

      Scaffolding/Accelerated Literacy has changed the way I read with my kids. Somewhere on a post I found a note about putting the sentences into clear baggies and storing them on a bulletin board so that kids can repeat them–that was so much fun in my Russian class. Kids had races to see who could reconstitute sentences fastest. The only thing is…I don’t have a sentence strip holder yet. Going to get one this summer.

      I mentioned to my husband about the Institute next summer–he sounded as though he thought it would be fun to tag along. We’ll see, but in the meantime, do you know any world language teachers in Western USA who are using this technique who might be willing to get in contact? Or, for that matter, English teachers?

      And do you think that the conference might be open to a TPRS presenter? I could think of several, and I’ll tell you after this summer whether I think I’d be ready to venture out myself.


  5. Misty Adoniou

    Hi Nathan
    I thought you may be interested to know that a couple of my post-grad students (experienced language teachers) here in Australia are developing a sequence of lessons using Scaffolding Literacy for their high school German classes. I’d love to see some sharing of resources happening across the Pacific.

    I’d love to come back and do some more detailed work with the teachers over there. There was talk of a Summer Institute in Alaska in 2012 but I’ve not heard much more about it, hope its still on the agenda of the folk over there. In any case I hope you get to share some ideas about SL at your TPRS conference. They seem like two methodologies which complement each other well.


  6. Misty,

    I would love to see whatever they do for German too!

    I’m now past president of our state conference, but suddenly I’m thinking that maybe we could get you back up for a combination group of bilingual and the AFLA conference…the coming one is this September, and I will approach the new president.

    I will check about the Summer Institute 2012, and if no one is thinking about this, I will make sure they start. I know that the head of English curriculum was very excited about this strategy.

    And I will definitely be sharing about SL next week. It’s already in two places on my prezi:
    (You have to click on it, then let it load for a very long time so that all the pictures and videos get there. It may not be worth looking at just to see that I have SL in my future plans!)

    I am convinced that SL is what TPRS is missing.


  7. Misty Adoniou

    Hey Michele
    I loved your prezi! I used a prezi at a conference last week but yours is so much more advanced than mine!!!!
    Enjoy St Louis 🙂


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