Source: Education Week Teacher
I spent part of my summer in South America, immersing myself in Spanish and learning more about the culture. I’ve learned that Argentines often sound like Italians, and that Chileans speak way too fast for me to understand. I’ve seen my share of majestic Andean landscapes and polluted urban centers. The food was great and the people were warm and welcoming. It felt like a vacation—but now that I’m back, I realize it was professional development, too.
Take the afternoon I read an Argentinian newspaper article on carbon monoxide-related deaths. The text was far above my Spanish reading level, so I had to go back over most paragraphs three or four times. The experience suggested important implications for my instruction.
Encourage students to use what they do know.
As I read the article, I could make guesses about some unfamiliar words because of the similar spelling to their counterparts in English or in French (another language I’m only mildly familiar with). Empleado is employee; provincia is province; intoxicación is intoxication; and morir, like the French mourir, means “to die.”
When students are literate in or familiar with another language (especially French, Spanish, Italian, German, or Portugese), we should encourage them to use that knowledge as they decode English.
Teach students about the characteristics of specific genres of writing.
I figured out some phrases with the help of my familiarity with the conventions of newspaper articles and expository writing in general. I knew that numbers often refer to statistics, that introductory phrases create expectations for subsequent explanations, that pictures and captions can help unlock the main idea. And (if I had a faint acquaintance with Chinese characters) that knowledge might have helped me even were the article in Mandarin.
This was a helpful reminder that teaching students about the conventions of genres is teaching literacy. When students know what to expect from a given genre of writing, they develop appropriate expectations and are able to interpret the writing more easily. This year, I’m going to be much more explicit about genres’ conventions and how students can use them as they encounter new texts.
Prereading work—teaching students about a topic related to a new text—is critical.
Occasionally I came across information or concepts that I’d encountered in English texts, and I wouldn’t need to identify all of the Spanish words in order to comprehend it.
For example, one section of the article featured a house diagram with recommendations for keeping your house safe, including, “No usar hornallas ni hornos para calefaccionar el embiente.” I didn’t know what hornallas or hornos were, but I did know thatcalefaccionar means “to heat.” I also saw the diagram warning about the reckless use of ovens, and then remembered hearing that using your oven to heat your kitchen is a bad idea. (It stuck with me because I remember wondering who would do that!) I was able to put these clues together to surmise that hornallas and hornos must be something similar to an oven.
Teaching students about a topic you’re about to read about is again teaching literacy. Background knowledge is perhaps the most important factor in a student’s ability to unlock text meaning (especially in nonfiction).