2 Simple Tricks to Boost Literacy in the Language Classroom

As the world for which we prepare our students continues to evolve, our instruction also has to be nimble and agile so as to meet the needs of the 21st-century student. We, as educators, have a duty to re-examine the effectiveness of our practices with the aim of real-world application at the center of that examination. Pre-downloaded on every iPhone is a Translator app. Google Docs will autocorrect any and all misspellings (i.e., verb endings). To what extent are our practices aligned with these realities?

More than temporarily memorizing grammar rules and long lists of vocabulary, we have this tremendous opportunity to develop our students' abilities to think critically and to take ownership of their learning. The ubiquity of online translators will only render language teachers obsolete if we fail to seize this chance to adjust what we do to provide and measure that which a smartphone cannot:


The ability to confidently engage with messages in a variety of formats; to discern the validity of claims and perspectives by asking good questions; to build upon one's basis of knowledge in order to have well-rounded, well-substantiated viewpoints: these are the skills that we can develop within our students at all levels of language learning with some adjustments to our approach.

The good news is that much of that can be done simply by using some relatively straightforward unit writing practices. Here are some steps that I use that have shown fantastic improvements in student engagement:

I. Backward Planning

This seems really simple, and perhaps like old news to many of us. However, surprisingly, there are many teachers who are either unfamiliar with the practice, or maybe too attached to the safety of following textbooks to give it a try.

I'll write more about this another time, but in short: Start your units by establishing what you want your students to be able TO DO by the end of the unit. Work backward from there.

II. Tableau SVA / KWL Charts

The Tableau SVA was a genuine game-changer in my classroom practice. First presenting a new unit to students with an Essential Question (for example: "What role does music play in our senses of cultural identity?") gets the initial wheels turning for students.

Then, one of the most important things we can do as learners and teachers, is to tap schema, or activate prior knowledge by just contemplating, discussing, and listing what we already know / ce que nous savons déjà.

In the beginning, this section of the graphic organizer can be relatively sparse, but you and the students will see that as you go on throughout the year, with each subsequent unit this section will become increasingly sophisticated, as their knowledge base will develop! (Note: It is EXTREMELY important to highlight that progress as you move forward!)

Next, perhaps THE most crucial part of developing critical thinking skills is to complete the second section of the organizer: What I Want to Know / Ce Que Je Veux Savoir.

At some point as students, we have all learned the technique that is reading the comprehension questions of a passage before reading the passage. There are very important neurological justifications for that strategy that include establishing a purpose for your engagement with a particular text. If students begin a unit with their own questions to "look for" throughout the unit, they are that much more likely to be engaged and to comprehend that which we present to them.

While it is already plenty to simply ask students to create questions of what they would like to discover during a particular unit, we should also be mindful of their relative inexperience with coming up with the types of questions that will elicit higher-order thinking. To this end, the teacher can offer Webb's Depth of Knowlege Question Stems, which are offered here in both French and English. These question stems are divided into 4 domains of increasing levels of cognition. I personally like to have students choose stems between domains 2 and 3.

At this point, the class has established their own goals for the particular unit, and as the teacher, you can make adjustments to what material you present in order to better answer some of those questions, and/or let students know that at the end of the unit, they will revisit their questions and discuss to what extent they can now answer them. Ideally, this newly acquired knowledge will make its way into the "What I Already Know" section of the next unit's Tableau SVA.

Anyway, this is a lot of information, so I'll stop here for now. But please drop a comment or shoot me a message to let me know what you think. As you see, I have these tools and graphic organizers available in my store. Take a look!

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