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Previewing and Picture Walks with Fiction Texts

Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan

If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals.  I call this feeling a sense of agency.

Peter Johnston, Choice Words

We love this quote of Peter Johnston’s and we think about it whenever we are planning lessons.  In every lesson we try to ask ourselves two questions:

How can we design our lessons to help our students know why a new strategy is important?

How can we help students use the strategy whenever they are beginning a new task or trying something for the first time?

Recently we have been thinking about the importance of students acting strategically when they begin reading a new text.  We find that when we are there to guide them, our students take picture walks, read the inside flap, the blurb on the back cover and look over the table of contents before beginning a new text.   However, when they are beginning a new text and sitting by themselves, most students begin by simply reading the first page.  This was puzzling to us. 

These students have participated in countless lessons where teachers have previewed a text before read aloud and/or have asked students to preview a new text during small-group instruction.  These same students also preview texts independently when they choose “just-right” texts for their independent reading book.  Why weren’t they previewing the text before independent reading?

Being able to preview a text independently is even more important now with the adoption of the Common Core. The standards include the expectation that “Students can, without significant scaffolding, comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information.”

Our observations helped us understand that our students did not know the purpose of previewing a text. They were only previewing when we asked, rather than using previewing strategies independently to help them understand and engage in the text.  As we watched the students we realized that we had to teach our students why readers preview and what readers think about when they preview a fictional text.  Although the students knew how to preview a text when choosing a book, they didn’t understand the purpose of previewing to enhance comprehension.

Here are a few ways we have tried to help students understand the purpose of previewing.

The Purpose of Previewing -- Movie Trailers

We began talking about the purpose of previewing by comparing previewing the text to watching a movie trailer.  We ask students, “How does watching a movie trailer help you understand the movie you are about to watch?” Students had quite a bit to say about this topic: 

  1. Movie trailers help us know what is going to happen.
  2. Movie trailers help us know whether we will like the movie.
  3. Movie trailers get us excited about the movie.
  4. Movie trailers tell us who the characters are.

The students agreed that movie trailers got them excited about watching the movie and helped them have a beginning understanding of the plot.  Some students shared that a movie trailer gives just the right amount of information.   It helps you to understand what is going on without  “ruining” the movie.

Next we showed students how previewing a text was similar to watching a movie trailer.

Readers, have you ever turned on the television or walked into a movie theater and started watching a movie without seeing a commercial for the movie or watching a trailer?  Turn and talk -- what is that like? [Students discuss question in pairs.]

As we listened to your conversations, we heard many of you say that watching a television show or a movie without any prior information can be confusing.  You are not sure who the characters are, whether the movie is a drama, a comedy or even a scary film.  This is the same with books.  When a reader doesn’t preview a text before reading, it is like going to the movies without watching the movie trailer.  A reader can be confused and then it takes a while for the reader to understand what is happening or the big ideas in the text.

How to Preview

Our students understood what to preview, but they didn’t know what to think about as they were previewing a fiction text.  The Common Core defines what students need to know and the standards are clear that students need to begin thinking about literary elements as they preview, so that while they are reading they can find evidence to support their ideas or change their initial ideas based on the events in the text. We use this minilesson to talk about purposes for previewing.

Readers, when we preview a text before we begin reading we have a different purpose than when we are previewing a text to decide whether or not we want to read a book.   We still read the title, the cover, the inside flaps of the book, the blurb on the page and look through the text but we don’t ask, do I want to read this book, we ask important questions about the plot and the big ideas in the text:

  • What is this book about?
  • Who are the important characters?
  • Where and when does this story take place?
  • What could be some possible themes of this text?
  • What might be some important symbols to think about as I read? 

When we preview a fiction text before we begin reading, we want to think about the plot and the big ideas in the text.  Watch as I preview. I think about the characters, the setting, the plot, possible theme and even possible symbols.  This type of thinking helps me as I read because my mind is already thinking about the big ideas.

Next we show readers how to record their information in their reader's notebook and to reflect and refine these ideas based on the evidence in the text.

When students begin reading with the big ideas in mind, they are more likely to continue to ponder these concepts as they read.  Now while reading they can collect evidence and revise their thinking rather than only trying to think about these bigger ideas once they have finished the text.  If we need our students to comprehend a range of texts without significant scaffolds, then we need to teach them the strategies that help them think deeply right from the beginning.

Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan

Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan have been working in the field of professional development for the past 16 years. They now run a private staff development business, Teachers for Teachers, working with varied school systems to implement best practices in the field of literacy and to engage in institutional change.  They are the authors of Assessment in Perspective.