What is the Point in Pre-Teaching?

In an earlier post on top-down/bottom-up processing and context/co-text, I mentioned that there might well be another one on issues to do with teaching receptive skills. And here it is.

Recently I have become somewhat fatigued watching trainee teachers pre-teach vocabulary prior to receptive skills work in class. I would actually go further and say I am starting to actively hate it. A bit like other pernicious habits such as smoking or having children, it’s not something I do myself, but I see a lot of people I know doing it (they don’t post about it on Facebook though, admittedly) and so it’s always sort of just blended into the background of language teaching for me, which is always a worrying realisation. Such a worrying realisation, in fact, that I more or less blindly suggested trainees include it in receptive skills lessons for about two years before I started to wonder. A little reflection can be a dangerous thing.

What is pre-teaching?

Christine Nuttall (1982: 62) points out the suggestion that “moderate L1 readers can recognise about 50,000 words”, which does seem like a lot (maybe it’s lexemes?). Now there’s no way that most learners are going to build a lexicon of so many items they can recognise, so can they never become even ‘moderate’ readers? Teachers, then, need to find ways of helping learners cope with text and read better. One way many people employ of doing this is to pre-teach vocabulary (or “lexis”, for the sophisticates amongst you), which is part of trying to scaffold the comprehension of the text.

In a ‘standard’ reading lesson procedure, it would come before the learners read the text, but generally after there’s been some sort of lead-in and schemata activation. It tends to involve the teaching of a few (3 or 4 usually) selected items that the teacher assumes the learners will not know and which are useful when reading the text in question.  Its purpose is to facilitate the learners’ reading development by helping them not concentrate on every word or unknown item that might distract them from the reading work, most likely a immediately preceding a subskill task such as reading for gist (skimming) or specific information (scanning), amongst others.  It is particularly common with the use of authentic text, which will more likely contain more difficult lexis.

My problems with pre-teaching

Seems pretty logical, right? So why would I be thus nonplussed by this practice? Here’s my reasons (in no particular order):

  • It really can break the flow of a lesson.

  • Learners often seem to look a bit bewildered at why 4 seemingly random words are being taught.

  • I’m just not convinced it actually helps learners read better or develop strategies to deal with text.

  • Don’t think of white bears! What are you thinking of now? If you highlight some lexis before moving on reading work, is there not a risk you actually distract from this work by drawing attention to difficult items? (This can be Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s contribution to ELT…)

  • If done badly, it’s seriously counter-productive and can lead to boredom, disengagement, etc.

  • It’s not how we read in real life – this is hugely important: just who is going to pre-teach some selected items for learners when they read in the real world?

  • Selecting the words necessarily involves assumptions about the learners. How do you know they won’t know that word? Why do you think they don’t? What if they do?

  • And it also involves assumptions about the usefulness of the items – would you pre-teach “lusophone”, for example, in Dubai?

  • It’s not appropriate for every receptive skills lesson but is often presented as such cf. when I did CELTA years ago.

  • It can distort the focus of the lesson from a reading skills development one to a lexis learning one.

  • If you’re ‘demanding high’, why not just let the learners get on with it and come back to lexis, etc., after the reading stages of the lesson (more on that below).

  • It may hinder learners’ developing “word-attack skills”, to borrow Christine Nuttall’s term (anyone else actually see a text being knifed by Nuttall there?), such as working out which words are important/can be ignored, inferring meaning, etc.

One size does not fit all

Perhaps you feel I’m being a bit harsh on the poor wee lamb to the pedagogical slaughter that is pre-teaching. Let me redress the balance a little then. Pre-teaching does, mayhap, have a place in some lessons, but not all. You may want to help learners a little bit with a few items that may be tricky, or let them know that Mariánské Lázně is a place, so they don’t worry about it upon encountering it in a text about Spas and faded European grandeur; however, this should be decided upon based on the text, the lesson, the learners, the aims, the loadsa things specific to that group and that class and not simply be a given in any skills lesson. There is, as usual, no one-size-fits-all solution.

Another argument for pre-teaching (or actually more for raising awareness of reading as strategies/skills) is that this idea can often be revelatory for trainees who have little access to professional development or training, or who have come for more ‘traditional’ teaching backgrounds, as it is a common practice to teach all (presumed) new lexis before learners read (often out-loud one at a time – heaven forfend!). This approach has precedents in older approaches such as The Reading Method recommended in the USA in the 1920s, which revolved around the text as the central component of the learning process, with each text being accompanied by a list of vocabulary which was to be taught before any reading occurred (Richards and Rodgers, 2001:50). However, this is not pre-teaching, as it aims to teach lexis, not facilitate reading development. Here, we have a text being used for language development, not to develop the learners’ skills in reading. While this distinction may seem unintuitive for some, it is an important one.

Well if you must…

So, what if you are going to pre-teach? While this isn’t the point of this post, here’s an idea or two. It makes more sense to me to work with the most frequently occurring words in the text, as these will be the ones that help the learners get the gist of a text more than “glabrous”, for example. Try using a Wordle (you just input the text and it prettifies it into the most frequently recurring words) or putting the words up on the board and getting the learners to check them in a dictionary (paper or electronic), or to predict the content of the passage from them before reading to check (efficient gist task there). There is actually research that claims that pre-teaching the most frequent words can greatly aid learners’ reading comprehension (the article itself is more concerned with vocabulary and frequency lists, but there is a brief treatment of pre-teaching near the end).

The final word

So, to conclude this ramble, the answer is to be judicious and to take a more complex approach to skills lessons. These are merely not ‘easy’ lessons for the teacher in which they can sit back, relax and let the learners get on with it and it worries me they are often treated as such. But to come back to pre-teaching, use your professional expertise and make judicious choices about whether to pre-teach and you’ll probably find that it is not as necessary as you might think and can be cut from a good number of lessons.

Once the skills work has been done, then there’s a perfectly good text there to work to exploit further. By all means, go back to it, unpack it, teach some lexis from it (or better still, try to get learners to work it out for themselves), use it as a basis for other language work or as a model for some writing/speaking work. But first, let the learners try to make sense of the text as they would in real life, help them develop their skills in reading and don’t over-scaffold by pre-teaching too much or at all. Or is it just me?

References

Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Macmillan.

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001).  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP.

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About Chris Ożóg

Originally from Scotland, I'm an English language teacher and teacher trainer currently based in Dubai, working for IH. I tutor on Delta, CELTA, CELTA YL. Ext. and various other things.
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19 Responses to What is the Point in Pre-Teaching?

  1. My colleague, Neil Forrest. tells the story of the lesson in which, after the teacher had laboriously pre-taught vocabulary, a student who had arrived late seemed to make just as much sense of the text as those who had endured the pre-teaching. Go figure.

    • Chris Ożóg says:

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for your comment. All I can really say to that is: exactly! I can just imagine Neil’s experience and the word “endured” is most likely quite germane a description of what the poor students went through. It’s such a shame when pre-teaching lesson stages go bad, as it were, so why not just miss them out? While it’s important to raise trainees’ awareness of this as a procedural technique and a potential stage in planning, it’s much more important to try to encourage them to be judicious in application. “Do I need to pre-teach?” is a much better question than “it’s a reading lesson, what should I pre-teach?”. And now figure I will go.

  2. Cathy Bowden says:

    Not just you! I rarely pre-teach lexis, though, as you say, cultural references can be handy. I have seen someone spend half the lesson in an FCE preparation course pre-teach about 25 expressions (really!). Not preparing students for the exam situation at all.

    • Chris Ożóg says:

      Hey Cathy,

      Thanks for commenting. Delighted to see you do so, as someone I learned so much from. That FCE class sounds, well, interesting. I wonder what the teacher’s justification was, given that, as you say, it was an exam class and employing the questionable practice of pre-teaching so much isn’t exactly exam prep. I also wonder what the students thought of it. I’ve been thinking of doing a bit of amateur action research on that, gauging learners’ perceptions of the usefulness of pre-teaching. Possibly on our next CELTA in November. We’ll see. Anyway, cheers for adding your thoughts!

  3. I absolutely agree: there is not much point in pre-teaching the vocabulary (in most cases), I have stopped doing it for quite a long time (and advising my trainees, too) – first feeling I was doing something criminal but then seeing that the students actively determined the vocab they needed to research themselves…otherwise I would say that pre-teaching the vocabulary the teacher thinks their students don’t know is “demanding low”…
    Svetlana

    • Chris Ożóg says:

      Hi Svetlana,

      Thanks for the comment. You make a good point about allowing learners to determine what they don’t know/need from a text. The teacher is trying to help with pre-teaching but too much, which lessens the effectiveness of the whole process for me. Over-scaffolding is, in this sense, demand low as it removes a potential area of challenge for students and it’s exactly in such areas of challenge that the best learning will likely occur. Tasks still need to be set up well and texts appropriately chosen, but I’m with you on the pre-teach – you’re no criminal!

  4. dilano71 says:

    Agree with most of the points expressed. Another issue I find with pre-teaching is that you end up opening Pandora’s box and certain learners start asking for definitions of every unfamiliar word in the text. I think Chris is right about discussing pre-teaching with trainees as a procedural technique and I gently suggest that they shouldn’t overuse it. The problem is I find many TEFL trainees (particularly older ones) seem to think that language teachers should be ‘living and breathing dictionaries’ and find it hard to resist doing in their observed lessons.

    • Chris Ożóg says:

      Dilano,

      A Pandora’s Box and a can of worms walk into a bar… agreed that it really can become like that sometimes, which is such a shame as it can seriously disrupt the flow of an otherwise perfectly good class. Nothing wrong with using it as a technique occasionally, but I think you’re right to gently prod trainees away from it in every class as it sometimes is a complete waste of everyone’s time and the teacher’s energy. Thanks for commenting!

  5. alexcase says:

    Absolutely! It was my very first “most overrated thing in TEFL”:

    https://tefltastic.wordpress.com/2009/04/19/overrated-in-tefl-part-one/

    Something I’d add is that if you must it should be vocabulary that is necessary to do the tasks you have set rather than vocabulary to “understand the text” (whatever that means) – although that again often reduces it to little or no vocab that needs pre-teaching.

    • Chris Ożóg says:

      Hi Alex and thanks for commenting. I hadn’t seen your series or post, so thanks for the link. I think your case for the defence says it all! The prosecution wins and pre-teaching gets life, which is what it feels to me like I got watching it sometimes. As I said to Laura too, I think the vocabulary in the questions should be easy to understand, perhaps graded below the level of the text, as this will avoid potential confusion, though point taken.

  6. laurapatsko says:

    Dammit, Chris, I couldn’t make head nor tail of that post without looking up “lusophone” and “glabrous” first. Throw me a bone, here!

    I have also spent many a tedious TP sub-stage watching pre-teaching of lexis to little avail. Now, if/when instructing trainees to pre-teach certain lexis before doing reading/listening tasks (as this is in our standard lesson procedure guidelines it’s hard to argue my way out of it), I tend to look at words in the questions/tasks themselves. This to me seems more useful than covering apparently random words in the text beforehand. (Of course, if trainees can design their own tasks for texts, rather than using a coursebook, for example, then they can just avoid this problem by grading their tasks better.)

    I remember having a question in one of my own GCSEs that featured the word “tenets”, which I’d never heard before (shame on my 16-year-old self). I was really uncertain whether I’d correctly guessed the meaning and thereby appropriately answered the question (turns out, I had, in both cases- phew!). In this case I didn’t have a text to refer to, as English learners would, but the point is that it was the comprehension question I was being asked, rather than the subject matter, which had posed the greater problem. So maybe this would be a more useful area to focus on if pre-teaching anything at all?

    • Chris Ożóg says:

      Well if this post has achieved anything useful, Laura, it’s that you got a couple of new words out of it..! And isn’t “lusophone” bizarrely opaque for its meaning?

      You raise a good point in your comment about the comprehension questions. These have to be appropriately graded or they can seriously distract learners and hence lessen the effectiveness of the lesson/stage/task by giving them something else (too much?) to think about. After all, we’re trying to help them become better readers of text, not testing their lexical ability in the questions. Your “tenets” example is proof of this, even though you got it right. I’d actually have the questions graded down to one level below the text to ensure this didn’t happen and if trainees write their own questions, you can help here, but also if they examine coursebook questions, adapting where necessary. And inappropriately graded/poorly written coursebook questions make me want to throw said book at its author. Hard.

      When you say that pre-teach is in a standard lesson procedure, do you have any say in that?

      Anyway, cheers for your comment and example (take note, Instituto Cervantes exam writers!).

  7. stevebrown70 says:

    Hi Chris,
    I think there are a lot of things wrong with the content of CELTA courses, and the idea that vocabulary needs to be taught before students see a text is definitely one of them. Well done for writing this.
    Steve

    • Ben Naismith says:

      Steve, I’d agree that this does happen on a lot of CELTA courses, but I would argue that it’s not prescribed as mandatory content. Off the top of my head there is no criterion that they are evaluated upon which mentions pre-teaching. Like many ‘CELTA’ things, it’s just the interpretation of criteria by the trainers, who design the input sessions and assess the candidates. It’s likely that many of these trainers have been pre-teaching (for example) for years. What first opened my eyes to the possible variation in CELTA coursesI was Anthony Gaughan’s description of his CELTA which is drastically different from many other CELTA courses, while still meeting all the criteria.

      In any case, my next course with Chris starts in a couple of weeks and there will definitely be extremely judicious pre-teaching!

      • Chris Ożóg says:

        Hi Steve and Ben,

        Ben’s point is spot on there. A lot can come down to interpretation and how an individual trainer thinks what’s best in “helping learners to understand reading and listening texts”. If you believe in pre-teaching, you’ll include it on your course; if not, you might well not. For me, it’s a case of being balanced (even though what I wrote above!) by highlighting that different techniques exist (they can read about it Harmer, for example) and trying to help them become judicious in choice and application of said techniques. Just like Ben will be doing later this month… and cheers for the comments.

  8. Daljit Kaur says:

    An excellent reflection Chris. I think we should spend more time on developing our students’ skills in guessing meaning from context and how to deal with unknown vocabulary. After all, this is what they need for real life tasks and exam situations.

    I’ve watched teachers performing circus acts when pre-teaching, only to discover that it made no difference in students’ overall comprehension or the lack of it. As someone already mentioned, who are we to determine what 4-6 ‘random’ items our students won’t know. In my experience, my learners surprise me every day with their existing knowledge.

    • Chris Ożóg says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Daljit. The point about real-life tasks is key – if we don’t help learners get better at doing things out of the classroom, then are we really helping them. Strategy training for reading would be one such way, including isolating inferring (lexical) meaning from context/co-text as a subskill (I wrote about aspects of that here: http://eltreflection.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/c-is-for-contrafibularities-context-co-text-and-big-blue-wobbly-things/).

      Also training learners to see that they can ignore some words while reading is another important aspect to dealing with text. Raising their awareness of when they need a dictionary can really up reading speed and their general ability to tackle text.

  9. stevebrown70 says:

    Hi Chris and Ben,
    I understand that it is possible to interpret CELTA criteria in many different ways, and it’s good to know that you are doing this. I’m still a bit concerned though that a lot of trainers don’t. Some trainers present teaching techniques and procedures as though they are written in stone and must be followed precisely. Trainees then get confused when they observe experienced teachers and don’t see them pre-teaching, for example.
    Encouraging trainees to use their judgement and select certain techniques as they see fit is very important for developing thoughtful, reflective teachers.
    Anyway, you guys are clearly doing a grand job so carry on :-)

  10. Hi, Chris! I’m also not a fan of pre-teaching. I believe that learners learn vocabulary through collocations. They learn it through exposure which can be from media. Trainers should be exposed to demo teaching so they learn other ways of teaching vocabulary.

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