‘Frontloading’ lays a foundation for comprehension

“There’s a bear in a plain brown wrapper doing flip-flops on 78, taking pictures and passing out green stamps.”

Does the above sentence make sense to you? What does it seem to be about? How confident are you of your interpretation? Is there anything difficult about this text? Do you understand all of the vocabulary?

What if I provided a hint for your comprehension: CB (Citizen Band) radios? Now what sense can you make of that sentence? Many of you will immediately recognize that the sentence is CB lingo, used by truckers and other travelers, and popularized in the 1970s by a series of “Smoky and the Bandit” movies featuring Burt Reynolds.

You could fairly confidently translate that passage into: “There’s a state patrol officer in an unmarked car going back and forth across the median on highway 78, using radar and passing out speeding tickets.”

Shaky initial comprehension of this sentence was probably not due to your poor reading skills, difficult vocabulary, or a complex sentence structure. Instead, if the sentence did not make sense, it was due to confusion on your part. You were probably asking yourself: what do I know that can help me figure out this passage? You were struggling to make a meaningful connection to the material.

Teaching/Learning Activities

Many of our students have similar problems when they launch into a reading assignment “cold.” They may be unsure of what the material is really about, and have not taken any stock of what they already might know about the topic that could guide their understanding. They glide along – reading words, noticing details, picking out pieces of information – but in actuality, they may be clueless about what they are attempting to read.

Teaching/Learning activities which prep students before they engage in reading are called frontloading – activities which introduce key ideas to students, pique their curiosity, activate their relevant background knowledge, and focus their attention on essential elements of the text. Students can also be taught to frontload whenever they encounter unfamiliar text.

Step 1: To underscore the importance of frontloading when you read, provide students with a selection that might appear to be rather obscure if you hadn’t been alerted to the general topic. The following is an example:

“Your first decision is to choose the size you desire. Once you have made your selection, examine the general shape to determine where to start. The initial incision is always at the top, and you should continue until you can lift it cleanly. The removal of the interior portion can be fun, although some people regard this as the least enjoyable aspect. Once the shell is empty, you can begin to craft a personality.

Some prefer a forbidding likeness, while others follow a more humorous direction. Finally, arrange for a source of illumination. Enjoy your results while you can, for your work will soon begin to sag.”

Display the above passage on an overhead transparency, and provide students with only enough time for a single reading. Then ask volunteersĀ for their hunches about the passage. As students tender their ideas, have them remember clues from the passage which triggered their theories. A variety of explanations about the selection may be offered and justified.

Then allow students to re-read the passage with the prompt “Halloween.”

Students will quickly recognize, in spite of the intentionally vague language, that the passage describes carving a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern.

Step 2: Discuss with students frustrations they encountered when trying to read while in the “dark” about the passage. Some information probably made no sense, but would have been perfectly understandable if the Halloween clue had been provided before they started. Students were not sure what part of their memory to access to make sense of their confusions.

Follow up with other such passages, each time encouraging students to search their “memory banks” for connections they could apply to the material. Students will realize that reading will be much more efficient and successful if they have done some frontloading before they tackle the text.

Step 3: Emphasize the necessity of getting a “first read” before undertaking any reading task. Use a football analogy with students: before a quarterback runs a play, he takes time at the line of scrimmage to “read” the defense. He wants to know what to expect and he wants to make some predictions for what might happen. He also wants to anticipate strategies he can use during the play to be successful. Not doing a first read is an invitation to disaster!

A first read, or preview, is done at an accelerated skim rate, and it requires a very active and aggressive mindset. This initial “sweep” through the material ignores most of what is on the page and instead targets the following questions:

  • Topic – What does this selection seem to be about? What do I already know about this topic? What do I predict I should know after reading this?
  • Main Idea – What’s the point of this material? Why did the author write this? What good is this supposed to do me? What should I focus on?
  • Major Themes – What are the key arguments or conclusions? If this material were summarized, what are the central thoughts that connect most of the details? What does this author apparently believe?
  • Structure – How is this material put together? How is it subdivided or sectioned? Where do I need to spend most careful attention? (Where’s the “beef” in this material?)
  • Salient Details – Are there any facts that definitely deserve my attention? What stands out in the material? What’s in bold or italic type, in quotations, capitalized, etc.? Any key phrases that seem important? How familiar is this stuff? What details do I already know?
  • Style – What am I noticing about writing style? Complexity of sentences? Density of vocabulary? How smoothly does the prose “flow”? How easy will this be to read?
  • Tone/Attitude/Mood – What was the author feeling when writing this material? What emotions am I supposed to react to? Anger? Humor? Enthusiasm? Criticism? Sarcasm? Irony? Logical reasoning? Persuasion? Inspiration? Instructiveness? (If the author was doing a live presentation on this material, what would it be like?)


Students need to become automatic “frontloaders” when reading. Teaching/Learning activities that involve students in frontloading have the following benefits:

  • Students are more likely to search for main ideas in their reading, rather than wander aimlessly among the factual information.
  • Students come to expect connections in a reading with what they already know or have experienced.
  • Students are conditioned to make predictions about a passage, and then read to confirm or reject these predictions.