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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

Breathing Life Into Foreign Language Reading

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Foreign language classrooms are typically alive with students listening and speaking in the new language they are learning. But the joy of actively hearing and speaking a new language too often turns to tedium or frustration when students read the language. Why does foreign language learning often become passive as soon as students start reading?
  1. What spugled aun der leserte?
  2. What did the ardman do?
  3. What kind of ardman spugled aun der leserte?
  4. How did the ardman spugle?
  5. Where did the ardman spugle?
I imagine you can answer all the questions—1. the ardman; 2. spugled; 3. mogernous, pizertial; 4. luftmently; and 5. aun der leserte—but that you don't understand the original sentence.
This example illustrates the reading experience of students in many foreign language classrooms. Once, it was the experience of most students in my German classes. Before learning how to teach effective reading strategies, I regularly assigned high school students to read passages followed by comprehension questions. The class would then engage in traditional discussions: I would ask students questions, assess their responses, and explain, expand, and translate key passages into English. Whenever I read students' written responses, however, I realized that they had merely identified the connected vocabulary in the text and then copied down everything around it, knowing the answer was in there somewhere.

From "Smarts" to Comprehension

On reflection, I realized that my students were smart readers but not comprehending readers. They were merely transferring vocabulary from the text to their answers. Students had figured out that I would give them the gist of each reading during our class discussion the next day. The problem lay with my approach to teaching reading. I needed to provide interactive reading assignments that would empower my students to take charge of their own comprehension before, during, and after reading any German text.
Clearly, comprehension is not derived from reading the words on the page but through constructing meaning from text. Decoding the phrase "mogernous pizertial ardman" does not lead to any comprehension. I gained a more in-depth understanding of reading comprehension about eight years ago, when I began studying literacy strategies and connecting them to second-language learning. Since then, I have increasingly put those processes to work in my German classes.
The results have been dramatic. Students who formerly described reading books in their second language as "hard and boring" became engaged and motivated, reporting that they loved the stories. I had changed neither the words on the page nor the difficulty of the vocabulary. Instead, I creatively prepared students in advance for characters, plot, and vocabulary that they would encounter in the story. This preparation helped them connect with the reading.

Drei Männer im Schnee

One novel I use with students is Drei Männer im Schnee (Three Men in the Snow) by Erich Kästner, a well-known German author. It is a delightful novel, but one whose plot unfolds slowly.
With my traditional teaching approach, I would give students lists of key story vocabulary, assign chapters to read, and have students answer comprehension questions. We would then conduct follow-up discussions and clarify any confusion. Most students did not understand who all of the characters were and what was happening in the story until about halfway through the book. By that time, most of them had lost interest or given up.

Heightening Interest

We have all had the experience of not beginning to enjoy a book until we "get into it." Students reading text in a foreign language, though, are not going to be as patient as they might be reading a novel in their mother tongue. I realized that I needed to heighten students' interest before they began reading to prevent that interest from being easily dashed. So I began to engage the class in several learning experiences before I passed out the books. I first assigned the following writing prompts relevant to the plot for students to respond to, in German, in their journals: What is friendship? How do you know that someone is a true friend? What are the five most important things in your life? What is something important that money can't buy?
The next day, students shared their journal responses with a partner and discussed their thoughts. Many students ended up exploring ideas that are central to the novel's conflict, as in this entry: "A friend likes you for who you are, not what you have. . . . A real friend likes to talk with you and spend time with you."
Next, students discussed their journal responses in their cooperative learning groups and then as a whole class. Because each student had committed meaningful thoughts to paper, we had a rich discussion. Each student was beginning to make connections with the themes of the book.

Meeting the Mystery Man

I asked students to come to the next class prepared to interview, in German, a "mystery man" who was coming to class. Students came bearing many questions. I entered the classroom dressed as the central character in the book, Tobler, with a suit and tie and my hair tucked under a black derby. Students asked me questions, and I answered in character. As the interview developed, spontaneous follow-up questions bubbled up, and I guided students by mentioning information I wanted them to know. Following is an excerpt from one interview (T stands for Tobler and S for student):T: It's so nice to be here with you this morning. Even though I'm a busy man, it's great to have a chance to talk with you.S: What is your name?T: My name is Eduard Tobler.S: Where do you live, Mr. Tobler?T: In Berlin, in Charlottenburg, a very nice neighborhood.S: Do you have a family?T: My wife died a few years ago, but I have a lovely daughter, Hilde.S: What year is it, Mr. Tobler?T: It's 1932.S: What do you think of Adolf Hitler?T: Adolf Hitler? No opinion. I don't pay much attention to politics, you know. But I do wish the Weimar Republic would do something about this economy! So many people out of work. Inflation. I know I'm lucky that these aren't my problems. I, Eduard Tobler, am one of the richest tycoons in Germany!S: Do you like being rich?T: Oh, there are advantages. I live in a big villa in Berlin, and I have many servants—housekeepers, a butler, a chauffeur. I have enough money to do just about anything I want. But sometimes it's not that great. I have a lot of things, but there are some things money can't buy. Like a friend—I'd love to have a friend, but I can't buy one. In fact, money can be a problem.
At this point in the interview, still acting as Tobler, I ask students how they know whether or not someone is their friend. Tobler tells them that he never knows whether someone likes him for who he is or for his money.
By the end of the interview, students knew the framework of the story: Eduard Tobler, a lonely millionaire in Berlin in the 1930s, longed for a real friend. Once students grasped Tobler's conflict, I enlisted their help in making a plan to go anonymously to a hotel in Switzerland, dressed as a poor man, as Tobler does in the novel.
After we had laid this groundwork, not only did students know the basic plot of the story and many of the characters, but they were also hooked. They could hardly wait to begin reading because their minds were full of questions. They also felt a sense of ownership of the story's main problem. Students plunged in with the purpose of learning about Tobler's adventure and finding out whether he does indeed find a friend. By their reports, they loved the book and found it neither hard nor boring.

Support During Reading

As students read the book, I directed them in activities that helped them organize their thoughts, clarify their understanding, and refine their reading purpose. At key points in the reading, I introduced strategies to help them monitor their own comprehension, summarize and evaluate what they read, and apply their learning. For example, students used graphic organizers to "map" Tobler's character, supporting their descriptions with evidence from the novel, such as Tobler's words, actions, and reactions to situations.
After reading, students completed a pyramid-shaped organizer to summarize the story, choosing descriptive words to describe the main character in the second line, the setting in the third line, and main events and the central problem and solution in the remaining lines. This format demanded that students choose accurate German words and use them succinctly, enriching vocabulary and providing practice, as in this example:<POEM><STANZA><POEMLINE>Tobler</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Rich, unpretentious</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Villa, mountains, hotel</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Wants to know people without money</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Prize-winners arrive; hotel mixes identities</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Hagedorn and Tobler find true friendship; share experiences</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Daughter comes; daughter falls in love with Hagedorn</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Hagedorn discovers truth; has friend, love, and a job.</POEMLINE></STANZA></POEM>

Reading Transformed

Since I changed my approach, reading has become an integral part of our German class, and a joy to the students. Students use reading strategies in their new language that have long been shown to improve comprehension: They access prior knowledge; set a purpose for reading; actively construct meaning; and synthesize, summarize, and apply what they have read. They no longer halfheartedly pick out vocabulary words to discover who spugled aun der leserte. They thirst for the story.
End Notes

1 I have translated all student writing and class discussion from German to English.

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