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.
Conclusion

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.

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