Novels: what you need to know before your begin

In my previous post, I made a promise to go into the nitty gritty of reading a comprehensible novel with Novice (French) language learners. If you are curious and/or impatient about ALL of the logistics RIGHT NOW, jump here to read a fabulous post on Teaching a Novel 101 by Allison Wienhold. There, she addresses the questions of funding, organization, planning, teaching and assessing all in one place. It’s a great 101 course! From my part, all I can add is a personal advice of what to keep in mind before and why it works in many classrooms, and mine in particular.

Remember Two Things

  1. YOU as a teacher can make reading a novel a great experience for your students or a mediocre one. YOU need to be sold on the fact that working through it together, your students will make immense gains in their abilities to interpret and use the language. Please, make no mistake, this involves work for both the teacher and the class. Interaction in the target language is at the heart of this process whether it is oral, written, or wordless (drawings, frozen scenes, reader’s theater, etc).  If you’re looking for a set of worksheets that can replace lesson planning and/or interaction in French, you need to reconsider your motivation for the process. I have seen novels get bad rep, and it was not students’ fault.
  2. Respect the hard work of people who write the novels, put together the teaching guides, or any other copyright materials related to these novels and their use in classrooms. It is never ok to make copies (print or digital) of a novel, or to post it online. If ever in doubt, contact the author directly for permission to use or modify. Need a personal perspective? Check out Martina Bex’ posts about her struggles to track down illegal use of her copyright documents: an emotional reaction and a rational explanation (if you still need one).

How to chose a novel

First of all, read it yourself. Is it interesting? Forget about repetitive vocabulary (your students do need it!), did you want to continue reading it chapter after chapter? That might be a good sign. Does the storyline get lost in forced vocabulary that seems to be taken from the end of some unit or is it simply boring? Discard. Need more pointers? Read Cynthia’s post in which she argues that “not all novels written for second language learners are created equal”.

Are you concerned that the novel you chose might be too easy or too difficult for your students? Here is a novel evaluation procedure for you. In the class where you’re planning to teach the novel, choose one student who is above and beyond others, one who has average language learning abilities, and yet another one who struggles but is willing to put forth effort. Ask each of these kids to read the same page from the novel, somewhere from Chapter 1 or 2, and summarize what they understood. Ideally, you high-flyer will have understood everything, average student – most everything, and that struggling kid will have caught main ideas and some but not all details (but you already knew that you’d have to help him anyway, right?). To play it safe, as your first novel, you would rather choose one that is too easy than too difficult. In the latter case, it will be a struggle for both you and the kids, in the former, you all will enjoy reading. Isn’t it the purpose anyway?

Why it works for us

From my personal observations, most of the teachers who use comprehensible novels with their students are proficiency-oriented, culture focused, and are willing to seek a variety of ways to make language classes enjoyable. Most of those teachers have distinct classroom routines, expectations, and progress reporting that directly affect their students’ performance. Here is a quick peek into my classroom that makes the experience of reading a novel work for us.

  • Most of my Novice learners are freshmen and have been exposed to French in middle school; however, some students are completely new to the language – kids who came to the district  from schools that did not offer French or those who decided to start/switch languages in high school for whatever reason. As I am the only teacher, I accommodate them all in one class which leads me to the next point.
  • I spend the first semester on building/solidifying the basis of the language through massive amounts of comprehensible input delivered in various modes and in many ways. At Novice level, I subscribe to “high frequency” structures and “plug-and-play” philosophy which means that my students learn lots of expressions with readily usable verb forms, for example il prend une photo (he takes a picture) or elle lui dit (she says to him/her) and are able to easily recombine them in own language production. I teach grammar through meaning (Why is there an -s here? What does this -ent  ending mean? How do we make it a “to do” version?); so this first year, kids never see a verb chart or hear the word “conjugate”. As a matter of fact, they will never hear the word “conjugate” but rather “you need to change the verb form here based on who is doing the action”. By the end of the first semester, students have a good understanding of sentence structure and are able to perform consistently at Novice High level with many starting to bridge into the Intermediate Low. Interestingly, most of the “newbies” who started learning French in September level out or even surpass those who took French in middle school.
  • We meet daily for 50 minutes all year long. I strive for 90% TL on my part but some days it just doesn’t happen. We’re all human, right?
  • I evaluate students’ performance in language skills – listening, reading, speaking, writing – on a 4-point scale and/or using ACTFL proficiency descriptors, i.e. they get a “Novice High” plus feedback (which translates into a 4 in the gradebook during the first semester) on writing quiz where a prompt may have been to describe a picture or retell a familiar story.

Given all of the above, my students have no issues picking up the book and reading a longer text – they have seen a page full of text before and they know how to handle it. Likewise, they are familiar with many comprehension activities and know that they will be expected to understand written and spoken language and produce it themselves. When I ask them at the end of the school year to reflect on their language learning journey, many comment that they enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot from doing it.
My classroom routines and techniques evolved over time and I credit teaching with novels as one of the main catalysts of changes I made to truly focus on what students can do with the language.

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