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.