The Dangers of Using the Term “Pre-Teaching”

Pre-teaching as a “thing”

After having read The Dangers of Pre-Teaching I feel there is more danger in just using the term pre-teaching the way it is commonly used. The word pre-teaching currently does not seem to be trending any one particular direction and appears limited to mainly being used in the United States, according to Google Trends. But clearly, for many, pre-teaching is a “thing”: search pre-teaching and Google preteaching /pre-teaching for how it’s used over the web.  The first definition of the term, interestingly enough, comes from outside of the US, by the British Council: “Pre-teaching is the teaching of the language learners need before an activity”.

Some argue that pre-teaching does have some limitations…

What is the point in pre-teaching? The dangers of pre-teaching
It really can break the flow of a lesson. Pick out every single unknown word in the text and pre-teach it, turning pre-teaching into a main event where a random list of vocabulary is presented one after the other with no context (because the context would come later in the form of the reading/listening text!)
Learners often seem to look a bit bewildered at why 4 seemingly random words are being taught. Pick out words that students already know and teach them.
I’m just not convinced it actually helps learners read better or develop strategies to deal with text. Pick out words that are so obscure and useless that students would probably never encounter them again.
Don’t think of white bears! What are you thinking of now? If you highlight some lexis before moving on reading work, is there not a risk you actually distract from this work by drawing attention to difficult items? (This can be Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s contribution to ELT…) Pick out words that might be in the text but don’t really have much to do with the main message of the text.
If done badly, it’s seriously counter-productive and can lead to boredom, disengagement, etc. Pick out words that can easily be guessed from context and co-text when the students actually begin listening/reading.
It’s not how we read in real life – this is hugely important: just who is going to pre-teach some selected items for learners when they read in the real world?
Selecting the words necessarily involves assumptions about the learners. How do you know they won’t know that word? Why do you think they don’t? What if they do?
And it also involves assumptions about the usefulness of the items – would you pre-teach “lusophone”, for example, in Dubai?
It’s not appropriate for every receptive skills lesson but is often presented as such cf. when I did CELTA years ago.
It can distort the focus of the lesson from a reading skills development one to a lexis learning one.
If you’re ‘demanding high’, why not just let the learners get on with it and come back to lexis, etc., after the reading stages of the lesson (more on that below).
It may hinder learners’ developing “word-attack skills”, to borrow Christine Nuttall’s term (anyone else actually see a text being knifed by Nuttall there?), such as working out which words are important/can be ignored, inferring meaning, etc.

So, based on the definition and limitations listed above, pre-teaching appears as a distinction between two different types of teaching/learning activities: some sort of behavior that enables the learner to better perform some “main event”, or performance/activity that comes later.  This leads me to a philosophical analysis of the word, pre-teaching and why the word just gets in the way, regardless how one feels about any of the limitations listed above.

Philosophical Analysis of Pre-teaching

The prefix pre- means earlier than, before, in advance, beforehand, etc. (Merriam-Webster). Teaching is defined as something taught; of, involving, or used for teaching: teaching materials; teaching methods;  the act or business of instructing; etc. (worknik). So, pre-teaching is something (other than teaching) that occurs before the act of teaching.  Yet, the term pre-teaching is typically used to mean, “pre-teaching teaching” as in,pre-teaching refers to the teaching of certain skills that would be needed for a lesson. This is sometimes done in a session prior to the actual class, and can be helpful for students who might struggle to follow a lesson” (para. 4)… “It is important to point out that the main event in question here is the task: and that may be a listening task, a reading task, or a group task that involves speaking and writing. The main event is NOT the pre-teaching of lexis (or it won’t be called ‘pre-teaching’. It’d simply be teaching)”. (para. 7).

Let’s unpack a bit more… the notion of task can have a variety of meanings but usually refers to either task-based learning (as a series of tasks) or a quite different idea as in the case of a performance task (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005).  So from the beginning, there are several ways to interpret any pre/post-types of teaching or learning.  Moreover, when saying that “Pre-teaching refers to the teaching of…” something, basically this means that pre-teaching is… well, teaching.  What is, then, “pre-teaching teaching”?  How can this be a “thing”?  Can pre-teaching teaching occur before the class, but not always?  Can it occur during the class as well? Can an educator pre-teach and teach at the same time?  What specific behaviors by a teacher are associated with the act of pre-teaching?  And how do these behaviors differ from the act of (regular) teaching?

In The Dangers of Pre-Teaching, the term pre-teaching is used 15 (out of 18) times as a noun, as in “What exactly is pre-teaching?” (para. 3).  I have the same question actually. On three occasions, pre-teaching is used as an adjective, as in pre-teaching stage. As an adjective, pre-teaching makes perfect sense, like when we refer to other non-teaching behaviors or concepts: pre-teaching activities, pre-teaching methods, pre-teaching materials, pre-teaching behaviors, etc.  Again, pre-teaching in the nominal form remains odd.

Learning Trumps Teaching

In English language teacher training, we spend a lot of time helping teacher trainees to develop their knowledge about how languages are learned, their pedagogical skills and related theoretical knowledge base, and their English proficiency skills.  We promote reflective practice so that they become more autonomous in learning how to develop not only on their own but through reflective practice through the interaction with other teacher trainees and in-service practitioners.  But in doing so, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that what the learners do is more important than what the teacher (trainer) does.

The problem with the term pre-teaching is that it is more representative of a different type of learning than any specific type of teaching.  It shifts the focus from learning to teaching, which at best remains vague, at worst, a mistake.  Learning vocabulary before a performance task is an enabling act.  All learning is just a string of enabling acts (or behaviors) that connect what one knows and can do already to something new (or something they don’t know and/or cannot do).  Pre-learning is not a thing, just as pre-teaching is not a thing.  Students and teachers both teach and learn throughout the educative experience, becoming less dependent and more independent, on to becoming more interdependent as the learning trajectory unfolds.  Any value in what is referred to as “pre-teaching” relates primarily to trying to understand how one type of (learner) behavior might enable a different type of behavior, and so on.  

To conclude, we seldom think of pre-teaching a child to play baseball, pre-teaching a child to learn how to swim, pre-teaching a child to play basketball, etc.  If I help a child with her free throw shot, I’m not pre-teaching the athlete to become a better basketball player… it’s just a teaching moment, and more importantly, a learning opportunity to see how being a better free throw shooter leads to becoming a better overall player.  

By the time a learner is ready to perform the “main event”, the instructor is no longer a “teacher” (i.e., didactic instructor), but rather a facilitator or coach.

Agree or disagree?  Is the idea of “pre-teaching” just a substitute for “didactic instructor”?  Or something else? Leave your comments below.