Reading and Understanding in a second language: strategies for all learners

This post is about a resource I developed in about 2017, and it allowed me to align the way that I teach reading in my second language classes with a series of beliefs that I’ve held for a long time:

  • Reading is NOT translation. For years, every time I asked students to read something in their second language, they started translating with the first word, and once they finished translating the last word, they believed they had “read” it.
  • Cross-curricular literacies give important access points for struggling students. Once students learn to recognize that they bring a powerful amount of background knowledge to any second language reading task, they are far more willing to undertake the other challenges that lie within the actual reading.
  • Reading SHOULD be fun! The end goal of our programs should be to have a student body who see reading as enjoyable and are able to select something for themselves that they connect with. And when that’s the end goal, teachers need to find ways to help students begin that journey.
  • Second language reading is really a window into second culture. Texts are full of insights into ways that other cultures think about themselves and the world, and once we read and understand them, our cultural understanding becomes deeper and richer.
  • Students should be challenged to think critically and not just regurgitate content. Anything they do with the texts they read should help them develop that skill set, and not lose time (and reluctant readers) in busy work.

I work in Surrey School District here in BC, and am part of a dynamic community of educators working to learn and grow together. Our district priority practices website has been a useful touchstone for me in my own learning and growth. From that site, I looked at these ideas:

Learning thrives when teachers design instructional strategies that:

  • support the personal aspect to learning;
  • differentiate content, processes, and products;
  • inspire and stretch student thinking;
  • promote student engagement;
  • provide opportunities for students to share learning and reflect;
  • make learning visible, open, and transparent.

Source: https://surreylearningbydesign.ca/district-planning/our-learning-story/supporting-learning/

Traditional reading comprehension exercises as outlined in the teachers guide for second language programs generally work something like this:

  1. Pre-reading activity to introduce the topic.
  2. Students read text. For many this is actually translating.
  3. Students answer written questions based on text. (Usually based on factual information, often including multiple choice, matching or fill in the blanks type questions especially at the early reader stage.)

There are many teachers who do a lot of enrichment type activities around reading that go well beyond that outline, but as a basic starting point, I knew this was not going to match with what I believed I should be doing. Even with enrichment, my students weren’t growing in the ways they needed to. When my students responded to basic comprehension questions, they didn’t gain and understanding of the text as a whole. They didn’t see patterns that could be used to grow their understanding of more texts that they would encounter in the future. I didn’t see evidence of the variation in what they understood that would help me measure their vocabulary growth and reading comprehension. I wanted to embed more critical thinking and individual responses, along with the potential to measure growth over time.

I needed to shift my thinking as a teacher in order to help my students make a similar shift in learning. The results I wanted for them are outlined in the Core Competencies section of BC’s redesigned curriculum:

  • I can explore materials and actions.
  • I can ask open-ended questions and gather information.
  • I can monitor my progress and adjust my actions to make sure I achieve what I want.
  • I present information clearly and in an organized way.
  • I can represent my learning, and tell how it connects to my experiences and efforts.

Source: https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/sites/curriculum.gov.bc.ca/files/pdf/CriticalThinkingCompetencyProfiles.pdf and https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/sites/curriculum.gov.bc.ca/files/pdf/CommunicationCompetencyProfiles.pdf

My goal was to create a resource that would allow me to teach the format once, and then focus on the skills that could be explored through its use. It needed to be flexible, adaptable, and allow multiple access points for students at all ability levels.

Like mud which shows the imprint of anything that contacts it, or clay that can be formed by a potter, I needed questions that could take shape with the text.

I started by trying to generate some big, open ended questions. This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. I knew I needed something that would be task neutral, and in order to do that I had to step back from content. I started with a very large skill set (second language reading comprehension) and asked myself what I wanted to choose as the most important 3-4 skills to focus on. Next, I worked on what I thought would be a logical order for them, and how that order would help students to associate them. I also knew that I needed to allow space for differentiation in responses. This was critical because it needed to be accessible for all learners, but also allow for growth over time without redesigning the resource. I came up with a template, which I started using with my classes.

The basic template

The basic template looks like this:

Travaillons le vocabulaire – a reading and listening strategy worksheet.

Designed to work with reading, listening and viewing exercises, this worksheet has 4 basic sections. Section 1 is called “mots amis”, which literally translates as “friendly words”. Also known as cognates, these are words that are so similar to English that my anglophone students understand them without having to look them up. Because English and French developed from the same origins, a good percentage of any text will contain enough of these words that students can begin to form an idea of what a text is about before needing to look anything up. In this section, I ask students to list any mots amis they can find, and to group them together in a way that shows the relationship between the words. If a word occurs more than once, they only record it one time. Unless I give them alternate instructions, the grouping strategies can follow any structure that makes sense to the student, and will likely vary depending on the text they are working with. If the text is a story, they may choose to group it by character, for instance. The grouping is most successful if it can be done in combination with a student’s prior knowledge, to reinforce previous learning.

Section 2 is called “mots connus”, or “known words”. In this section, students record any words that are not mots amis, but are words they already know. As in section 1, they group the words in a way that makes sense to them to show how they are related to one another, and if a word is repeated they only need to record it once. They do not write translations for words in either section 1 or 2, as these are words they already know or can recognize. They are simply creating a record of what they can understand.

Section 3 is called “nouveaux mots”, or “new words”. In this section, students record words that are new to them, as well as the English meaning of the word. They will group these words in a way that makes sense to them to show the relationship of the words, and if a word is repeated they will only record it once. The goal of this section is to create a strong connection between the new information and the old, and to move these words into the mots connus category as quickly as possible. Students also have to interact with each word in a number of ways, thereby creating stronger connections in their memories between the pieces of information they are recording.

Section 4 is called “mots clés”, or “key words”. This is the section that can often take the longest, as students read back over what they have written, compare it to the original text, and synthesize their thoughts around what is most important. They choose 6 key words that they believe summarize the most important parts of the text, and beside each they write an explanation in English for why they think each word is a key word. These explanations are in English because students often lack the vocabulary for an exercise such as this, and because it also encourages them to make cross-curricular connections to their thinking in their English classes. The discussion around this section almost always surpasses any complex thinking I could ask students to do in traditional reading comprehension questions, and also invites more discussion within groups as they talk about their choices. Students can (and are encouraged to) choose words that fit their thinking and not that of their neighbours. As long as they can explain their reasons and connect it to their understanding of the text as a whole, they are successfully completing this section.

The importance of starting with prior knowledge

In a traditional reading comprehension exercise, all of the questions typically refer to information the student didn’t know before reading the text. All of the answers typically refer to information contained in that one text, and they do not connect to a document the student read previously in a clear and direct manner. They may have opportunities to include some of that information in an indirect manner, but as a general rule what I was seeing was that students were looking at each individual assignment as a stand-alone piece of work that was not connected to any other reading they did in the course.

Because the first two sections of this resource deal with information the student already knows and understands, they have an opportunity to go back and reference other versions of this exercise and connect other pieces of reading directly to the one in front of them. They are starting from a place of “I can…” rather than immediately needing to access a dictionary to comprehend words. This gives them an opportunity to explore connections and see themselves as competent readers at the beginning of a task, making it more likely that they will be able to understand and appreciate other aspects of the text such as theme, setting, character development, and so on.

Showing growth

I have used this worksheet consistently with all grade levels for a year and a half now, and I can confidently say it is the most meaningful tool I have given my students to date to improve their reading comprehension in their second language. This is an exercise that we repeat several times in a course, I assess growth in a few different ways:

  • Once several repetitions have been done, we look at the sheets side by side to compare which sections are larger or contain similar words.
  • Rather than completing the whole sheet, I sometimes ask students to complete just sections 3 and 4, while sections 1 and 2 are done directly on a photocopy of a text, using different coloured highlighters or underlining.
  • This strategy is accessible for all students, regardless of ability and prior knowledge. It works particularly well for students who are struggling as they can see measurable growth over time and are motivated to continue. When we highlight sections of a text, students choose their own colours and so one student cannot tell by looking at another’s work which words he or she knows or has identified as a mot ami.
  • Another way I measure growth is to find a similar level of text with related vocabulary, and give it to my students to see how much of it they understand without the use of a dictionary. The growth they have shown using this strategy has been so much better than anything else I have found, and knowing the strategy (mots amis, mots connus, nouveaux mots) always gives students a place to start with something new rather than feeling overwhelmed or translating instead of reading.

Connecting reading and listening

  • This worksheet can also be used as a listening exercise. Because many students have a harder time connecting sounds they hear to written words in a second language, they tend to write less on these occasions, which is fine, depending on the purpose of the exercise.
  • An adaptation I have successfully used with this sheet as a listening exercise is to have students listen first, and record their answers in one colour. Then I give them a written copy of the text, and they record their answers in another colour. If they have changed their mind on what a word is once they see it in written form rather than just hearing it, I ask them to leave that answer on the page in the two colours they have chosen, so that they can see the shift in their understanding.
  • Another possible adaptation is one I have used with songs. Rather than have my students identify new words in section 3, I have changed this section to “mots qui riment”, or “rhyming words”. In this section, students develop a new understanding of the connections between spelling patterns and sounds in their second language, and can focus on a range of spelling patterns that all make similar sounds.
  • Use different colours for pre-reading, reading, and post-reading phases.

Adaptations for other subject areas and text types

  1. For math, word problems, identify words that indicate which operations to use, which words tell the story but are not connected to the operations, which words indicate the order in which the problem should be solved, and finally how all of the pieces fit together to find the solution.
  2. For science, identify words that indicate a process, words that indicate a substance, and have students add prefixes and suffixes to words to show the relationships between processes, states of matter, etc. Also ask… what are vocabulary words, explaining words, question words, evidence words, and how can I summarize it to show my understanding?
  3. For charts, graphs and infographics, have students identify how the design of the text supports understanding, how the content is presented to help you understand complex information visually, how the structure of the text connects and organizes the information, and finally, how all three of these aspects help them to read and understand.

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