Previewing Texts in Content Classrooms

By: Roberta L. Sejnost and Sharon M. Thiese


The driving force in most content-area classes is the textbook. Woodward and Elliott (1990) tell us that often 67% to 90% of secondary school classroom instruction is centered around the text, making it the prime provider of content information. Also we are well aware that the reading difficulty of the texts used in secondary school classrooms often far exceed the reading abilities of the students who use them (Allington, 2002; Budiansky, 2001). And to make the situation even more complex, the students that inhabit our classrooms are often reluctant readers and thus unwilling to read their texts at all. However, given the importance placed upon textbooks by content-area teachers, we cannot allow students to merely ignore the reading tasks required of them.

What can we do, then, to help our students as they face the tremendous task of achieving content-area literacy? Karen Garber-Miller (2007) suggests that one way teachers can "scaffold their students to reading success" (p. 285) is to provide students with textbook previewing strategies that focus not only on the structure of the text — such as the table of contents, index, chapter introductions, and so forth — but on a content overview, which focuses on the concepts and questions covered in the chapter and their interrelationships. Examples of some innovative text previews (Name that Feature, Textbook Sales Pitches/Commercials, and What's Old? What's New?), as well as general steps for previewing text, as developed by Garber-Miller (2007) are detailed below. It is imperative, however, that teachers model the preview strategy they will utilize first, so students clearly understand the process.

General steps for a text preview

  1. Instruct students to peruse the text, searching for important or recurrent features. (It is especially crucial that the teacher model this step first, before asking students to complete it.)
  2. Group students into teams, and ask them to choose a recorder to record their findings.
  3. Have each student share his or her findings with the group.
  4. Ask students to report their group findings to the entire class. (At this point, if you notice students have overlooked an important feature, inform them to add it to the list.)
  5. Once all groups have reported out, assign each group a feature or features,and ask them to generate a written description of what each feature does for the book. Collect these descriptions.

Variations of text previews

Name that feature

If you have several classes completing the feature descriptions described above, you can utilize the descriptions to play "Name That Feature":

  1. Assemble the class into teams; have each team elect a spokesperson.
  2. Read each description developed by another class aloud, and challenge the teams to identify the feature.
  3. Allow student teams time to discuss their response and, when a team has an answer, the team spokesperson should stand. The first one to stand should attempt the answer. (You may, of course, also provide a bell or a buzzer to signal that an answer is known.)
  4. Award one point per correct answer; the team with the most points at the game's conclusion wins.

Textbook sales pitch/Commercials

  1. Divide the class into two groups and distribute textbooks to each group.
  2. Members of Group 1 assume the role of a textbook salesperson. Allow preparation time for the group to peruse the text to get an understanding of its organization, special features, benefits, and weaknesses. Inform them that their task is to prepare a persuasive sales pitch for the textbook to an audience of skeptical teachers.
  3. Members of Group 2 assume the role of teachers and students who are serving on a textbook selection committee and are skeptical about choosing a new text. Allow preparation time for the group to peruse the text to compile a list of what they feel are important features in a textbook of good quality as well as a list of questions and concerns they will pose to the textbook salesperson based on their own review of the text.
  4. When the presentation and discussion are complete, be sure to add any additional considerations you feel students have overlooked.

What's old? What's new?

  1. Divide students into small groups, and assign each group a text chapter to review.
  2. Ask students to peruse the topics and special features they find within their chapter.
  3. Have each group compile a list of primary topics the chapter covers and list them on a chart under either the heading What's Old? for content that has been covered in past classes or What's New? for material that is new or unfamiliar. (Note: Garber-Miller warns that due to varying past experiences, group members may disagree on whether topics are old or new; encourage them to reach consensus.) In addition, she stresses that it is especially crucial that the teacher model this step first before asking students to complete it.
  4. Ask each group to display their charts and lead their classmates on a "chapter walk," pointing out the old and new concepts in each chapter. Encourage each group to seek feedback on their list.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Woodward, A. & Elliott, D.L. (1990). Textbooks: Consensus and controversy. In D.L. Elliott & A. Woodward (eds.), Textbooks and schooling in the United States (89th yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, part I, pp.146-161). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Allington, R. (2006). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Budiansky, S. (2001). The trouble with the text books. Prism, 10(6), 24-27.

Garber-Miller, K. (2007). Playful textbook previews: Letting go of familiar mustache monologues. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 50(4), 284-288.

Sejnost, R.L. & Thiese, S.M. (2010). Building content literacy: Strategies for the adolescent learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.