Having problems with free reading?

Free reading is a great idea, but to get reading happening, you need texts that are 100% comprehensible, even to students who have never seen the written form of the language before — even if the language is a non-simple script language. Enter the purpose-written text.

Purpose-written texts look a lot like storybooks. That’s the danger — teachers who don’t realize the difference all believe that they’re “just” children’s books. Children’s book are for children — little native speaking children. Little kids with tons of vocabulary at age 3. The kids we all hate, as people trying to equal that level of acquisition having learned, not acquired, our languages as adults. 😉

Purpose-written texts have a couple of characteristics that make them what they are:
* Limited vocabulary. A purpose-written text highlights a certain set of vocabulary words — rather like a chapter story or the reading in a textbook — but the quantity of these words is reasonable (the TPRS definition of “reasonable” is what I mean here). And they’re repeated, because the book has —
* Predictible, repetitious structure. Either the storybook has a typical children’s literature (early reader) storyline of a character doing something over and over, or having many different characters comment on the same thing, or something. But in any event, the action doesn’t move too rapidly, and there’s a lot of repetition.
* Appropriate scaffolding. Like a children’s book, but more specifically so, a purpose-written text provides scaffolding to aid in comprehension. We’re not trying to keep the meaning of the text a secret, we’re trying to make students succeed the first time, and every subsequent time, they read this text, whether with the teacher, in pairs, to themselves, to the dog, listening to an mp3 recording, doing reader’s theater, or whatever. That means illustrations that really reflect the meaning of the text, and it means providing rather more illustrations than are typically found in a children’s book.

Going from truly acquired language to reading using one of these purpose-written texts is easy. Really easy. You just start out saying “Now we’re going to read a story! I’m going to read out loud, and when you feel like it, you join in.” In Chinese — definitely a “non-simple script” language — students are joining in and recognizing characters by the second sentence, and by the second “chunk” (the first reprise of the basic unit of the story) they are generally reading with, not after the teacher. By the third chunk, the teacher need only prompt on a word here and there.

The best thing about this kind of reading is that it is true reading. It is exciting to hear students miscue and correct themselves because “no, that doesn’t sound right.” It’s exciting to have students of Chinese KNOW what a character they have never seen before is, simply because they know the only thing that could possibly go before the word “you3” in their experience is the negative particle “mei2”. What a difference compared to the traditional method of laboriously “teaching” characters, quizzing the new vocabulary in writing, then having students decode a passage that features language they don’t really know. Comprehension questions are a breeze with purpose-written texts because there’s no question about whether students know what it means, so long as they are able to recognize the written form.

Yes, reading needs to get more complicated, present unknown words, and generally challenge the student. But not the first hour, nor even the first year. Using purpose-written texts for the first year — while a major investment in time and talent — will set students up to be real readers in the FL.