Making connections – Reader response journals in second language classes (Part 1 of 2)

Authentic texts in a language course are fun to explore, and engaging for students – the ability to read something that was not created at a given level for a textbook, or the ability to choose something that the student is genuinely interested in makes for a powerful learning experience.

The challenges for a teacher in setting up an experience like this can be many. Depending on the composition of a given class, it’s possible to have many different reading levels in a given group. Presenting a reading level too high results in a feeling of defeat, and students are likely to give up. Too low, and it’s not interesting enough, so students will tune out.

Besides the reading levels, there is the question of what to ask students to do with a given text. It’s not practical for a teacher to make up comprehension questions for each one if you are planning on using a large number of texts, so the need arises for a set of open-ended questions that can be used in a wide range of situations. Given that the students are second language learners, they can’t do the same things with a reading assignment as they would do in their first language. They can use some of the cross curricular competencies from a first language reading assignment to perform skills like identifying genre, predicting content, using layout to understand some basic parts of the text, and so on.

I’ve been working on integrating authentic reading into my French as a second language classes for a while now (4 years +) and wanted to share what I’ve arrived at. If you’re thinking of trying something similar in a second language class, I’ve broken my process down into its different components. It’s easy to use as a one time project, or to make as an ongoing routine all year/semester long.

Step 1 – What is it?

Regardless of what the text is, I ask students to start by identifying the genre and the type of text. This gives them a range of vocabulary to use in their description of what they’re reading, and what they think about it. It’s also an opportunity for me to ask them to think about what they already know about that genre or type of text. For example, if it’s a comic strip, they know that the pictures are going to tell part of the story, and they won’t encounter long descriptions of setting, background, etc. They have to pay attention to details in order to understand those things. They also know that speech bubbles will show the dialogue, and that if the letters are upper case or bold, it will indicate strong emotion. They will likely have to pay attention to facial expressions and gestures in the drawings to understand exactly what the emotion is. And so on. Not rocket science, but it’s enough to make students feel more comfortable with a text and be more willing to work at understanding challenging vocabulary because the other supports are in place.

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Step 2 – What’s your opinion?

I always give students an opportunity to say whether they like something or don’t like it. If they like it, that gives me information that I can use to try to find other examples of texts that they might connect to. If they don’t, there’s still an opportunity for exploration because we often have more articulate opinions about things we dislike than those we prefer.

The initial step of saying whether they like or dislike something is very simple, using graphics for ease of understanding. Regardless of whether they like it or not, the next step is to explain that opinion. I’ve given them some vocabulary to use here – adjectives to describe the text, and a sample sentence they can use to integrate the adjective.

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This is followed by a bit more detail – a section that gives students some sentence starters to begin expressing their own personal response to whatever they read. These are designed to include some idiomatic expressions that serve in a variety of situations, but are introduced in the context of reading. I encourage my students to look at these and think about other situations where they may be able to use a similar beginning to express an idea about a different topic. It takes some repetition, but they eventually get there. The personalization is really important here. If I can get a student to articulate a strong personal response to something, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative. They are welcome to say they don’t like something, as long as they can explain why. The same is true if they like it. The more personal the reaction, the more likely they will remember it, and it will become part of their personal second language knowledge base.

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Step 3 – How does the culture compare?

In the last step, students are asked to take a look at any aspects of the text that show something about the culture from which it came. They describe the culture, and then identify anything they can see about how the culture affects the point of view of the text. This might be shown through a photo, the choice of topic, the bias, the relationships that are shown, and so on. They are also invited to make comparisons between the culture shown in the text and their own culture. This could be Canadian culture in general, or a specific aspect of their own personal cultural background. In my school, we have 50 individual languages spoken, which translates to 50 different cultural groups. This creates an opportunity for a student to make a very personal connection with a text, or to stay at a level that is more reflective of our culture in general. Either approach is fine, and they may choose a variety of levels of response depending on what a given text makes them think about.

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So what’s the end goal?

At the end of the senior levels of French, our curriculum asks that students be able to self-select reading material in their second language. If they know a little about genres they like, authors they’ve noticed, and know how to describe it, they have the basic tools to locate that material on their own. They can also participate in a discussion with others about what they like and why. Through the examination of culture, they become more aware of their own culture as well as the one they are studying, and the increased personal awareness will be useful to them in many areas of life besides French class.

This plan can be adapted to be a short project, a series of stations, or an ongoing daily piece of the classroom routine. One reading response doesn’t take long – about 5-10 minutes once students are trained in how to do it. I make it an ongoing part of my class, but it’s easily adaptable to other formats. In my classes, the reading is just one piece of a larger routine called “Mon journal de culture”, which also incorporates art and music. These journal entries are meant to be short, and not intended to replace longer, more complex pieces of reading. They do give students a wide range of vocabulary and skills which help support those longer reading pieces, and give a more effective response there too.

In my next blog post, I will share more about what authentic French magazines we use, how we digitally curate these for ourselves, how my collaboration partner and I have started reading journals with our students this year – how we walked them through the steps of the response, what we used to model the response for them, and what it looked like when they started to make their selections.

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