When kids are reading in the L2, how easy is easy?

I think it depends. It’s easy to quote the numbers, and just say no more than 10% unknowns or whatever. But that’s one unknown word in every 10, which sounds like it would lead to a lot of frustration — particularly in Chinese, in which beginners don’t have the tools to guess words based on phonetics or radicals.

Just as I want my kids to really, really know the words before I ask them to read (not decode) them in a story on paper, I also want them to be reading, not looking at what looks like Swiss cheese to them. Having a kid say, “The dog wants to blank” is fine now and then, and they can guess pretty efficiently, but if that experience turns into “The blank wants to blank on the blank” I’m not sure how much acquisition is going to go on as a result.

Plus — in the first year, I want to build confidence in the kids. I want them to be able to look at a Chinese sentence, and read it off the first time. So to ensure that, I want to be available for texts that are going to require a lot of guesswork from them, so that I can prompt for strategies and praise them for all their guesses, right and wrong.

I had the chance to sit in with a colleague who was tutoring a middle-school girl in French after school recently. The student was making the transition from Spanish to French, and they were reading the first chapter of “Pauvre Anne” together. My French comprehension is good enough that I can understand everything in that chapter by ear (also, having adapted the book for Chinese students means I have a pretty good grasp of the content of that chapter in particular!)  but what I noticed was my own total lack of boredom and the fact that I was still picking up little French details I didn’t know before, EVEN THOUGH there was no question about my understanding the text or not.

I would say that when there is interest — the first requirement — on the part of students to read a text OR to succeed using the language to read, the text can hardly be too easy. There is always going to be something they can get out of it. Naturally we probably do not want advanced level students reading “Anna”, but IMHO there is nothing wrong with intermediate level students reading it — even though it is supposedly “far too easy” for them. The amount of repetition that we all need to make these fine nuances of structure become automatic is staggering, and I think that we all underestimate them. (After all, WE didn’t learn through TPRS and we did okay…)

But I am getting seriously tired of hearing things that boil down to not allowing students to be what they are now. Every level these days seems more concerned with “preparing them” for the next level (which then feeds into the next level, and so on) than it does with having the kids experience what should be going on at that level in the first place.