Literacy in MFL: Teach Your Students to Read, and You’ll Gift Them a Lifetime of Learning

As the old adage goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

The same is true for language teaching, except without the fish.

Teach students a lesson and they’ve learned something new. Teach them literacy, and they can go on learning forever.

According to a Stanford study, to learn literacy, the ability to read and write, students need two things: purpose and opportunity. As teachers, it’s our goal to deliver both.

Besides turning students into their own teachers, why else should we make literacy a priority and what does doing so look like in the foreign language classroom? Let’s dig a little deeper and examine the whys and hows of teaching literacy.

Why Focus on Literacy in Modern Foreign Languages?

  • Provides an alternative way to interact with the world: For some students, reading and writing is less intimidating than speaking, so it provides an alternative form of engagement for them.
  • Helps ensure a solid foundation: With a little confidence and charisma, it’s not hard to fake language skills to a degree. Literacy, on the other hand, is tough to fake, making it an accurate starting and measuring point.
  • Builds confidence that will lead to improved speaking: Relating to the previous point, solid speaking skills don’t necessarily equal solid literacy skills. However, writing skills directly benefit speaking because they don’t allow students to blur the line between what’s correct and incorrect, like speaking often does.
  • Strengthens native language skills: Students learn to value grammar and language construction.
  • Gives students access to new modes of learning: This refers to the positive cycle of self-teaching that was mentioned earlier. As their literacy grows, so will the pool of information at their fingertips.

4 Ways to Help Your MFL Students Achieve Literacy in a Foreign Language

1. Find the Right Motivation

Is there any better motivation for improving reading skills than wanting to make it to the end of a gripping book? I think not, and the millions of people who, like myself, owe their reading abilities solely to Harry Potter would agree with me.

The trick is to give students a book that’s challenging but not overwhelming, like a carrot hanging in front of them that they can just barely reach.

Activity ideas:

  • Try selecting books from a country’s normal grade school lists. For example, if my students were at the English speaking level of a 10-year-old native speaker, then I would check out required reading lists and view fourth-grade books. You’re most likely teaching in your native language so you’re probably already familiar with those classic books you had to read in school.

If not, try googling “required/mandatory reading lists for schools in [country],” in the target language. You may not be able to find a government list, but many schools share their reading lists and curriculums, so you can get ideas there. What I like about these classic school book lists is that even the lower-difficulty options tend to have intelligent, engaging plots.

  • To mix it up, you could select three books and let students choose which one they prefer. This way they’ll also hear about other books and may be encouraged to read those as well.

If you can, squeeze in 10 minutes of silent reading time during class. With the right book, reading will become a healthy addiction that will motivate their pursuit of comprehension.

Books are the most straightforward choice, but you can also opt to have a poetry workshop, which lets students analyze the nuances and rhyming of each word.

Creative days are another option. Have a day or two at the end of the semester that focuses on literature—poetry workshops, book reports, creative writing sessions or something else the students suggest.

2. Go Beyond Reading and Writing

When you teach someone how to scuba dive, you’re really teaching them to swim, use their equipment, equalize their ears, follow safety rules and read hand signals.

Literacy is similar, encompassing all of the aspects necessary to reading and writing, such as grammar, spelling and comprehension.

Creative and interesting literacy activities are fairly simple to design. However, in order to master reading and writing, drier topics like vocabulary, verb tenses and conjugations have to be wedged into your lesson plan too.

Activity ideas:

  • Pronunciation exercise: Read a chapter as a class, going in a circle and having each student read a paragraph. They’re finding out what happens next in the story, while you’re using the opportunity to correct their pronunciation.
  • Themed quizzes: Draft vocab and grammar quizzes that use vocabulary words and example sentences from the book, poem, article, short story or lyrics that the class recently read. It’s a subtle change, but students will think of the quiz as a sort of reading supplement rather than just the evaluation that it secretly is.
  • Spelling games: The list is endless. There’s hangman or spelling bee competitions. You could play Scrabble if you have a small class. You could scramble up words and have students race to unscramble them, or write down 10 idioms and have students guess their meanings. Fun vocabulary and spelling games are a dime a dozen so try to use them whenever your students need a break.

3. Harness New Technologies

Literacy isn’t just the property of Shakespeare and tradition. Nowadays, it’s modern, fluid and exciting. Blogs, social media and gaming have expanded the need for literacy skills into these new media.

Let’s face it, students will most likely do the majority of their day’s reading online, not from a book. As teachers, we can harness the online textual world for our advantage. Most people feel comfortable online, so why not incorporate computer-based learning that lets them operate in the dynamic world they’re already familiar with.

Activity ideas:

  • Select a video that you think will pique student interest. You know what they talk about during breaks and what they do outside of class. If they like movies, pick a behind-the-scenes video of the latest blockbuster or try to find something suitable on YouTube.
  • Give students a questionnaire to fill out during the video to ensure that they pay attention the entire time.
  • Questions should be about the content, like who was the director, what went wrong while filming and what was the film’s budget, if we were using a behind-the-scenes blockbuster clip. Afterwards, expand on the theme of the video. If it was about movies, have them write a page on what they think the recipe is for a great movie. If the video was on a political issue, have them write a page explaining their stance

Remember all you need for this exercise is an interesting, modern video, a question sheet to keep them engaged and a follow-up writing assignment that has them refocusing on literacy, hopefully incorporating some of the new vocabulary from the video and worksheet.

4. Balance Passive and Active Learning

Research says that until the 1970s, reading and writing were consider to be completed separated language processes. We now know that they’re two sides of the same coin, or at least closely intertwined. Our writing often reflects our reading, which is why it’s important for students to be immersed in both.

Teaching reading without teaching writing is particularly risky because reading is significantly more passive than writing. It’s possible for students to understand something when reading it without being able to construct the same ideas themselves.

In order to communicate, whether written or verbally, students must be able to independently come up with grammatically accurate sentences. Because they’re complementary, try incorporating reading and writing into one exercise when possible.

Activity ideas:

  • Have students read a fairy tale or fable, either out load as a class or to themselves.
  • Discuss the story briefly to ensure that they’re clear on the plot.
  • Ask students to rewrite a new version of the story that’s modern, i.e. instead of taking place in a bewitched forest, it takes place in the city. They can also replace characters with celebrities or people they know.

When students use their reading muscles and their writing muscles side by side, the benefits are amplified. Make up your own versions of the above exercise. Just be sure there’s a reading and writing portion. I usually do the reading first so that students have a chance to use new vocabulary words when writing.

As their literacy improves, a whole new world of written words will open up to your students. Enjoy the ride with them!

Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here: 

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