Yes we can – lit circles in L2 classes

Yes we can – lit circles in L2 classes

I’ve been frustrated in the past by the kinds of reading comprehension exercises included in curriculum that has been used in second language courses. Much of it has been comprised of fill-in-the-blank, matching, and short answer type questions. Those can be a good starting point, but none of them really require an in-depth understanding of the text, and do very little to provide students with any tools they can use in their own writing. In the languages department of my school, we have been working on incorporating lit circles in our classes, and have amassed a library of resources we can use with our students to span a range of ages and ability levels.

This past week, I spent an afternoon with most of the teachers from my department, talking about what’s been working well, and what we need to change. We had a plan for our junior students, and some resources we had been using in our classrooms, but we wanted to continue to refine our process and to expand it to include students in senior grades as well.

After some discussion, we came up with the following plan:

  1. Begin with one simple text at the beginning of French 8 and introduce the structure of the lit circle in English first to get students used to the routine before moving to French. (In many cases this takes very little time because the students are used to the structure from their English classes. By tying into their cross-curricular competencies, we are showing them that what they do in English isn’t limited to their English classes, and we are minimizing the amount of instructional time needed to get this working in a second language class.)
  2.  Roles:
    1. Le vocabulaire – what words do you know? What words don’t you know? Which words are important? You don’t need to look up every single word, so try to decide (with a partner when we first begin) which words are more important than others. How do you make this decision? How do the important words connect to the main idea of the text?
    2. Le contexte – what information can you understand from the title, the illustrations, the sound effects, etc. ? How do the following elements support your understanding of the text :
      • Setting
      • Environment
      • Situation
      • Clothing worn by characters/physical descriptions
      • Level of language (serious/technical/comical/formal/casual/etc.)
    3. Mes questions – what do you wonder or need more explanation of? Begin your questions with “Qui” and “Pourquoi” to ask for more information. (Hint: this is not the same as learning vocabulary. The answers to these questions would not be found as translations in the dictionary.) How do the answers to these questions support or lead to your understanding of the main idea of the text?
    4. La structure – how does the creation of a visual representation of the text support your understanding of how it’s written? Why did you choose the particular model (Venn diagram, fishbone, idea web, etc.) that you selected?
    5. À haute voix (reading aloud) – this is a whole group activity in the beginning. Students can each read one sentence of a text out loud, and the readings can be recorded to form a part of their speaking portfolio. Over time, their reading ability will improve and they can read longer portions. They can be assessed on things like intonation, expression, pronunciation, fluency, etc. This could be used at any point in the process, depending on the text and at the teacher’s discretion. It could be used equally effectively as an introduction to a new text or as a warm up for the discussion which follows the individual roles. Resources to support reading aloud can include text-to-speech software, available for free at and other sources.
  3. Format :
    1. Lit circles would be done in a discussion format initially, and can begin in English if necessary to accommodate differentiation of student levels. The goal would be to move to French for the discussion, and to include some written forms of expression based on the roles as students become more familiar with their roles.
    2. The reading of the text and students’ completion of their roles would take approximately 1-2 classes, depending on the text and the students’ proficiency levels. The discussion would take one class (or a part of the class).
    3. The relevance of the roles becomes more concrete for students if we pair lit circles with a writing exercise which immediately follows, and is connected to the structure of the text, or the vocabulary words, etc., in order to allow them to work from the model of the original and improve their own writing.

Each of the roles above has a supporting worksheet or framework which I haven’t included here in order to keep this post from becoming even longer. In our department discussion, we all agreed that one of the missing elements was a framework to guide students through the group discussions they needed to have once each of them has completed their role in the circle. To support that part of the process, I created the following resource: On lit A1 toile

Lit circles discussion sheet

Once they have completed their roles, each student will record information from their own as well as their group members’ roles on the sheet in the target language, to create a record of their learning both from their individual reading of the text and from the discussion with their group members.

If we begin with one strategy at the beginning of the first unit of French 8 and add the others gradually so that by the time we get to the end of the second unit we are including all four, we will have them much better prepared for the final unit and will be able to make more personal connections with the material, engaging more students.

Taking this plan forward, our next steps will be:

  1. creating or finding French and Spanish templates for Venn diagrams and fishbone diagrams.
  2. creating versions of our plan and associated resources for grades 9-12 in French and Spanish. That will take longer, but once we get students going through the process at the junior level we should be able to scale it up relatively easily, and they will recognize the format so there will be less teaching of the structure to do and more ability to focus on the texts themselves.

Re-thinking literacy

Re-thinking literacy

Here’s a pop quiz I’d like you to try:

Literacy exercises should include…
a. stories
b. poems
c. plays
d. all of the above

If you answered “d”, you are correct, but I’d like to add another option as well – “e. any text used in everyday life”. Of course, some might feel I’m cheating a bit by adding another, but my goal is to challenge the traditional way we (I) view literacy. In my experience, literacy has traditionally been taught within the framework of stories, and sometimes was expanded to include poems and plays. In my days as an English teacher, the mention of a poem or a play would often elicit groans from my students, and most of them were much more comfortable studying stories. I’m trying to expand the traditional boundaries of literacy in my second language classroom by defining literacy skills as that set of skills which allow students to understand, explore and use anything incorporating text.

My French 10 students are currently working on a unit in which they learn survival strategies for travelling in a Francophone country, and so I decided to design a literacy activity using tourist maps for a variety of Francophone cities around the world. They had just completed a listening exercise from their textbook based on a map of Montréal. That exercise was challenging from a listening perspective, but I felt that there was untapped potential in reading maps, so I went online to see how many French language tourist maps I could find and compiled the following list:

La ville La carte
Papeete, Tahiti
Paris, France
Montréal, Québec
Liège, Belgique
Rabat, Maroc
Nice, France
Phnom Penh, Camboge
Bangkok, Thaïlande
Genève, Suisse
Information, please

High school students are not particularly experienced in reading maps, let alone tourist maps in French of places they’ve never been. I set this up as a partner exercise in order to set up discussions between my students as they worked through the material, and also to decrease the chance that a student working alone would give up in frustration. Using a National Geographic teaching resource for inspiration, I created the first exercise which just asks them to extract information from the map, but also gives an organizational framework for it:

Aspects physiques de la ville de ______ Aspects culturels de la ville de ______

Once they have the table above filled out with examples of physical features of the map (mountains, ocean, rivers, etc.) and cultural features (anything man-made and showing characteristics of the culture of the place and people who built it), they move on to longer written responses which ask them to consider some of the connections between elements of the map and cultural aspects of the location of the city. They need to consider names of parks, streets, and public areas, among other things. They also need to learn or use another mapping literacy skill, using the basic elements of scale to estimate the size of the area shown on their map. Also using mapping literacies, they are asked to use legends or icons (or both) to see what other information is displayed on the map, and then need to explore a comparison between the area depicted on the map and their own community. The final exercise asks them to prepare a short walking tour of the city they have chosen, and to record a video of themselves and their partner talking about how to get around a small area of the city, and what they would see there.

Related links

I’m including the link to my Google Doc (originally in French but with English included for those who speak other languages) here for those who may be interested:

National Geographic has a range of teacher resources available free here:

A good summary of why students need to be able to read maps, as well as some of the skills contained within that ability:

First Steps: Identifying types of text in a second language

First Steps: Identifying types of text in a second language

If you’re like most people I talk to about learning a second language, I’m sure you could come up with a must-have list for things you might want to read in that language. Your list might include things like:

  • keep it short
  • use pictures
  • keep it interesting
  • make it easy to understand

After that, there would be some variety in responses depending on your age, gender, interests, comfort level was in that language, and so on. Depending on what I asked you to do with that text after you read it, each one of those factors might take on more or less importance.

How to choose the right text for the job

When I started a reading comprehension exercise designed to help students identify type of text recently, I knew that I wanted them to go well beyond the surface. In order to increase the chances that they would be willing to do that, and to give thoughtful responses along the way, I knew I needed to choose my texts carefully. My target audiences were students in grades 9 and 10, or in other words, teens between the ages of 14-15, and 15-16.

For my grade 9 students, I chose the 2 page spread pictured below in the magazine Les Explorateurs, with 4 short sections on topics relating to scientific discoveries and technology.

Article from Les Explorateurs

The official target audience of this magazine is Francophone kids between the ages of 6 and 10, but it did engage my students, and here’s why:

  • my students are not Francophones, so they needed something at a level that was a bit easier
  • it’s a magazine, not a book
  • there are lots of pictures and subtitles to help them understand
  • it uses humor
  • it’s short!
  • it’s not “made for a textbook”. It’s something real kids are really interested in.

In addition to all of the above, it didn’t use multiple verb tenses that they hadn’t learned, which meant that if they were looking up words in a dictionary they would be more likely to find them easily, and less likely to encounter frustration that would send them to online translators.

For my grade 10 students, I chose an article from the magazine Okapi (pictured below) which explored the topic of amusement parks in Europe from the point of view of people who work there.

Article from Okapi

Here’s why the article worked for this age group:

  • the target audience of the magazine is adolescents
  • it’s fun!
  • it has pictures
  • it’s about real people doing real things students can relate to – most of them have been to amusement parks, and many of them are starting to think about getting a job

In addition to the above, the article is longer than what students can handle in grade 9, but short enough that grade 10 students can handle it. It contains more of a variety of verb tenses, but not so much so that they can’t recognize what they’re working with.

Getting down to business

The task for grade 9 was as follows: identify what type of text this is (descriptive, narrative, persuasive or expository), identify evidence within the text that supports your opinion, and make a list of transition words that the author used to connect his or her ideas within the paragraph. In grade 9, I asked students to choose whichever one of the four sections (within the two page spread) most appealed to them and to complete the task for just that section.

The task for grade 10 was similar, but instead of identifying just transition words, I asked them to identify key words that fit with the type of text they felt this was. I broke down the reading task for this group a little differently – instead of allowing them to choose a section, I asked them to begin by reading just the first column. Once they had done that, we discussed it as a class to ensure comprehension, and then they moved on to the second column. After completing that step, they could choose which one of the remaining sections (employee profiles) they wished to read.

Bringing it all back together

After students had read the text independently, we spent time as a class discussing and recording on the board what they had found. It was assumed that they had used dictionaries or asked me for help understanding basic vocabulary during the reading, and we focused our discussion on just the aspects of reading that I had asked them to record. The pictures below sum up what students were able to generate during the discussion:

French 9 discussion summary 1
A summary of the discussion of the first part of the French 9 article.
French 9 discussion summary 2
A summary of the second part of the discussion of the French 9 article.
French 10 discussion summary 1
A summary of the discussion of the French 10 article. Some students felt this was a descriptive text, and this summarizes the support they gave for their opinion.
French 10 discussion summary 2
A summary of the discussion of the French 10 article. Some students felt this was a persuasive text, and this summarizes the support they gave for their opinion.

As a final step, each student was asked to record the summary of our discussion from the board into their notebooks as we went through the discussion. The next part of the process will be attempting to transfer the knowledge from reading into writing, and working on ways to incorporate strategies from what students have read into what they can write.

Overall, I think this was a good first attempt. I’m satisfied that my students were able to do what I asked of them, and many of the more complex concepts didn’t need explanation because they had already learned them in English. The element of choice and the whole class discussion made the exercise attainable for those who may have struggled otherwise. This was not intended to be the only time they will do an exercise like this, and I will need to slowly build up their second language vocabulary before asking them to do an exercise like this independently. We will have to revisit exercises like this repeatedly, and I hope that through repeated attempts, they will be able to identify text types independently and begin to build some writing skills unique to each type.

How I’m changing reading for my second language students

How I’m changing reading for my second language students

The image above is a humorous take on an obstacle many beginning French students have – coming from English, French seems backwards, and it is confusing!

Maybe you’ve had conversations with those trying to make sense out of a second language and heard their frustration. Maybe you’ve felt it yourself. It’s hard to get past that initial confusion, and to make sense of what we’re reading.

As a teacher, I have thousands of conversations each year with my students, but every once in a while one of those conversations stands out. One such moment happened in my grade 12 French class last year, when a student asked me if I remembered an “ah-ha” moment in my own second language learning that had stood out for me personally. I didn’t have to search for something – I knew exactly what it was. It was the moment at which I could pick up a French novel and understand it without having to rely heavily on a dictionary to help me. There was a feeling of freedom and release that left an unforgettable impression on me, and as a teacher I have always wanted that same experience for my students. I tried to compare it to the same feeling you get when you lose yourself in a book written in a language you understand – she nodded, but then shook her head, telling me that she didn’t feel that she was there in her own learning, even at the end of her years in high school second language learning.

It’s almost impossible to relate to something you haven’t experienced, and my retelling of my experience wasn’t something my student could relate to. We have to measure our success in a task by relating it to something we can do, and so I knew I had to begin there. I wanted students to be able to say they can do a variety of things with their reading, but in order for them to want to do it, it has to be interesting too.

We all know the difference between doing something we want to do, and something we have to do. Reading selections in second language textbooks are typically chosen to fit with the instruction of a certain grammar concept and a select body of vocabulary. They are levelled to be appropriate for the language ability of typically at that level, but it is difficult to meet the above criteria and also be highly engaging. Comprehension exercises that accompany these reading selections will generally include a series of fill-in-the-blank type exercises or multiple choice and matching tasks that most students can easily complete with little more than comprehension of vocabulary. This kind of checklist approach to reading selections can help to build some vocabulary and give examples of grammar structures, but it is rarely engaging, and doesn’t provide cross-curricular connections to reading skills such as identifying author tone and voice, and literary devices that students learn in their first language.

When students aren’t engaged and the work they are asked to do isn’t at teh right level of challenge, they miss out on one other critically important aspect of reading comprehension – they lose out on the opportunity to gain tools to use in their own writing. The result is a limited reading ability and stilted writing in the second language, and frustration for students who are struggling to find their own voices.

Through my use of lit circles in recent years and differentiation of the tasks students chose to complete , I was seeing more engagement in reading tasks and more open-ended answers to questions, but I still wasn’t seeing the crossover of students applying what they learned from reading and using it to improve their writing.

Over the summer, I have spent time reading a number of resources and documents in an effort to continue these improvements. One of the sources I looked at was the draft curriculum for Core French from the BC Ministry of Education, which is scheduled for implementation at the grade 8 and 9 level in the fall of 2016. The drafts, which can be found here, were exciting to me because of the parallels that exist in the proposed curriculum organizers for English Language Arts and Core French. Both use a skill-based approach that centres around developing student competencies in reading, writing, speaking and listening, with a primary focus on communication. From the perspective of my own training and experience in the areas of both French and English, I see a great opportunity to focus on a range of transferable skills for students, and potentially develop a common language of instruction for teachers in multiple subject areas.

The next steps will involve developing tools and techniques for integrating this into my classes, and I started to look at a number of English language resources that used graphics and visuals to communicate complex ideas. Because I am working with second language students who have limited vocabulary in their second language (and limited patience for extended use of dictionaries) I wanted simple tools with graphics that supported comprehension and communicated at least a portion of the more complex ideas I was attempting to teach. I don’t want to push the limits of what I am trying to teach to the point where students are tempted to use online translators, and I need to stay within a comfort zone for the majority of learners in order to move them forward.

I started with reading two books by Vancouver teacher and author Adrienne Gear – “Non-Fiction Reading Power”, “Writing Power”, and “Non-Fiction Writing Power” all use a simple approach that is easily transferrable from English to French, and break down the connections between reading and writing into smaller chunks that can easily fit into second language classes. In an effort to move towards a common language of instruction, I am planning some visits to English classrooms at my school, and I will be using some release time to collaborate with other French, Spanish and English teachers at my school. I hope to have some new resources to use in my classroom soon, and will be sharing them here as well.

Why literacy?

Why literacy?

I wanted to start this new blog space (I’ve had a blog on another site for several years now) with a post that reflects where my thinking has gone in the last few years. Maybe it’s my background as both an English and a French teacher, but for me, everything comes back to literacy. It’s true that in my French as a second language classroom we spend a lot of time talking about specific elements of speaking, listening, reading and writing, but when you boil it all down to the big picture, it’s all about literacy – the how and the why of communicating in a second language. Teachers talk about literacy all the time, and it’s a word that has been used so much that we may lose sight of how important it is. But consider this:

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories.” That was the opening sentence from the message of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the occasion of International Literacy Day in 1997. You can find the rest of the address here – it’s powerful. It goes on to say, “Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.” Given that level of importance, it’s impossible to ignore the need to focus on literacy.

My work in the classroom doesn’t have the same level of impact as Kofi Annan’s speech to the UN, but my classroom is still a place where literacy is critically important. Because I teach in Canada and I like to dig into this kind of thing, I created theinfographic below using Canadian statistics on literacy:

Literacy in Canada infographic

Up-to-date figures are tough to track down, and most international agencies that track literacy statistics assume Canada to have a 99% literacy rate, commonly defined as the ability to read and write at age 15. However, second language literacy digs much deeper than that. You’ve probably noticed that the infographic above doesn’t contain statistics specifically pertaining to second language literacy. That’s mostly because they are not readily available, and because it was only in the Canadian census of 2012 that questions specifically pertaining to languages spoken in homes across the country started to be asked. The really exciting thing (for people who care about language and literacy) is the potential return on investment in literacy programs. The benefit to society as a whole is huge.

Second language literacy is a complex beast, made up of speaking, listening, reading and writing components, each of which develop at different rates for different learners. I grew up in an era of second language instruction that was very focussed on rote memorization. That has changed over the years, with modern curricula focussing on communicative proficiencies more so than vocabulary quizzes and verb conjugations.

There is a strong need to continue moving forward towards communication and literacy, and my recent participation in a district committee tasked with piloting and selecting a new program for our French as a second language programs has highlighted that for me. The committee has looked at a number of resources so far from several publishers, and the current range of offerings spans the gamut from traditional grammar based practice to situations in which students acquire vocabulary for communication, and practice speaking, listening, reading and writing in context. As a language teacher, I have found the latter range of options to have far more appeal for my students, as well as more overall effectiveness. Learning grammar and vocabulary in isolation is really learning the “what” without the “why”, and most students can’t remember it for long.

What it all comes down to is really simple – students need to know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how to put the pieces together. What they learn to say has to fit together with what they read, what and how they write, and their ability pick up information from listening. And it can’t be based on a series of rote memorization exercises with multiple choice answers. They need effective feedback, opportunities to make mistakes, and the courage and drive necessary to fix them. If you have thoughts to share on second language learning or literacy in general, please feel free to share – I’d love to hear what you have to say.