When choosing novels and other reading material for your world language students, look for these characteristics:
- Is it comprehensible? These are the factors that contribute to comprehensibility:
- Unique Word Count. This is the number of different words in the text. The lower the unique word count, the easier a text is to read. When students know high frequency verbs they can often read at a higher level than is traditionally supposed. Many authors are writing with high frequency verbs and unique word counts in mind. Here are some guidelines for languages with many cognates:
-Early level 1: Under 100 unique words
-Mid level 1: 100-250 unique words
-Late level 1: 200-300 unique words
-Level 2: 200-400 unique words
-Level 3: 300-500 unique words
-Level 4: 400-600 unique words
- Main Verb Tenses. it can confuse some students if they have not seen the past tense, for example. Other students will barely notice as long as they can recognize the root form of a verb as they read.
- Total Word Count. The total number of words in a book is important to consider because the more words your students read, the more fluent they will become. With short, interesting language learner novels students can read tens of thousands of words per year and acquire large vocabularies and the accompanying grammar joyfully, painlessly and independently.
- Unfamiliar Ideas. If students do not have adequate background knowledge the reading will be more difficult. A story that introduces ideas about history or culture too quickly or assumes that the reader knows something about them can lose students.
- Is the story engaging? Interesting stories are what keep students reading. The ultimate goal is compelling reading (Krashen’s 2011 hypothesis), where students are so caught up in the content that they forget they are even reading in another language.
As far as most students are concerned points 1 and 2, “comprehensible” and “interesting” are about all that matter. Teachers are usually interested in these additional components:
- Does it have quality graphics? We live in a visually-oriented culture. Illustrations will give students a break from the text and provide extra ways to understand the story. We are not talking about comics here. Graphic novels and comics can be valuable gateways to reading, but they do not contain nearly as many total words as chapter books.
- Are there target language settings or references? We want students to absorb the geography, history and folklore of the target culture as they read. Culturally accurate information that blends naturally with the story is a valuable component of language learner literature.
- Does it have a quality glossary? A complete glossary aids comprehensibility—this is one that contains most of the words in the novel, all in one place. Chapter-by-chapter glossaries can be confusing because students often look in the wrong chapter and find an unknown word missing. Search for books that have complete glossaries that also include the cognates used in the text. Glossing (highlighting and explaining occasional words on the same page they are used) can be helpful for obscure words or ideas.
- Are there life lessons? Information that will help students during their school years is a plus. We also want them to have an enriched view of the world. There is no way that is more effective and enjoyable than soaking up these lessons while reading a story.
Keep in mind that interest beats everything. When the content is interesting to students, they can often read books above their presumed reading level. Let them read what they want to read… at least let them try. Telling a student, “That book is too hard for you,” is not only discouraging, it is often wrong. I have made that mistake and have been shown the error of that thinking by determined students too often. Guide their choices, but let the readers decide.
How many words will each of your students read in the target language this year? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? The sky’s the limit.
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