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.

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