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Bonjour, cher lecteurs.

Oops … Hello, dear readers.

Awhile back I set out to teach myself to read French, with neither teacher nor class. My goal was to be able to read the news from a different culture (or maybe I was trying to make up for being Mrs. Benstein’s worst French I student in high school).

I started with old textbooks from a programmed reader series, and then with the help of dictionary and Google Translate, I set out on a journey through flash cards, children’s books, grown-up magazines, and heavily abridged French books.

I managed to learn French well enough that I’m about to finish my first real book reading (an ambitious 600+ page Goncourt Prize winner — L’Art Francais de la Guerre — that I would highly recommend if it were in English).

Yes, I learned French (oui, oui), but just as important I think learned a lot about learning (and teaching) to read. In this entry, I’ll focus on some of what I have learned about vocabulary and reading.

For example, while reading French, I found myself thinking a lot about the best time to deal with unknown vocabulary. Although some texts that I read provided vocabulary previews — like the ones common in our instructional materials — I must admit that I rarely found such support to be particularly useful — either in supporting my immediate comprehension or in building my word knowledge. Studies show that preteaching vocabulary can have a significant impact on comprehension (National Reading Panel 2000), but those studies compared preteaching with doing nothing. That isn’t the pedagogical choice, however.

Rather than previewing vocabulary, my French reading routines included either immediate word look-ups or post-reading look-ups. Remember, I had no teacher, so the dictionary itself served as my tutor. When texts were especially challenging (meaning in part, that there were lots of unknown words), it really helped to be able to look up the words right away as I needed their meanings. That might seem cumbersome (but with computerized tools, it isn’t that bad), but it made a big difference in making sense of a text.

I would love it if all school books had a dictionary feature (like Kindles and iPads), where kids could just touch an unknown word to arrive at a word meaning. However, that seems far away. Until then, I suggest that teachers or publishers make available to kids glossaries; a page of kid friendly definitions in alphabetical order that kids could use for immediate look-ups during reading.

With easier texts, I’ve been finding it better to do my dictionary work after I’ve done my best to read the text. I underline the unknown words as I read, doing my best to interpret the author’s message. Then, at some point, several paragraphs or even pages later, I go back to find out the meanings. Usually I find that those words don’t alter the overall meaning much, but they add nuance or description, which enriches the meaning, more than conveys it. I may have recognized that a character was afraid, but missed that he “trembled” (frissoné); or grasped that a character expressed something, but not understood that the statement was mumbled (bredouillé).

Going back for a second look in this circumstance, both enriches reading comprehension, and for me, at least, appears to improve my retention of the words.

I’ve worked a lot with flashcards, trying to build up my vocabulary that way. Scholars (e.g., Isabel Beck) have long touted the idea that an average of 16 repetitions are needed to hold onto a word. The flashcards worked great when I had a very limited French vocabulary, but now they don’t help much.

However, repetition is important, but some repetitions seem more effective than others. For example:

L’horizon s’elevait comme un pliage de papier, des collines triangulaires montaient comme si on repliait le sol plat.

The horizon arose like a folded piece of paper, the triangular hills rising as if someone had folded again the flat ground.

When I read that, I got that the horizon was rising, and that it had something to do with paper, but I was lost by the “pliage” (folding)… I was fine with the rising hills, too, but the “repliait” tripped up. Looking up the first unknown helped me with the comprehension, but it was the quick appearance of the second that closed the deal on word learning. I looked up “repliait” and when I found “refolded,” I went back and made the comparison, and that seemed to be enough for that one to stick in memory.

Of course, I don’t always look up all the unknown words. A sentence like the one in the example is not particularly important in the plot; I might recognize that it is just description of a setting and so might choose not to focus on it. When you are struggling to understand a text, getting every bit of description and nuance is neither necessary nor practical. That does not mean the information is unimportant and that kids don’t need to learn to use nuances of such vocabulary to engage in close reading. In this example, the setting is describing where a massacre is about to take place in Vietnam. The two main characters are a painter and a writer. Part of the beauty of this passage depends on this painterly/writerly description of a world on paper; the description reveals not just that it was hilly where they were, but that the character was leaving his world on paper or canvas to enter a very different and horrific three-dimensional world.

Often when I look up a word and then confront it again soon after, the act of having to figure it out in context seems to promote longer memory for the word. Whereas looking up the word today, and then confronting it again tomorrow or even several pages later, tends to require that I look up such words again and again … they just don’t stick until I can actually use my knowledge of the word to figure out its meaning (“remembering” is not the right term for this since it seems to be more of an interaction of memory and context).

This suggests the value of having students read longer texts, like books, since particular authors have a tendency to reuse particular words. Book reading — as opposed to short selections or excerpts — probably increases the possibility of this kind of repetition. However, even when students are asked to read shorter texts that lack such re-using, it would be possible to come up with exercises that create this effect. Thus kids might read, then look up the unknown vocabulary, then engage in additional reading exercises that re-use those words in various contexts.

This experience has suggested to me that we need to be more experimental in our approaches to dealing with vocabulary in reading. I think teachers should try out different routines, such as the ones suggested here, to see how they work. And, there are probably at least a couple of doctoral dissertations in these suggestions (the value of varying the timing of the look-ups seems especially obvious).

Au revoir.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
January 29, 2016

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