I was playing the underdog in a bit of an impossible match up--starting children simultaneously in Ambleside Online (AO) Years 2, 4 and 6, with no prior AO experience, diving into Charlotte Mason's Volumes, becoming an active member of the AO Forum, attending conferences and book clubs and attempting to manage a home with two toddlers in tow.
I still remember when I saw someone ask a question about pre-reading on the AO Forum. It is very possible I cried and cried a lot. I had never heard of pre-reading in the context of my children's education before, and now I was supposed to be pre-reading all of my children's books? So much for putting money on a 16-seed.
But I was not ready to wave the white flag. My instinct told me that pre-reading was not only important for my children, but for myself as well. Having disdained literature for many years of my life and having never had the joyful experience of a living education and all the soul-feeding ideas that come therewith, I now realized I was starving and would be greatly blessed through the guise of pre-reading for my children--perhaps at the deeper level I would really be pre-reading for myself.
So yes, I think pre-reading is important, but for each of us and where we are at in life, it is going to look quite differently.
If you are able to pre-read everything, I think this is the best answer. I know of moms who set up their summer reading to pre-read the year their oldest child will be entering. In the context of AO, many of parents have been using AO from the beginning and have just grown with their oldest child. Although they have several children in several years, they have only have one child for whom they need to pre-read since the rest of the pre-reading has already been done. Such was not the case for me with three children entering AO simultaneously and a fourth only a year away.
Since I was not able to to pre-read everything, I needed a list of priorities.
First, I have chosen not to pre-read anything which I am going to read aloud to a child. This has its cons--I don't always choose a good stopping point in the text and I'm not always prepared for challenging vocabulary or difficult situations, but it works.
Second, I don't mind listening to books I can get free from my library or via a decent Librivox edition. I have made my way through several pre-reads just running errands. The main con here is that I'm not getting the slow, thoughtful encounter with a book my child will get as he slowly reads and narrates it over the course of a year.
Third, for the parent, I have decided there is nothing wrong with Cliff Notes, Spark Notes, or even Wikipedia to get the general gist of a book. At times this feels like a tragic choice, especially for one who is so strongly anti-spoiler as myself, but I no longer attach the stigma of failure when I need to do this. The caution here is that my first exposure to a book will be through the interpretation and ideas of another. I must show great care if and when these ideas were to ever take part of a closing, especially having not read the book first hand.
Very similar to the type of resources just mentioned, there is a Yahoo Group called Cheatsheet. It is not officially run by AO. Rather, it was put together by parents using AO to help one another with AO books. It has lots of files for Y1-Y5, one file for Y6, and nothing for the upper years
Fourth, there are books which actually get read, and these are carefully chosen. Often, I choose these books on the advice I get from others on the AO Forum. The question has oft been asked about which might be the most important pre-reads. For example, I know I will be pre-reading The Once and Future King. Of course, there is not always a consensus on the most important book, but the advice is helpful.
If you are pre-reading, share with us your advice and tips. If you are not, grab a book and enjoy the adventure which awaits you.