Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Why FVR Fails at Times

(This blog post is a continuation of a series on literacy in the language classroom)

I have a confession to make: I have never been a big fan of Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) in my classroom. However, I do not oppose the concept at all, because I see SO MANY benefits of it. Krashen is a huge advocate of reading as a necessary part of the language acquisition process: 

  • "Our reading ability, our ability to write in an acceptable writing style, our spelling ability, vocabulary knowledge, and our ability to handle complex syntax is the result of reading."
  • "The ability to speak is the result of listening [and] the result of reading." 

Krashen also advocates the need for pleasure reading in the target language (known as FVR) and defines it as “reading because you want to, no book report, no questions at the end of the chapter. FVR means putting down a book you don’t like and choosing another one instead.”

So if there are definite language acquisition benefits to FVR, then why am I not a big fan of it? Because I see my own students struggle with it. Further, I do not see my students as the problem but rather the FVR novellas/materials which I have provided for them to read.

What is wrong then with the FVR novellas/materials which I have provided for them?

  1. Much of the FVR materials is beyond students' current L2 literacy levels. When reading for pleasure, most people tend not to gravitate towards readings which are above their literacy levels - instead it is the opposite! When reading for pleasure, people will drift towards materials which are below their level of reading. This is why I do not read scholarly articles for pleasure! For example, People magazine is written at an 8th grade reading level, and most journalists will write articles at a 10th grade reading level. We need to remember that our own students still possess a novice level L2 literacy rate even after a few years of our language classrooms.
  2. The amount of unknown vocabulary is way too much for my students. If the name of the game is reading for pleasure, well then there is nothing pleasurable at all about reading something where you do not know the meaning of the majority of the words. While we 4%ers may possess the resolve and be meta enough to refer back constantly to the glossary at the end of the novella to establish meaning of unknown words, most students are not. This is by no means the fault of our students - we 4%ers are the weirdos! Whatever we want our students to read, they need to know 95% of the words so that students are spending their time actually reading and not decoding.
  3. The material is not compelling enough to hold their interest. In addition for novellas/readings to be comprehensible, they also need to be compelling enough for students to want to persevere in reading them - remember in FVR, because students can choose what they want to read; they are not bound to continue reading if the topic is not of interest to them. In a research study, Cho and Krashen found that a group of Korean English language learners who had read Sweet Valley High books for pleasure made more progress in their language acquisition than those who had not read for pleasure. 
So then is my not being a big fan of FVR the fault of the authors who have written Latin novellas/readings? No, rather it is my choice of materials which I have offered students. HOWEVER, while there is emerging a large number of Latin novellas being published, I will also say that I have found very few Latin novellas out there truly written for novice readers. 

My next post will cover what I would like to see in novice-level Latin novellas. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Experiencing L3 Literacy Myself - My Reading Experiment

(This blog post is a continuation of a series on literacy in the language classroom)

Recently, I purchased some novellas for teachers in my department, and among them, I bought a single copy of many novice-level Spanish novellas written by Margarita Perez Garcia for my teachers to peruse for possible future use. Margarita had presented at the virtual Voces Digital Spring Conference about reading, and she mentioned many of her novellas which were written for novice-level students and aligned with the proficiency levels as outlined by the Extensive Reading Foundation. I was very intrigued by the novice-level Spanish novellas which she mentioned in her presentation, especially due to the low headword count in them.

When the novellas arrived, I decided to read them myself. I know very little Spanish, and if you have ever been in a CI/ADI coaching session which I have led, I am ALWAYS the "barometer student" in a Spanish demo. Since these were novice-level Spanish novellas, would I be able to read and to understand them with my limited knowledge of Spanish? The answer is a resounding YES!


  1. I began with El Ultimo Arbol and then read Mosca, Mosca, Itipuru, Arroz con Cosas, Mosca en Leche, and Juliana in that order due to the headword count. That was very important, because I was able to build up slowly to longer sentences and more vocabulary.
  2. Immediately I could tell that my brain was trying to make some type of sense and meaning of this L3 (Latin is my L2!) into my L1 (English) - what L1 meaning my brain was able to latch onto, it kept; that which it was not able to, it tossed aside. Luckily, due to the frequent repetition of words/phrases and predictable nature of the sentence structures (a key component in any novice readings!), I found that my brain was able to create meaning after awhile.  
  3. In the beginning, there was some degree of decoding happening (i.e., stopping at individual words to look up the L1 meaning in the glossary), since there were many Spanish words which I did not know. However, as I progressed in the novellas, I found that this occurred less and less due to the repetitive nature of sentence structures and vocabulary. 
  4. When reading sentences in Mosca, Mosca like Mosca no tiene talento. Tiene problemas, my first instinct was to translate it as "The fly has no talent. Has problems." In other words, because the first use of tiene had a specific word serving as a subject, I knew to translate tiene as "has" but not specifically as he/she/it has when used the second time without a stated subject. This is exactly what I see my own students do with Latin verbs when there is an understood repeated subject - they will not add in the subject implied with the verb ending. In other words, this is normal in the language acquisition process!
  5. I loved that even though these novellas were novice-level, culture was definitely embedded in them, nor did I feel like the culture was forced into the plot; it seemed very natural.
  6. The plots in these novellas are definitely compelling and engaging! I felt some type of emotional connection to the characters in each of the novellas and truly wanted to know, "Will they succeed in their endeavors?" 
  7. Formatting of the text played a HUGE role in my being able to read the novellas. As a novice-level reader of Spanish, I definitely appreciated in Margarita's early novellas that instead of writing paragraphs, she wrote each sentence as an individual line. This made it so much easier for me to read and kept my affective filter low. This is something which I need to remember with my novice-level students when I create readings. 
  8. When I began reading Juliana, I noticed that the font was now smaller and that the story was written in paragraphs. I will admit that my affective filter rose quite a bit! Now I know how my students feel!
  9. HOWEVER, Margarita has a very specific style of writing which carries through each of her novellas, so while Juliana is formatted in paragraphs and smaller font, the sentences continue to follow her style and the choice of vocabulary from previous novellas. That made the paragraphs very easy to read, Krashen refers to this as narrow reading and states that narrow reading actually is a great way to deliver comprehensible input: "Since each writer has favorite expressions and a distinctive style, and each topic has its own vocabulary and discourse, narrow reading provides built-in review."
  10. I cannot tell you HOW SUCCESSFUL I felt in reading these novellas! Even though they were novice-level readings, I was actually reading Spanish and not translating/decoding but READING!!
  11. I can honestly say that as soon as I finished one of the novellas, I grabbed the next one to read!

Now, I can no way by any means say that I know Spanish as a result of reading these novellas. Nor based on the reading can I say that I acquired any grammar rules. BUT I CAN READ some novice level Spanish with success, and I want to read more! In fact, I had some of the novellas on my classroom desk, and in the last 10 minutes of my 6th period when I had finished teaching, often I would pick up the current novella and read. My Latin students who were heritage Spanish speakers were shocked that I was reading a Spanish book (since they cannot read Spanish even though they speak it at home) - one of them said, "Every day you've been reading a new Spanish book!" What else could I say but that these Spanish novellas were comprehensible and compelling!  

Maximas gratias, Margarita - I look forward to reading more of your novellas!

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

NYT Connections - Why Establishing Meaning is Important

As part of my daily morning routine, I do Wordle, Connections, and the Mini Crossword Puzzle on the NYT Games app. For me, it is a great way to start my day and helps me keep my mind honed rapier sharp. I would say that I am probably 90%-95% successful every day in completing each game. However, I was not very happy with yesterday's Connections! 

Connections is a game where there are 16 random words, and the goal is to create 4 groups of words, with each group of words having something in common. Also, each of the 4 groups differ in difficulty of commonality. Because it was April Fools Day yesterday, Connections had a different look to it - it used emojis.

While I do enjoy a challenge, I found myself getting frustrated, because I had difficulties interpreting the pictures: was the bread emoji communicating bread, loaf, or slice? Was the emoji of a brain expressing brain or mind? Was the sheep emoji signifying sheep, lamb, or ewe? In other words, WAY too much ambiguity for the meaning which each of the emojis was conveying! If you play Connections, you know how important it is to know the meaning of the words provided in the game! Because there were too many possibilities of meaning with the emojis, I ended up giving up after awhile.

In the same way, it is VITAL that we establish meaning of unknown L2 words to students. When the brain encounters unknown L2, immediately it will attempt to create meaning of some kind in L1; that L2 language for which the brain cannot create meaning, it will discard. While some students are meta and tenacious enough to keep at it in determining meaning of unknown L2, most students are not. Like me with trying to decode meaning of the emojis and experiencing frustration, that is how most students will react with unknown L2. The easiest way to establish meaning is by simply providing the target L2 word and its L1 meaning, referring back to it when needed, and moving on.

For the record, today's Connections was back to using words, and although it did require some thought, I formed all four groups!

Monday, March 25, 2024

Characteristics of Novice Level Readings

(This blog post is a continuation of a series on literacy in the language classroom)

As I began to research literacy, its effects on language learners, and how we as language teachers can support the continued development of L1 literacy levels in our students, I found it necessary to look at the characteristics of readings designed for novice level readers. I think that one of the biggest pitfalls for us language teachers is that we assume that since our students can "read" at X level in their L1, then that literacy level should automatically transfer to reading in their L2 (e.g., since my students can read at the 8th grade level in L1, they should easily be able to read at the 8th grade level in L2). However, it is much more complicated than that - we must remember that for our novice L2 students, they are babies/toddlers when it comes to their L2 knowledge. This is not wrong at all - it is reality!  

When we dive into L2 readings with our students which are way above their L2 literacy levels, then we are setting them up for failure. Reading becomes a "survival of the fittest" activity, and as Margarita Perez Garcia noted in her video on my previous blog post, reading can then create a huge divide in our classrooms of those "who can" and those "who cannot." The culpability then lies on us, because we have not chosen readings which are level-appropriate based on our students' L2 literacy (I am talking to you, textbook publishers!).

So what are characteristics of readings for novice-level L2 readers (traditionally levels 1 and 2 as defined by ACTFL proficiency standards)? Although much of the information which I found relates to novice-level L1 reading proficiency, the same can apply to our L2 students:

  • Short, simple sentences, which increase in length and structures with a growth in L2 literacy
  • Predictable sentence and grammatical patterns 
  • Repetitive patterns of word chunks or grammatical structures
  • Repetition of limited, focused vocabulary, with amount of vocabulary increasing as L2 literacy develops
  • Cannot rely solely on student decoding and translating words/sentences for understanding 
  • Familiar concepts
  • Compelling subject matter
  • Limited text per page, which increases with a development in literacy
  • Large font
  • Illustrations which can serve as additional input for text

In her video, Margarita Perez Garcia also references a reading grading scale produced by the Extensive Reading Foundation speciciallty for novellas and graded readers. This grading scale rates them based on individual unique/headword counts and categorizes those novellas/graded readers according to proficiency level. I had never heard of the Extensive Reading Foundation prior to Margarita's presentation, but wow, what a great resource!

I have specifically drawn attention to the Beginner/Elementary/Intermediate levels - look at the unique/headword count for Intermediate novellas/graded readers - 801-1500 words! This grading scale is EYE-OPENING to me! I have never before seen something like this which outlines and aligns unique/headword count with reading proficiency levels - this makes so much sense to me! So if you are currently incorporating novellas into your curriculum, consider using this grading scale to see where they line up and if they are considered level-appropriate.

Next post: Experiencing L3 Literacy Myself - My Reading Experiment 

Monday, March 11, 2024

Reading/Literacy - Voces Digital Spring Conference

Last week was the Voces Digital online Spring Conference, and there were many great presentations delivered. One session in particular which I attended touched on many points about which I had written in my last blog post regarding literacy in the world language classroom -  the presentation was "Teach Reading? Try This!" by Margarita Perez Garcia, who has written multiple novellas in Spanish (see video below).

Although much of what Margarita presents surrounds low-prep pre-reading and post-reading activities which teachers can implement in their classrooms, she begins by addressing the need for level-appropriate readers, especially elementary/basic readings. In the video, around the 3:21 mark, Margarita discusses that reading unfamiliar and unseen texts can be very hard for students, especially those with lower reading skills. Most importantly, reading can serve as a great divide in a classroom between those with stronger reading/faster processing skills and those who are slower processors/struggle with reading (I had never ever considered this before as an equity issue!). Margarita's focus in the presentation then addresses how we teachers can help students improve their L2 reading skills.

Take some time to watch the entire video (she has a lot of good ideas!), and consider getting some of her Spanish novellas!

Monday, March 4, 2024

Literacy & the Language Classroom

(This will be the first in a series)

I think that I can honestly say on behalf of all language teachers that the pandemic and the year of hybrid teaching definitely affected the literacy levels of our current students. I would not go so far to say that as a result we are in the midst of a literacy crisis per se (that remains to be seen in future years), but I can say with conviction that current student reading and writing abilities are not where they were pre-Covid. For so many students, losing a year of in-person schooling delayed their literacy development. NOTE - I am also not going to oversimplify in saying that Covid is the sole cause for this. 

Although there is huge debate regarding the definition of "literacy" in general, research has shown that there is a definite correlation between students' reading/writing levels in L2 and their pre-existing levels in their L1 - the higher these L1 levels which students bring into their L2 classes, the higher their levels will eventually be in L2, with the converse being true as well. As I began to research student literacy in general (and I will admit that I knew very little), I learned a few things:

  1. Traditionally in American schools, grades pre-k to 3rd/4th are when the actual teaching of reading skills and fundamentals are targeted.
  2. Following this, student classroom literacy skills are continually developed through the reading of level-appropriate content material in various academic subject areas.
Based on this model then: our post-4th grade L2 classrooms should be another avenue for students to develop, to reinforce, and to further their literacy skills through the reading of level-appropriate L2 content material. So a few questions then:
  1. Why is reading so important in literacy and language development? I think Krashen says it best: 
    • "Reading, especially free voluntary reading, is crucial for developing high levels of literacy and academic success, with research supporting its benefits, including improved comprehension and vocabulary, and it is easier for both students and teachers compared to traditional skill-building methods." - Krashen
    • “Our reading ability, our ability to write in an acceptable writing style, our spelling ability, vocabulary knowledge, and our ability to handle complex syntax is the result of reading.”
    • "You want to get better at a language? Listen and read, listen and read."
  2. What effect does reading in L2 have on one's reading ability in L1? The answer is A LOT! A 2016 study was done involving Turkish students who were involved in an L2 reading course and were given an L1 reading test afterwards. These students' L1 reading skills were positively affected by their reading in L2, as they scored higher than those students who took the same test but were not involved in that L2 reading course. So, reading in L2 does have a positive effect on students reading ability in L1!
  3. Why the need then for level-appropriate L2 content material? While reading in L2 plays a major role in both students' L2 language acqusition and in their continued reading ability development in L1, we as teachers must be very deliberate in ensuring that what our students read in L2 is level appropriate for their literacy levels in L2 (and not in L1!). We need to understand that while our students may be entering our L2 classrooms with an 8th grade or higher reading level in their L1, they are still novices when it comes to understanding what they are reading in L2.
I am not going to be so idealistic to think that reading in L2 will magically restore student L1 literacy levels to to where they were pre-Covid, but I will say that reading level-appropriate L2 material will definitely benefit and have a positive effect in students' L2 language acquisition and continued L1 literacy development.

Next blog post: Characteristics of Novice-level Readings

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Voces Digital Spring Conference 2024

I want to encourage you to register for Voces Digital virtual Spring Conference, which will be next week March 5-7, 2024. It will be held via Zoom and will run 5:15pm ET to around 7:00pm ET each evening, with a variety of sessions and speakers (many over whom I still fanboy!) each evening and is dedicated to "deepen(ing) your understanding of Comprehensible Input and Acquisition-Driven Instruction, learn(ing) new techniques and tools, and be(ing) inspired to engage your students in new ways." Best part - it is FREE!

I attended Voces Digital Spring Conference last year, but since I really did not know much about it, I did not have much in terms of expectations. I will definitely say that I got SO much from it, and I loved the fact that it was online so I could attend from my kitchen table! Here is my write up about last year's conference

This is the time of the year where we all need our CI/ADI cups refilled. All of us teachers and students are dragging along trying to get through - the name of the game right now is survival! Last year, after attending the Voces Digital Spring Conference I walked away with a renewed spirit which got me through Spring Break. Plus, so many of the presenters at that virtual conference were also at last summer's Voces Digital CI Summit, so it was a great preview!

Here is the link to information and registration for the Voces Digital Spring Conference - I hope that you will be joining me online!