How to read with students
Research, intuition and experience agree that students who read extensively in their second language acquire more vocabulary and better grammatical skills than students who don’t read.
The problem is getting them to read. Many teachers assign reading as homework and expect their students to come to class prepared to discuss the text that they read at home. Students who can not answer questions about the passage have obviously not done their homework. So the class discussion is limited to those few who actually read and understood the assigned passage. In the world of TPRS they are called 4%ers, the estimated percentage of American high school students who begin the study of a foreign language and carry through for four years.
Yet it is apparent that for many students the assigned passage was mission impossible. They have neither the skills nor the confidence needed to wade their way through what appears to be a totally incomprehensible text. Yes, there are strategies that can help them guess at the meaning of words, but the strategies depend on the existence of meaningful context. The experts say that for students to read with pleasure and understanding, they must recognize at least nine out of ten words. And discouraged students often fail to recognize even familiar words through lack of contextual clues.
Reading is an important element in the TPRS method. The “R” of TPRS stands for Reading and it is the third and final step of the three steps that Blaine Ray defined as TPRS. Reading texts that are at an appropriate level furnishes the comprehensible input which is essential to acquiring the language.
So how do we read with TPRS? First the teacher must choose a text with care so that the unknown vocabulary is limited. She can use a class story that she has typed up, or a variant from another class or her own version. It’s also possible to start with the text and backward plan the first two steps of TPRS to prepare the students to read it. It may require two or three sessions of PQA and Story if the passage contains a lot of new vocabulary. Low frequency vocabulary that is not essential to comprehension can be eliminated or replaced with more common words.
If the passage still seems daunting to students, the teacher may decide to make an embedded reading out of it. She writes up a very brief summary of the main points as the first version, then adds details to obtain a second version and more details for a third version.
We read with the students, translating the text orally. Since Reading is the final step, the students have been hearing the new structures repeatedly since they were first presented and then circled throughout the PQA and Story step. The new structures should look familiar by now and we can ask the class to do a choral translation. Or let individual students propose their translation. Whenever there is a tricky word the teacher supplies it as soon as she sees her students hesitate. She may or may not decide to circle the problem structure depending on how useful she feels it is.
I used to believe that I should be circling the target structures during the reading, although this felt rather laborious, having circled them so often in the preceding steps. I now know that there are more interesting ways of getting in those added repetitions. Also, this required constant switching between languages. Personally, if we are going to translate, I prefer to save the questions in L2 for later.
Blaine Ray suggests working on a parallel story by comparing a student to a character in the story. This can be effective, but it depends on the character’s situation which often is not comparable to a student’s. Or at least we hope not.
Jody, on Ben Slavic’s Professional Learning Community, recently shared her method of further exploiting the reading. After they have translated a paragraph or more, she has a student sit at the front of the class, pretending to be a character in the story and the other students interview him. He is free to answer as he pleases, so it becomes a kind of parallel story, but the student controls where he wants to go with it. Jody stops it whenever she feels that it’s appropriate, giving a good hand of applause to the student/character, and they either translate another paragraph or she calls on another student to play a different character. I think this is an excellent activity and will definitely be using it in the future.
Susie Gross explains that she often read novels with her students “lickety-split”. That is, as the end of the school year approached, she would read an entire novel with her students. It would be a TPRS novel with limited vocabulary and level appropriate. She did no additional activities and she did not ask questions to test their comprehension. She did nothing to pre-teach new vocabulary. They simply translated the entire novel, decoding it paragraph by paragraph for the pleasure of the story. Susie anticipated when they would not know a word and furnished it without letting the suspense build up. In less than two weeks the students would have read an entire novel and felt very proud of themselves. They enjoyed reading “lickety-split” so much that one boy told her he didn’t like to read in English, but he loved reading in French.
A follow-up activity to a reading is the dictée. I’m talking about the classical French dictée. The teacher reads the text three times as the students write it down. Ben Slavic explains this in detail on his site. It’s a very good way to fix those structures in the students’ minds once and for all.
So there are several approaches to Reading in TPRS and the teacher can choose the one that suits her and her class best.