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Bringing the Everyday into the Language Classroom

By Kate Paesani | Published: June 19, 2018

During my first visit to Concordia Language Villages last July, I was struck by all of the authentic texts that were scattered everywhere and easily accessible for the staff to use for teaching language: road signs, murals, candy wrappers, menus, game instructions, and so much more. All of these items could be used as classroom materials to simultaneously develop students’ language abilities and cultural understanding, and some were “hiding in plain sight.” These everyday items can serve as an alternative to the more conventional literary, cinematic, or information texts that language teachers often turn to for instructional use.

By broadening our understanding of authentic text to include any oral, written, visual, or multimodal materials that represent the perspectives and practices of a society, we can easily move beyond more conventional text types and open up a vast world of authentic materials for classroom use. These materials are culturally and linguistically rich and open a world of possibilities for students’ literacies development.

One way to develop your students’ interpretive communication abilities through the use of authentic texts is through application of literacies-based pedagogy. This begins with identifying the textual features you want to focus on in instruction: language features like grammar and vocabulary; cultural content like products, practices, and perspectives; and conventions like organizational or genre features. A cartoon from the New Yorker can serve as an example: The text has two cells and only three words, but to interpret it, readers must tap into a range of background knowledge and experiences and nuanced understandings of American culture and language use. The discussion that ensues doesn’t just focus on language usage, but also on cross-cultural understanding at multiple levels.

Panel One: A drowning boy shouts to a watching dog,
New Yorker Cover by artist Danny Shanahan, originally published on May 8th, 1989

For instance, in the New Yorker cartoon, language features include the ambiguous meaning of the phrase “Get help!”; cultural content includes the fictional character Lassie and the role of therapy in U.S. society; and conventions include the two-panel structure of the cartoon and images used to represent the action of the story. Next, use the textual features you identified to help determine learning objectives for your lesson plan. In the case of the New Yorker cartoon, you might want your students to be able to explain how ambiguous language creates unexpected reactions or to compare the cultural significance of therapy in the U.S. and another culture.

Finally, organize instructional activities that engage students in different kinds of learning processes: experiencing activities to immerse learners in a text and focus on their thoughts, opinions, and feelings; conceptualizing activities to unpack textual features and practice the skills and knowledge needed for communication; analyzing activities to question a text’s meaning and relate that meaning to larger social and cultural contexts; and applying activities to allow learners to produce language in new and creative ways.

The following lesson sequence exemplifies this instructional approach:

  1. Divide the class in half and have each group work with one panel to describe everything they see. (Experiencing)
  2. Project both panels of the cartoon and ask each group to revise their description based on their understanding of how the panels work together. (Experiencing)
  3. Ask each group to share their description with the class, then work together to identify specific features of the text and explain how they provide evidence of the cartoon’s meaning (e.g., the expression “Get help!”, Lassie’s posture in each panel, items in the therapist’s office, etc.). (Conceptualizing)
  4. Have students work in pairs to explain how therapy is perceived in U.S. culture based on their understanding of the text and to compare this to their home culture. As a class, discuss why these cultural differences might exist. (Analyzing)
  5. As homework, ask students to create a different version of the cartoon’s second panel – one that represents their home culture or an alternative response from Lassie. (Applying)

What’s exciting to me about a literacies-based approach to language teaching is that it provides a flexible way for teachers to move beyond simple comprehension questions to fully engage learners with the rich content in authentic texts. In my experience working with teachers as a French professor, course supervisor, and, now, director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), I see that teachers are often frustrated by the limited activities in their textbook, and are hungry for new and creative ways to engage their students. This literacies-based approach provides a means to do that and challenges teachers to consider new ideas and text types for their classrooms. It also encourages learners to think critically about textual content, including the texts they encounter every day, and to consider multiple viewpoints on a topic. These are essential components of becoming a competent foreign language speaker with a global mindset. 

About the Author

 

Kate Paesani is Director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) and affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. She has published extensively and delivered workshops and lectures across the United States on topics related to text-based teaching and learning, foreign language literacies development, and teacher professionalization.

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