Frontloading-Increasing Critical Thinking & Focus

In my post, "What Makes a Teacher Effective?" I shared how and why effective teachers organize their lessons into a pre-during-post format.  The reason for this organizational pattern being that each portion of the lesson is designed to teach a specific skill-set, requiring a certain set of strategies in each phase.  I also emphasized the importance of teaching both content and skills during a lesson, as this is what effective teachers do.  Let's now examine the "pre" (Front-loading) phase and strategies that teach this skill-set to our students.

Front-loading a lesson is perhaps one of the most effective ways to improve student comprehension; this portion of the lesson develops specific skills which allow for greater critical thinking and focus throughout the lesson.

Some teachers make the mistake and think that going over the agenda for the day is "Front-loading."  However, proper Front-loading involves the students accessing prior knowledge about the new content, learning essential vocabulary that will be used throughout the lesson and using their prior knowledge and new vocabulary to develop predictions.  If a teacher does not implement a Front-loading strategy that accesses one or more of these skills, the student is neglected the opportunity to strengthen these "college and career readiness skills" (Common Core Standards) and does not engage from the beginning.

In credentialing programs, the Front-loading phase is referred to as the "Anticipatory Set," designed to hook and engage students in the lesson. However, this definition is too simplistic as it doesn't emphasize the importance of this phase for student understanding. This "pre" portion of the lesson is essential as it allows students to analyze and discuss the topic for a few minutes before just diving right in, an all too common, though detrimental, classroom practice.

The effective teacher understands that the time to prepare students for the lesson is at least as important as the time to assess students at the end of a lesson.  In my own teaching experience and in observing hundreds of effective teachers, student comprehension is higher when the teacher consistently utilizes a minimum of two Front-loading strategies for each lesson, one to connect to prior knowledge and form predictions, the other to pre-teach the essential vocabulary for the lesson.

As Front-loading is perhaps the most vital part of the lesson, it sometimes requires more than the two to five minutes often suggested. For example, if a teacher wants students to connect to prior knowledge, form predictions and acquire essential vocabulary, a "Probable Passage" would be an excellent Front-loading strategy to employ. To provide further instruction of the essential vocabulary, the teacher could then utilize a "Vocabulary Study Chart" and teach each essential term explicitly for higher acquisition and retention. 

 A teacher does not need an exhaustive supply of Front-loading strategies.  I routinely rotate the same five methods, such as the previously mentioned Probable Passage and Vocabulary Study Chart, as well as the Anticipation Guide, Tea Party and the Concept Organizer. 

 If you do not already have a repertoire of Front-loading strategies, I encourage you to try the ones mentioned (available on my website under "Training", then "Workshop Examples") or find others that would work in your classes; use them consistently and witness increased comprehension, engagement and retention of your content. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,






How and Why do we Pre-read?

Pre-reading can perhaps be one of the most effective front-loading strategies educators can model and teach students, in order to improve reading comprehension and focus. 

Pre-reading involves examining the title, subtitle, subheadings, pictures, vocabulary, graphs/maps/timelines, and if provided, the review questions and summary. 

Previewing and discussing these aspects before reading a text is not cheating-skilled readers do it all the time to gain important information that increases comprehension.

Analyzing these text features provides the reader information that can then be connected to prior knowledge and used to generate a prediction about the topic.  Student focus and comprehension increase when predictions are formulated, as predicting requires the reader to connect to prior knowledge and analyze the content BEFORE reading. 

So model pre-reading and predictions regularly and witness comprehension, text confidence and engagement improve. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

Read with Purpose-These Three Strategies Make the Difference

To better prepare youth for the complexities of 21st century literacy, teach students to read with purpose and engage with text by utilizing these three strategies: Retell, Summarize, Sketch.

While reading fiction or non-fiction, pause every few paragraphs and ask students to write a "RETELL" sentence (first, then, finally) and then share it with a partner.  This is a simple skill that is often mastered in the primary grades but it greatly improves comprehension. 

Before reading further, have students also write a SUMMARY sentence (who/what/when/where/why/how); this is a more complex skill that requires even further analysis of the text. 

Finally, after completing the Retell and Summary sentences, have students SKETCH a picture or symbol of the section as a visual (logograph) reminder of the information. I find it even more effective when students sometimes complete this task in pairs. 

Though any one of these three strategies used alone would improve comprehension, the three combined makes a differentiated and strategic tool that vastly improves accountability for learning and retention. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

Increase Comprehension with these Great FREE Non-Fiction Sites

The following 4 websites are free and full of excellent non-fiction articles for kids/tween reading: wonderopolis, timeforkids, nationalgeographicforkids and kidshealth.

After reading an article, have the child complete a strategy called 3-2-1.  Write down 3 facts learned, 2 new vocabulary words (with definitions) and 1 comment or question about the article. This strategy helps with recall, retention, analysis, summarization and vocabulary acquisition.

Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

Why the Focus on Non-Fiction?

Encourage youth to read non-fiction early on.


By middle school, students are often 2-4 grade levels behind when it comes to non-fiction reading, compared to fiction reading abilities, as they don't regularly receive adequate instruction in the genre and are not exposed to it consistently until 4th grade, the same time that reading instruction drastically declines.  This is one of the reasons so many suffer from the "Fourth Grade Slump" as evidenced in research conducted by Dr. Jeanne Chall. 

The organizational patterns of fiction (characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution) are very different than non-fiction (cause/effect, compare/contrast, definition, chronological order, problem/solution, summary, persuasion, evaluation), and the comprehension skills developed through fiction do not necessarily transfer to non-fiction.  Also, we live in the Information Age, and like it or not, the information is non-fiction; it is the genre we deal with most as adults so it is vital that students are skilled in comprehending, analyzing and summarizing it, even in the elementary grades. 

To avoid this non-fiction literacy deficiency, Dr. Nell Duke recommends students receive instruction in 30% fiction, 30% non-fiction, and 30% other genres (bios and poetry) from the preschool age and up (Genre Diversification Model).  The new Common Core Standards recommend a 50/50 split between fiction/non-fiction instruction in elementary and a 70+% non-fiction emphasis by high school.

This reconfiguration doesn't mean that primary students are reading mostly out of science textbooks; however, if you teach primary and you are reading the fiction book, The Little Red Hen, then front-load the book by reading a non-fiction piece about hens, etc., to provide the background knowledge students need and desire for better comprehension.  It will also engage the boys in class who tend to prefer non-fiction, as the genre provides so much information about the natural world.

Non-fiction exposure and practice also increases students' knowledge of both academic and content area vocabulary and promotes the 21st century critical thinking and College/Career Readiness skills the new Common Core Standards emphasize.

I am not one to say that one genre is better than another; however, as an English and social science teacher, it makes sense to me that students receive at least a balance in exposure AND instruction in both genres so they are best prepared for all of their content classes and have the College/Career Readiness skills the new Common Core emphasizes. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

Increase Critical Thinking & Accountability Through Strategic Questioning-In Other Words-"Put Your Hand Down Child!"

To promote critical thinking in your classes, do not ask a question that only one student answers. Hand-raising that leads to only 1-2 students answering a question actually increases the achievement gap in the classroom. 

It is not uncommon for a teacher to ask up to 100 questions during a fifty minute class period.  Half of them will be answered by the teacher, another 1/4 will be answered by the same few students and the last ones will not be answered as they are often rhetorical. 

This rapid-fire oral questioning is an ineffective practice; it establishes the idea that only a few in class will be held accountable for the critical thinking needed to process the answer, thus allowing cognitive coasting to occur among the majority of students. 

In short, don't ask a question unless it is important enough for ALL students to answer.  

But how can a teacher engage all students all the time?  Consider this strategic questioning technique:

*Pause every few minutes and pose a question to your students

*Allow them one minute to think and write a response (provide a sentence starter if needed)

*Give them one minute to turn and share with a partner

*Have them write their partner's answer down

*THEN pull popsicle sticks or ask for a few to volunteer a response 

This process engages students' writing, listening, speaking and critical thinking skills and holds them accountable for engaging in your lesson.

To enhance listening and accountability even more, after writing the first partner's answer down, have students then turn to another partner and share the first partner's response.  This further increases active listening skills by requiring students to share their partner's answer with another, and it also lowers the affective filter (Krashen) as they are not sharing their personal opinion. 

This simple technique resets students' attention span clock and promotes deeper comprehension, retention and accountability for learning throughout your lesson. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,