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 http://naturalreaders.com/index.html 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.
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