Literacy in MFL – Reading

by senorcordero

Prior to moving to London, I worked in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. My step onto the TLR ladder was through taking up the post of Literacy Coordinator for my school. It was a job I loved and a job that I think often doesn’t get the time or the attention that it needs to be done properly – it certainly felt that way in my old school. The reasons why basic literacy and oracy are so important in my view are such: firstly, if a student cannot read a question, understand what it means and then what it actually is the question is actually asking them to do, they are highly unlikely to answer it successfully or give a response that matches the criteria laid out in the question itself. Secondly, we have to give students language with which they can express themselves, orally and in written form, and make themselves understood in the wider world out there. This is a little blog of ideas, which I use in my lessons, in order to help boost understanding and basic literacy in both English and the target language. 

Literacy is such a big remit, so in order to keep things condensed, I will look at ideas in the following areas: reading, writing, word types and speaking and listening. In this post, I will be focusing on reading – looking at ideas to facilitate building up confidence, understanding of texts and responding to different types of exam questions.

1. Teach specific parts of speech 

I am a firm believer in a solid teaching of parts of speech and it’s something we have instilled in our curriculum from day 1 of the study of a foreign language. So much hinges on a functioning knowledge of parts of speech – the amount of students that cannot distinguish between bien (well, adverb) or bueno (good, adjective) never ceases to amaze me.

During our latest curriculum CPD, we sat down and distilled the KS3 offering we have, and one thing we agreed as a team was that understanding of the parts of speech were pivotal for success. We believe in this to such an extent that parts of speech form an essential part of our knowledge organisers for Y7 and Y8 and they feature in every KO test students do. The rationale is two-fold: firstly it helps with understanding of the building blocks of language and how to build up sentence length when producing work in the target language, and secondly it can also can help students decode when reading. This is essential for helping students to locate in a text exactly where an answer is and how much additional information they need to extract in order to fully answer a question. For instance, locating a noun for a written response in a GCSE paper, especially at higher tier, is often not enough to secure the point for the question. If students are able to identify the rough meaning of the word through its spelling or how it sounds, if they have a functioning knowledge of parts of speech and concepts such as adjective order, students can then sandwich this with the noun in order to construct longer meaning and pick out all of the information that they need for a question. What was important was that we ensured our definitions were on point; rather than saying that an adjective is a describing word, we ensured the definition was that an adjective describes a noun. So many times students are taught an adjective is a describing word – when the same could be said about adverbs! This also helped keep our definitions consistent.

2. Consistently refer back to parts of speech in teaching

Having got the consistency in definition and explanation, students need to see this foundational knowledge in context. When exploiting a reading task, as a pre-read activity, I will often introduce by recapping the definitions of certain parts of speech, before asking students to extract examples of maybe two specific word types, such as adjectives or verbs. Routinely doing this means that students are constantly being reminded of the definition and are able to ensure that they are able to dissect the parts of language.  This is something I do from Key Stage 3 right the way to Key Stage 5 to ensure none of this basic knowledge is forgotten about and to ensure that students are aware of all of the building blocks of sentence construction, ready to decipher and extract as much information as the task in hand requires.

My take on a knowledge dump that forces students to engage with different word types

3. Deploy Quigley’s 7 strategies to explore unfamiliar vocab

Something I’ve spoken about time and time again and that I absolutely swear by is Alex Quigley’s 7 Strategies for exploring unfamiliar vocabulary (https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/04/7-strategies-to-explore-unfamiliar-vocabulary/). Both of his books, Closing the Reading Gap and Closing the Vocabulary Gap should be on every teacher’s reading lists. The premise of the 7 strategies are that they can help students work out unfamiliar vocabulary, focusing on: 

Exploring morphology with students
  • Morphology (the build up of words – des|hac|er – if broken down, we get des – meaning ‘un’, hac – related with doing, er – marker of an infinitive ‘to’ – giving us to undo)
  • Word families (related words – such as periódico (newspaper), periodista (journalist), periodismo (journalism))
  • Etymology – the history of words. For instance – izquierda (left) was borrowed from Basque as siniestram from Latin that should have been the historical root for the Spanish word for left was associated the devil.
  • Spelling
  • Multiple meanings – pointing out that tienda can mean shop or tent depending on the context
  • Synonyms and antonyms – pointing out for to use you can use usar or utilizar.
  • Context – what clues can you use to piece together the word

For a student-friendly video on how to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary that I’ve put together based on the above, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtgHJSXtVK0

4. Teach that common suffixes and prefixes can often contain information on the exact meaning of a word

A list of common suffixes in Spanish that I give to students. Not exhaustive but it gives a good grounding

Once understanding of parts of speech is cemented, I take it further by introducing common prefixes and suffixes and the meaning that they can inflect on a word. For example, -ista which can often indicate a job in Spanish. If I teach common suffixes and students having met periódico (newspaper), should students come across periodista – they would be able to associate the period root with news, combine it with -ista to know the word is a job and give them the chance to work out that periodista is a journalist. 

With older classes, I always make a point of running through associated words. For example, if we meet the word canté (I sang, preterite tense) in a text, I would make a point of questioning in the following way: 

  • What is the infinitive, to sing? cantar
  • If I said cantante, what would the word mean? (singer, -ante being one of the suffixes identifying a job)
  • If I said canción, what would the word mean? (song, -ción being indicator of a noun that isn’t a job)). 

This gets students to think in terms of decoding; in the same way you can reverse this questioning method in order to help expand vocabulary related to that word.

5. Pre-read as a class with simple comprehension questions 

This works a treat with lower attaining groups. We read a text together, with students taking turns to read aloud, giving me the chance to pick up on any pronunciation errors and delve into any unknown vocabulary. After every sentence or two ask some very basic comprehension questions in English to reinforce understanding of the text. This preps students up well as they have already been exposed to the text once for the main comprehension text that comes after.

6. Read the questions first – what is it that you are you looking for?

With my lower attaining and middling groups, they’d often fall into the trap of trying to read the full text before answering the questions. What I have done is retrained the classes to read the questions first, and before we go about answering them, we discuss what it is we are looking for: such as a personal quality, an age etc. and associated words that might point students in the right direction. This mini step before tackling the reading has boosted confidence in my lower attaining groups when facing written answers in the reading paper.  

7. Highlight the answer in the text

One thing that used to go through my head a lot of the time was: are students getting the wrong answer because they are falling down through a distractor, or is it a case that they know where the answer is but do not have the vocabulary to be able to decode the full meaning? When answering readings in an exam-style question or in a printed reading activity, I ask students to highlight where the answer is. This allows me to quickly diagnose whether the student is having issues with the identifying where the answer is; or whether it is the specifics of the answer that they are having issues with. 

8. Explore the text for vocabulary and insist they note it down

One of the most useful, and arguably one of the easiest to action, pieces of feedback from an observation was to insist on students writing down vocabulary I give to them. In the past, I would go through a text, annotate vocabulary and the majority of the class would write it down; but there’d always be a few who didn’t. By me not insisting that they write this vocabulary down as a record, I could be unknowingly opening up a gap in understanding. Now, once I give a piece of vocabulary, I will stand and watch for each student to copy down said piece of vocabulary.

9. Organise where students write down vocabulary you give them

Some people like to use the back of exercise books for vocabulary tests, some for homework and others as practice pages. For my classes, I use this as a space where they record any new vocabulary from a reading that we may encounter. Students know that all of the vocabulary that we have met in class, and that may not appear in glossaries, will be there. One thing I always get student to do is to write down infinitives here. For some reason, a lot of textbooks supply conjugated forms of verbs in their glossaries, but I insist my students know the infinitives. This builds on the way in which we teach grammar – we teach it explicitly and ensure that our students know their tenses, and how to use them. If we provide students with only conjugated forms, students will not be able to apply the conjugation process accurately. 

As a trial this year, I provided one of my classes with a new vocabulary booklet. This booklet was divided up. In the first column, students recorded the form that they met, such as salgo (I go out/leave, present tense). In the second column, students note down the infinitive salir, followed in the next column with the meaning of the infinitive. In the final column, there is space for any notes, such as for this verb, I would inform students that the 1st person singular has a ‘g’ in the stem, before conjugating as normal, and that the present subjunctive conjugates as salga, salgas, salga…

The vocabulary book trial – catering for nouns but also with the focus on looking at irregularities in conjugations

This vocabulary booklet proved very popular with this class and really aided in students working back to the infinitive form from conjugated verbs; a process I think is essential for languages students to be able to do in order to freely express themselves.

Concluding thoughts

Often the biggest barrier to success in reading in MFL is the level of literacy students have in English. I think that it is our duty as languages teachers not only to provide vocabulary in the target language, but to help develop reading skills simultaneously in the target language and in English.