Wednesday, October 24, 2007

authentic texts: to read or not to read, that is the question

I recently attended--in fact, as a Board member, also helped organize--CCFLT's fall conference last weekend. We brought in an outside speaker for the morning session and then broke out into language groups to discuss and apply what he spoke about: teaching reading and culture together via modified authentic texts.

As a university French and ESL instructor, I believed myself an advocate of using authentic reading texts with my students--no excerpts, no summaries, no simplified versions. Convincing research that I read in grad school argued that when we try to make a text easier on our students by shortening it or replacing complex grammar and vocabulary with more basic terms, we actually make it harder to read in several ways. First, requiring students to read an excerpt of something means spending time introducing them to the text so they understand the setting, characters, and what has already happened, and then ideally letting them know what happens later on after the excerpt ends. This means throwing lots of information at them all at once, rather than allowing them to process it gradually as they read. It's not natural and it makes the teacher the center of the classroom instead of the students and what they're reading. I particularly dislike textbooks that rely on one excerpted piece after another, when we could instead have the students read several short stories or indeed a whole book.

Most foreign and second language textbooks are like this.

Then you have to consider the dangers of simplifying texts. Too often what happens is that in addition to losing the richness of the language and the nuances of the material, the new version also becomes stilted and unnatural and even harder to read, because the natural redundancy and flow of the narration has been reduced. (Studies show that, for example, it is harder for language learners to identify pronoun referents in "simplified" texts.)

As a teacher, I would much rather help my students understand a complete text than bits and pieces of several or many, even if it means choosing something simple and/or short. And as a language student, I feel more empowered when I can read a story or book in its entirety.

However, as a teacher I also know that it's darn near impossible to find engaging, authentic, complete texts that first-year learners can handle, hence the publishing industry's propensity to give us two-to-four paragraph bits.

I also have caught myself retyping an occasional story in French to covert the "historic past tense (the "passé simple," used only in writing but not in speech, usually covered in third or fourth year classes) into a more common past tense (the "passé composé") to give my students practice with contrasting the simple past with the imperfect in an extended context and to allow them to experience an entire story without stumbling over a new verb tense. So I definitely have been guilty of simplifying grammar, but I've never snipped or slashed the meat of a work of literature!

Anyway, Jason Fritze, the presenter at the conference, urged us not only to feel free to simplify our texts (grammatically and lexically) to make them accessible to students at any level, but to also forget about the idea of insisting on using "authentic" texts in the classroom! In other words, not everything our students read has to be something written originally in the target language and set in a place where the target language is spoken.

Fritze has had great success with using familiar American children's books translated into Spanish and French. While his high school students don't learn anything about other countries and cultures by reading them, the books are familiar enough to appeal to the Americans, thus making them easier to read (especially when he modifies the language). He also pointed out that some children's books (like Madeline and Ferdinand) were written in English but take place in other countries (Paris and Spain), while others like The Giving Tree treat universal "human" culture. In his opinion, we should not eliminate books like these from the classroom just because they're not "authentic."

As I'm no longer teaching French in the classroom, I don't have to worry about what texts to use anymore. On the other hand, I'm keenly interested in finding children's books in French to expose Carl and Croissant to the language. So far I've been resisting most translated ones, other than The Very Hungry Caterpillar (which addresses "insect culture" that could occur in any country, I suppose, though the litany of foods he eats--hot dogs, pickles, ice cream, pizza--does ring very American).

But do I need to avoid them? Especially when so many children's books in English have been translated into French (in the most recent Scholastic books catalog from Canada, I'd say 90% of the children's books are American ones)?

I'm curious to hear how other readers have handled this dilemma--or do you even see it as a dilemma? I'd also love to get recommendations for authentic children's picture books in French, particularly any that correspond to those that Sandra Boynton writes (very whimsical, generally about large, silly animals, and in rhyme--I really want to read fun rhyming books to Carl instead of mostly serious nonfiction ones about seasons and counting and colors and animals).


  1. I just read "Los tres cabritos" (3 Billy Goats Gruff) to my Spanish 1 class and they loved it! I don't see a dilemma. Having my students read ANYTHING in Spanish is fine with me! I also have been thinking that reading some "literature" in English translation might be appropriate for beginning level language learners.

  2. Sometimes I find the translations are the biggest problem as they tend to be sometimes sloppy. However, having a beloved story read in the original language and the translated language seems to be well-received by my almost-two year old. I think that the main point, as Jeanne points out, is to read. :o)

  3. Good points, Jeanne and Madame M!

    Fairy tales actually bring up a very interesting twist: Would we really want our young children/students to read the original Grimm fairy tales in German or Perrault tales in French? True, they are authentic texts set in the countries where the target language is spoken--but they're also gruesome, violent, and sexual.

    Speaking of sloppy translations, I'm not impressed by the French version of the infinitely ncharming "Goodnight Moon." It's extremely literal with none of the rhyme of the original, making it seem less sweet and more matter-of-fact.

    My nephew wanted me to read him "Curious George" last week. I had to translate on the fly, since the book was in English, but he was just as absorbed as when he listens to it in English. We also spent about half of the time just identifying and describing objects in the pictures, so the translated text became a springboard for additional exposure to vocab and grammar in French. Good stuff!

  4. Gosh, I could write paragraphs about this topic. I think so much goes into appropriate reading material and accessibility is only one facet. I'm not against adapting texts by any means, but I think in the end it's something a teacher does best him- or herself since it can be adapted to what the class needs...textbook companies on the other hand don't do the best job with a one-size-fits-all approach.

    I have been surprised at how many books here are just translations from English and am always looking for good French authors. There are some around, but I'm not sure how accessible they are in the US. My favorite authentic French book (I think it's authentic, at any rate) is "Mon Chat Le Plus Bete du Monde" by Gilles Bachelet. It's the one I buy for my friends' children and am going to buy for my daughter's first Christmas. I'm not sure of the age level but I love the illustrations and the storyline cracks me up. It tells of the crazy things a pet 'cat' does, but the illustrations are clearly of an elephant. It's silly and hilarious. I don't think it rhymes, though...I have not been able to find the Sandra Boynton equivalent here, although I've been focusing on English anyway and just reading Sandra Boynton (love Barnyard Dance!)