Character profiles – a second language literacy strategy

I’m experimenting in my classroom this year with various ways of getting my students to read more in their second language, have fun doing it, and be able to show what they know. I want the experience to be engaging, but also to push them beyond where they thought they could go. In this post, I’m outlining my step by step process for how to guide students at the A1 level through the creation of a character profile.

In my French 9 class, we are currently working on the first four pages of this book: objectif lune

When I gave students the pages we were working on, their initial responses were predictable – they looked at all the French, and pulled out their dictionaries. From personal experience, I know this is the way a lot of us approach texts written in a language we don’t know. However, I wanted to get my students to recognize how much they could actually understand without the help of a dictionary.




At this level, the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) gives the following global description of reading proficiency:

Can understand very short, simple texts a single phrase at a time, picking up familiar names, words and basic phrases and rereading as required.

(Source: http://www.coe.int/en/web/portfolio/overview-of-cefr-related-scales)

While it’s true they don’t have advanced reading skills in French yet, I believe students are capable of much more than filling in blanks and identifying pictures based on what they’ve read. They do not need to translate a text to be able to get meaning out of it, but it is critical to activate their cross-curricular competencies. They may not be able to read extensively in French, but they can in English. They are used to using a range of skills to access meaning in texts in English. These skills need to  be simplified for use in a second language, but they can most definitely be used to derive meaning.

Step 1: Identifying main characters

In groups, I asked my students to identify the main characters in the story. It didn’t take long for them to be able to complete this. Many of them (especially the boys) were already familiar with some of the characters, and they were able to identify the rest by using what they already know of comics and characters in any language. For example, they easily identified that the passengers on the airplane are not main characters, but that a main character is one you see in the cover illustration, and in repeated frames within the story. He or she will also tend to have more detail in the way they are drawn, and their faces are visible more than those of the other characters. In this case, the main characters in the first four pages are Tintin, Capitaine Haddock, Milou (Snowy), and Nestor (the butler).

Step 2: Describe the characters’ appearance

Description is a major skill set that we have worked on all year, and students have described themselves, their friends and family members, etc. All I wanted them to do here was to write two sentences per character that could be used to pick them out of a lineup – not a high level of detail, but enough to be easily distinguished as that person. They had to work their way around a couple of situations where they didn’t know the words they needed, but with a little guidance were able to handle it. For example, Nestor is bald. Most of them didn’t know the word “chauve” (bald), so they rephrased and said, “Il n’a pas de cheveux” (he has no hair).

Step 3: Describe the characters’ personalities

This step generated a bit more discussion. They still were not using dictionaries to read/translate, and they had to glean information from body language, gestures, facial expressions, use of all caps to show shouting, etc. Some students noticed that Capitaine Haddock was smoking and drinking and swearing, and so we talked about that in class. It didn’t take long to find examples from other children’s stories in English of what could be called “questionable behaviour”. For example, Harry Potter’s relatives locked him in a closet under the stairs. Throughout the Lord of the Rings series, there is a lot of smoking and drinking, not to mention warfare and death. We still encourage kids to read those stories, and we also recognize that those elements are there for a reason. Capitaine Haddock is seen as more of a humorous element – he is not a dangerous or threatening character, and often provides comic relief.

For older students, I would encourage exploration of the stereotypes shown in this character, and tie in the context of the time period to an examination of his personality. Students at the A1 level are not ready for this yet, but this step of the process was a great way to encourage some critical thinking and to make connections with the text. They also noticed that the vocabulary they had built in their second language to this point didn’t quite cover some of the more complex topics such as this, and so part of our discussion involved finding the words they needed.

Step 4: Draw a character profile

This involves a combination of description and activating prior knowledge. Many students had done character maps in English, and so were familiar with the concept. I gave them a page with a blank outline of a person (link below) and asked them to draw a line down the centre of the page.

Schéma du personnage

Using a graphic format for this assignment gets students engaged more quickly. Regardless of their proficiency level in a given language, giving students the freedom to draw first and explain later gives them a way to jump right into the task.

For this exercise, students were able to choose any one of the main characters from the pages we had read. It really doesn’t matter who they choose, because they are practicing the skill of description. The more variety, the better, as they share their ideas with each other.

On the left, they illustrated “l’apparence physique du personnage” (the physical appearance of the character) and labeled it in French. This was easy for them as it connected directly to the unit they had just done, learning how to describe clothing and hair styles.

On the right, they illustrated “le caractère du personnage” (the personality of the character). The illustration of these features posed more of a challenge, and students tackled it in a variety of ways. Some added facial expressions and body language, which was context appropriate as we were reading a comic book. Others chose to use emojis to illustrate these aspects of their chosen character. Regardless of how they did it, all students were able to be successful with this exercise. I’ve included a sample below to show the results.

Student sample of character profile

I could have asked students to write paragraphs describing the characters, but drawing profiles and writing a few descriptive sentences allowed the focus to be on understanding and enjoying the story. They will work on paragraphs as part of another assignment, because it’s a skill they need to be comfortable with, and my hope is that if I present the reading as an enjoyable activity, I will see some transfer of vocabulary and skills to the writing they will do going forward.

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