Published Online: July 25, 2012

Lost (and Found) in Translation: Literacy Lessons for Teachers

I spent part of my summer in South America, immersing myself in Spanish and learning more about the culture. I've learned that Argentines often sound like Italians, and that Chileans speak way too fast for me to understand. I've seen my share of majestic Andean landscapes and polluted urban centers. The food was great and the people were warm and welcoming. It felt like a vacation—but now that I'm back, I realize it was professional development, too.

Take the afternoon I read an Argentinian newspaper article on carbon monoxide-related deaths. The text was far above my Spanish reading level, so I had to go back over most paragraphs three or four times. The experience suggested important implications for my instruction.

Encourage students to use what they do know.

As I read the article, I could make guesses about some unfamiliar words because of the similar spelling to their counterparts in English or in French (another language I'm only mildly familiar with). Empleado is employee; provincia is province; intoxicación is intoxication; and morir, like the French mourir, means "to die."

When students are literate in or familiar with another language (especially French, Spanish, Italian, German, or Portugese), we should encourage them to use that knowledge as they decode English.

Teach students about the characteristics of specific genres of writing.

I figured out some phrases with the help of my familiarity with the conventions of newspaper articles and expository writing in general. I knew that numbers often refer to statistics, that introductory phrases create expectations for subsequent explanations, that pictures and captions can help unlock the main idea. And (if I had a faint acquaintance with Chinese characters) that knowledge might have helped me even were the article in Mandarin.

This was a helpful reminder that teaching students about the conventions of genres is teaching literacy. When students know what to expect from a given genre of writing, they develop appropriate expectations and are able to interpret the writing more easily. This year, I'm going to be much more explicit about genres' conventions and how students can use them as they encounter new texts.

Prereading work—teaching students about a topic related to a new text—is critical.

Occasionally I came across information or concepts that I'd encountered in English texts, and I wouldn't need to identify all of the Spanish words in order to comprehend it.

For example, one section of the article featured a house diagram with recommendations for keeping your house safe, including, "No usar hornallas ni hornos para calefaccionar el ambiente." I didn't know what hornallas or hornos were, but I did know that calefaccionar means "to heat." I also saw the diagram warning about the reckless use of ovens, and then remembered hearing that using your oven to heat your kitchen is a bad idea. (It stuck with me because I remember wondering who would do that!) I was able to put these clues together to surmise that hornallas and hornos must be something similar to an oven.

Teaching students about a topic you're about to read about is again teaching literacy. Background knowledge is perhaps the most important factor in a student's ability to unlock text meaning (especially in nonfiction).

Cultivate reading independence by helping students become aware of problem-solving strategies they may already be using.

When I came across unfamiliar words, I used some of the same strategies I would employ to put together a puzzle. I looked for clues in one part of the text as to the meaning of another. I spent time thinking about words I'd heard before but whose meaning I could not immediately recall. I identified words and phrases repeated in the article, and examined the contextual clues that surrounded them. I also kept an open mind, experimenting with different interpretations, trying them on until something made sense.

Helping students become aware of problem strategies (including those they may already be using!) helps them develop reading independence when a teacher or peer is not around to help them.

Remind students of the connection among reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Language is composed of four primary components—reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I sometimes fail to realize how different the components are. Being good at one can definitely help you with others. But each involves a different set of skills that takes time to develop. English-as-second-language teachers see evidence of this with students who demonstrate excellent written English but can say little that a native speaker can identify. Others may speak fluently, but struggle to read.

At the end of the article, after rereading paragraph after paragraph, I'm confident I had a very good understanding of the main points and purpose. My mental process had become slightly smoother, as my brain was getting into the habit of dealing with Spanish more quickly. I didn't stop to translate each word into English as I had done at the beginning.

Despite that success, much of the grammar was lost on me. Had I been asked to produce my own version of the article, it would have been very poorly written. English teachers often like to say, "You need to read more than you write. Great writers are great readers." And it is painfully clear that my writing ability in Spanish is far below my reading ability. But the more I read (and even the more I listen and speak), the more I'm capable of mimicking Spanish grammar and syntax in my own writing.

I will reassure my students that they can do the same as they learn English.

Make yourself uncomfortable.

As an adult (and as an experienced teacher), I'm much more metacognitive than I was when I was my students' age. I've spent (and continue to spend) a good deal of time thinking about both how I learn and what I've learned.

My teenage students, on the other hand, are often completely unaware of much of what they've learned (to say nothing of how). This is especially true when it comes to skills. It is much easier for my students to describe facts they've encountered than to describe a process or habit they've acquired.

One of our responsibilities as teachers is to help students understand how they acquire new skills, enabling them to apply those skills often and appropriately in the future (and to efficiently acquire additional skills). However, this can be a difficult task for us if we aren’t in touch with what it's like to go through that process ourselves.

After all, many of us glide seamlessly through a world of written and spoken academic and social English. We don't quite understand our students' challenges until we "make the world strange" ourselves. No matter how much we "know" about our students' processing of English as a second language, we can be more effective when we've experienced that kind of thinking work ourselves.

I admit it's more fun to learn a new language through immersion in the culture—and count myself fortunate to have had this opportunity to visit South America. But learning a new language, no matter where you do it, is a journey in itself—a challenging, powerful, and inexpensive way to travel. Oh, and it's great PD.

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