Can my novice learners interpret authentic text?

Can my novice language learners interpret authentic text?  This is a question I have gotten quite a bit lately.  Most language educators are very comfortable with exposing intermediate and advanced level learners to authentic materials from the target language culture(s).  Their level of confidence is rooted in the fact that students at the intermediate and advanced proficiency levels, through their learning experiences, have acquired enough language and a sense for how discourse is organized in the target language to be able to handle the challenge.

But, when it comes to novice level learners, there is real hesitation.  Let’s explore some of the challenges and possible solutions to them.

  1. Do novice learners have the skills to interpret text, particularly if it contains words and phrases with which they are unfamiliar?

Novice level learners benefit from being taught routines and procedures for approaching text.  These routines should be modeled for learners as they are guided through the processes.  Some examples include:

  • using text features such as visuals, titles, and captions
  • looking for cognates
  • using context to derive meaning

2.  What can I expect novice learners to do with text?

In speaking with educators about unsuccessful attempts at having novice learners interpret authentic text, my standby response is: “Is what you were asking them to do aligned with what the ACTFL-NCSSFL Can-Do Statements and the ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners tell us novices can do?”  Here’s a screenshot from the Can-Do Statements:

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When interpreting authentic text, novices can:

  • list words with which they are familiar
  • make a guess about a word that looks/sounds like one they know
  • categorize ideas into simple categories
  • write a short summary sentence describing the purpose of the text
  • answer choice questions
  • complete cloze activities
  • complete more complex tasks with modeling and sentence framing

(You can download a copy of the checklist above by clicking this link.)

When designing interpretive tasks for your novice learners, use the Can-Do statements and the bulleted list above to guide your planning.  Ensure that the tasks you are giving the students are in line with what learners at their level can do.  Asking students to demonstrate interpretive skills too far above their ability level may cause frustration, disengagement, and push back from students.  It may also perpetuate the students’ belief in their inability to read, write, and view authentic text in the target language and derive meaning from it.

3.  Where do I begin?

Start small.  Opening a class with a meme or quote that reflects the current thematic unit can be a great confidence builder.  Memes are visual and can engage students through humor and interest.  Memes and quotes can also provide an example of language structures in context.  Here are some resources for you:

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French memes and quotes

German memes and quotes

Italian memes and quotes

Spanish memes and quotes

4. Believe that novices can interpret authentic text.

Using the ideas in this blog post, I challenge you to begin to incorporate authentic text into your lesson plans for novice level classes.  And as with all new strategies, after having implemented them, reflect on the impact the interpretive tasks using authentic text had on student learning and student engagement.