Before you jump into reading your next classroom text, prepare students for success by incorporating engaging pre-reading activities. No idea where to start? No worries! Read this post for a list of effective activities to try in your classroom.
While ELA teachers share an affinity for literature, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, students don’t always share that zest and aren’t particularly eager to dive into reading—which can put a real damper on beginning a new unit or novel.
That’s when planning activities before reading comes into play. Incorporating engaging and relevant pre-reading activities into your lessons can help “sell” students on an upcoming text, opening the gates to higher engagement, improved comprehension, and deeper analysis.
Don’t worry—I’m going to share my 6 favorite pre-reading activities (and then some!) to use in secondary ELA so you can share them with your students.
A vital part of a strong reading strategy comes before the reading starts. Pre-reading prepares students prior to diving into a text. It may require calling upon prior knowledge or past experiences. Sometimes it involves learning new information that will aid in comprehension, interest, or relevance of a text.
Pre-reading activities may include introducing key concepts, new vocabulary, and text themes. Ultimately, they set students up for success by providing knowledge and context that can enhance students’ understanding of the reading material.
I know it’s tempting to jump right into your next classroom text and start the literary analysis journey. However, doing that misses a valuable learning opportunity—one that sets students up for success and engagement.
- Building background knowledge to bridge knowledge gaps
- Activating prior knowledge to deepen understanding
- Familiarizing students with vocabulary to aid in comprehension
- Introducing themes and concepts to encourage building connections
- Encouraging predictions to promote active reading
- Establishing interest to increase student motivation
- Fostering critical thinking to prepare for literary analysis
- Providing context for overall success
The bottom line? Students’ reading comprehension naturally improves when they approach a text with more interest, knowledge, and confidence. Additionally, they are more likely to engage in a deeper appreciation for and analysis of the text.
Here are some of my favorite pre-reading activities I recommend bringing into your classroom:
Shake things up by starting with a visual to boost students’ curiosity, interest, and engagement. Start by presenting a relevant and compelling photograph connected to the upcoming reading material. This photograph could relate to a setting, theme, symbol, or character. Alternatively, it can embody the broader essence of the narrative or a relevant literary movement or period.
Ask students to observe the image, paying close attention to any details in the picture, the emotions it evokes, and any connections they can draw between the image and what they know or anticipate about the text. Have them down their initial thoughts, observations, interpretations, questions, and predictions before sharing them in a group discussion. Not only does this get students thinking about the text in a creative way, but it also sets the stage for a meaningful conversation about perspective.
Without fail, students love when the mini whiteboards come out. Why not use this to your advantage with a quick, easy, and effective pre-reading activity? Have a list of relevant words, phrases, or settings to the text you will be reading. Then, hand out the whiteboards and ask students to draw what comes to mind when they hear [insert relevant word here]. For example, ask students to draw what comes to mind when they hear the word “lottery” or “tradition” before reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or “new money” vs. “old money” prior to reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Give students a moment to draw a picture or write a short answer before holding their boards up for the class to see. Don’t have mini whiteboards? No problem! Simply write the word or phrase on the main board and invite students up to write or draw their connections. Either way, this interactive activity helps activate prior knowledge and set the stage for engaging discussions.
Shout out to YouTube for making this pre-reading activity a breeze. So, turn down the lights and turn on the projector! Show captivating and informative videos introducing the text’s themes, characters, or context. Prepare some discussion questions for after the video, but encourage students to come up with questions or share their observations after watching too. Showing videos is a great way to engage students with a multi-sensory learning experience, aiding comprehension and memory retention.
Consider showing a plot synopsis or character overview video for more complicated texts with several characters (like Shakespeare). If you want to set the stage or provide relevant context or background information, consider showing suitable movie trailers, TEDtalks, animated shorts, or informational videos.
Instead of telling your students important information, put the onus of the learning on them. Send your students on a hands-on quest to discover the knowledge themselves! First, think about what you want your students to know. Then, create a scavenger hunt that focuses on the author, a specific period or literary movement, vocabulary, relevant current events, or the story’s setting—just to name a few. Give your students a list of questions or tasks and have them work individually or in pairs to find the answers online!
While you can certainly ask students to find information about the text itself, beware that spoilers are easy to find. However, asking questions that identify the story’s setting, author, protagonist, point of view, or publication date should be safe.
Prompt critical thinking out of the gate with an anticipation guide. This activity involves presenting students with statements related to the upcoming text’s themes, ideas, or concepts. As students read through the list, they must determine the level to which they agree (or disagree) with each statement. In turn, this encourages students to call upon their prior knowledge and experiences while setting reading expectations, providing context, hinting at themes, and stimulating critical thinking before reading. Return to the anticipation guide throughout the text to track how (or if) students’ thoughts and perspectives have changed.
For additional movement and an interactive learning experience, turn the anticipation guide into a game of 4 corners. Once students have filled out their guides, read each statement aloud. As you do, have students move to the designated corners of the room that coordinate with their answers. Give students time to share their thoughts with others in their corner before calling upon a few students in each group to share their rationale with the class.
Remember those fun magazine quizzes? It’s time to bring them back—-only, this time, in your classroom! This fun quiz format builds student interest and provides essential information before reading. I’ve used quiz ideas such as “Which character are you?” and “Are you a [Romanticist, Transcendentalist, Modernist, etc]?” But the options are endless! However, I’m not going to lie; this activity requires the most time and effort to plan. SI it worth it? 100%.
Here are the basic steps: First, select a relevant theme related to the upcoming text. Next, develop a series of overarching questions serving as the quiz’s foundation, guiding students toward different character types, concepts, or interpretations related to the theme. Ensure each question has the same range of answer choices (A, B, C, D), each correlating to a distinct “answer,” revealing specific character types or ideas. Once students have time to review their answers, open a classroom discussion where students take a closer look at the particular questions and answers, sharing what it may reveal about the upcoming text. Not only is this a fun activity that provides context, but it is excellent for practicing those inference-making skills!
Read a picture book as a creative and low-stakes introduction to a theme, setting, conflict, character type, or literary device.
Analyze thought-provoking quotes that resonate with the text’s themes, conflicts, or characters to stimulate critical thinking.
Take a deep dive into song lyrics (after jamming out as a class, of course), analyzing lyrics that connect to the text’s characters or themes to introduce the text while connecting to pop culture.
Create time period one-pagers where students conduct research about the time period relevant to the novel or text before presenting their findings in a visually appealing one-pager.
Host a ‘Show and Tell’ day where, after conducting brief research, each student brings in an “artifact” to represent the time period or historical event relevant to the text. After presenting their artifacts, lead a discussion to discuss their findings overall.
Combine multiple activities into one with pre-reading activity stations! Pick 3-6 activities to set up at different stations around your classroom to give students a multi-faced pre-reading learning experience.
Now that you have a list of pre-reading activities to choose from, you may be wondering which ones are the right ones for you to use. To help you narrow it down from my list or any other ideas, start by asking yourself these questions:
- How complex is the text? This can help you understand how much work your students may need to do before reading.
- What do I want students to get out of the pre-reading activity? Having a goal in mind will guide you toward the most beneficial activities.
- What do students need to know before reading? This will help you determine what kind of information you need to include.
- How much class time do I have to dedicate to the activity? Some activities are quick while others may take a whole class period.
- How much time and effort do I want to put into planning it? Don’t bite off more than you can (or want) to chew. Simple pre-reading activities can be impactful, too!
Answering the questions above will give you the clarity needed to start planning your pre-reading activity.
Whenever you’re preparing to teach a new text, remember this: Pre-reading activities are a vital component of a successful reading journey. They provide students with the necessary tools to navigate a text successfully, promoting better comprehension, deeper critical thinking, and stronger analysis. However, perhaps one of my favorite benefits is the opportunity to pique students’ interest and (dare I say) lead to a more enjoyable reading experience for all.
Have any other pre-reading strategies or activities to add to the list? Share your favorites in the comments below!
If you’re preparing to read your next classroom novel, check out my step-by-step guide for planning your next novel study.