I’m in the middle of reading “Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters,” by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. This is a book that I’ve been looking forward to, and I’m excited to adapt the ideas for second language reading with my students.
Here’s the problem I’m working on solving: second language reading has often been treated as glorified translating. And once you understand the vocabulary, you have “read” the text. I’m definitely guilty of having taught reading this way in the past, but so much gets lost with this approach.
It doesn’t take very long before reading this way becomes a chore. Students don’t look forward to it. They don’t make personal connections to it, and they never get below the surface of it.
I want to tap into my students’ knowledge of genre, format, the role of illustrations and charts, headings and subheadings, and then to get to what really matters. To connect with authentic voices from other cultures and give them a window into ideas and perspectives they may not be exposed to outside the context of the new language they are studying.
As a second language teacher, I am not part of the immediate intended audience for this book. However, the goals the authors have for readers are the same as I have for students in my classes, and I’m confident that with some adaptation I can use the ideas to create a more meaningful reading experience in my classes.
My notes on Part 1: The Readers We Want
As I read Part 1 of this book, I found myself nodding, highlighting, and writing things down so I didn’t forget them. Here’s what stood out to me:
- students need to approach reading with the idea that they are not just reading for information.
- students need to use text to think, create, and imagine solutions to problems.
- as time goes by, students tend to view reading as something they have to do because it is assigned. They become indifferent.
- readers need to think about what they bring to a text. Reading needs to be an interaction between text and student, and then a larger community of readers.
- reading should be a personal experience in which the reader is encouraged to think about what a text means to them, and what they bring to it. This needs to go beyond expressing likes and dislikes.
- readers need to be asked big questions with open-ended answer possibilities. The authors suggest 3 big questions, as follows:
- What surprised you?
- What did the author think I already knew?
- What challenged, changed, or confirmed my thinking?
- the questions (above) can be answered by any reader at any level. As time goes by, responses can become deeper, more personal, more sophisticated in expression, etc., but all answers can and should be considered.
- opening the door to interaction between text and student can teach students to respond to a text and let it touch them. They need to think about what they bring to a text and why it matters.
- there is a connection between “response” and “responsibility”.
- “Responsibility” means looking at the words the author has used and being responsible to both self and text.
- To be a part of the reading process, a student must be aware of what he/she thinks or feels.
- To respond to the text, students should be able to identify or restate what the text says so that the author’s words can speak and the student can hear them.
- Student must also be responsible to others – those to whom he/she speaks and shares response.
- Being good global citizens means sharing what is true, and being responsible to ourselves, to others, and to the text.
- students need to be compassionate – not just open-minded, but willing to connect with feelings and emotions in a text.
So how does this apply to second language learners?
The biggest obstacle for second language learners and teachers is the limited vocabulary, particularly in the earlier grades.
I’ve seen many different estimates of how much vocabulary knowledge language learners should have at each level. It’s hard to find agreement on this topic, but as a rough estimate, students at the A1 level of the Common European Frame of Reference for Languages should know about 500 words.
We can get into the weeds pretty quickly here, but “knowing” a word involves a lot more than just matching translations on a quiz. It involves knowing the forms of a word, how to use it in a sentence, what it sounds like, how to pronounce it, what can be substituted for it, what contexts it occurs in, what prefixes and suffixes can be added to it, what alternate meanings it may have, and more.
At the beginning level, students should know and be able to use high frequency, basic vocabulary used in everyday contexts. At each subsequent level, their vocabulary breadth should approximately double.
Reading tasks for beginning students may look like this:
This is an invitation to a birthday party. Readers are asked to look at very simple texts and answer basic, factual questions about them, and at this stage of the process the goal is primarily vocabulary building. In this exercise, the reader is asked to identify what the event is, where and when it takes place, and who is organizing it.
From a reader response standpoint, there’s not a lot to work with here. If I were to ask my students to read this and then tell me what surprised them about it, I doubt they would be able to give much of a response.
I would need to start with a question that assumed a lower level of vocabulary comprehension, such as…
- a. Before you use your resources to understand this text, scan it for words that are similar to English and words you have already learned in French. Based on your background knowledge and anything else you notice, what do you think this text is about?
This would be a two part question, and I would ask them the follow up question, which is a modified version of the third question on the list…
- b. Now that you’ve used your resources, was your prediction correct? What challenged, changed, or confirmed your thinking?
I can definitely ask my students the second question on Beers and Probst’s list…
2. What did the author think you already knew?
There is a wide range of possible responses here. Students might start at the level of vocabulary, but they could also include things relating to context like, “The author assumed I would know some typical French names.” I remember being at this stage of language learning, trying to figure out if I was looking at the name of a person or a place, whether the name referred to a boy or a girl, and so on. This is the kind of thing the dictionary doesn’t really help with, and it’s only learned through repetition and exposure to a variety of texts. It’s not possible or practical to memorize all French names of people or places, but a basic familiarity is important and helpful to understanding text.
In their discussion of this question, Beers and Probst argue that readers need be able to identify places where they didn’t know enough, and then take steps to figure out what they need to do to fill in that background. In a second language reading context using the example above, this could mean writing down key words that would help in understanding, differentiating between people and place names, or noting the differences in how dates and telephone numbers are written in French.
Here’s my current draft of my reader response for beginners:
I will change this for more advanced language learners, but I’m using this as a placeholder for myself to think about where they come in to my classes.
The readers I want
The title of Part 1 of the book is “The Readers We Want”. I wanted to give some thought to the characteristics of the readers I want to develop in my classes.
For beginning readers, I think these two questions would be enough of a response to require students to engage with a text, but not to overwhelm. These represent a move away from fill in the blanks type questions or multiple choice. They don’t allow a student to just translate and move on.
These are open ended questions that can apply to almost any text. I am a big believer in open ended questions, for the following reasons:
- they can be answered by students at any level from beginner to expert.
- they require deeper thought and understanding.
- they require authentic engagement with the text.
- they require a response that has the power to move a student forward in their learning.
- they place the responsibility for learning on the student.
- they allow for tracking of learning over time as students compare their responses to various texts.
The critical piece I don’t have in my reader response yet is the compassionate reader. I don’t have anything that will allow my students to express emotions, connect with viewpoints, relate to cultural similarities and differences, and connect what they are reading in French with what they have read in English. In my opinion, the level of text that can be understood by beginners just doesn’t lend itself to that kind of examination because of where they are in their vocabulary acquisition. However, my senior students should definitely be able to do this, and in the target language. As I continue to read the book, that’s the piece I’m working on.