Readability and the Standards
for Foreign Language Learning
Goals: Units 1-3
Selecting readable texts is the first stage critical to ensuring that reading in the German language can result in students' acquiring information and increased knowledge of the German language and culture. Part 1 of this presentation, in three units, will address what makes a text readable. Part 2 will follow this introduction by demonstrating how learning stategies and reading scenarios constitute the second critical stage. How the text is read will prepare students to engage in activities that indicate the specific type of progress expected with regard to communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, or communities. In addressing readability, then, these first three units will introduce criteria that teachers can apply as a checklist for text selection.
Correlating Reading to Learner Outcomes
As Units 1 and 2 will demonstrate, that checklist begins with an assessment of the student population represented.
Any given group of students' ages, background, and learning goals will dictate what texts are chosen with regard to text length, concrete or abstract reference, and content. A long text may have useful redundant features for even an elementary Grade 12 German class but be conceptually inappropriate for Grade 8 at the same level of language proficiency. Students in Grade 4 may well enjoy reading a cartoon that they can compare with an American counterpart or reading an ad for Nutella and subsequently comparing its taste to American peanut butter.
Students in higher grades would not be acquiring enough new information to demonstrate understanding of the relationship between, for example, the "breakfast spread" Nutella and the perspectives of the culture studied unless they already knew or read about the high value placed on chocolate as nourishment and reward in Germany. In this sense, readability commences with a teacher's assessment of his or her student population; it hinges on the match of a text's presentation of materials with that population of readers.
The Role of Reading in Language Instruction
The concept of reading presented here encourages teachers to view that activity as essential at all levels of language instruction and to define it broadly as the act of joining two communities: that of the students among themselves and, potentially, that of the audience targeted by the text. Unit 3 in Part 1 explores how that definition of reading answers to the Standards.
A text offered to Grade 12 students might consider the different types of celebrities they read about in People Magazine, Time, or Newsweek (see Text F in Exercise 1 below); they can be asked to read it in order to demonstrate their increasing understanding of the celebrity game in its global cultural nuances, exchanging, supporting and discussing their opinions and individual perspectives with peers and/or speakers of the target language. Such a reading perspective will encourage them to find parallels or contrasts with their experience as American readers. Comparisons could connect informational content, to consider, for example, whether the Baron Heinrich von Thyssen they read about is more like Donald Trump than Sylvester Stallone and in what ways; it could compare language use across cultural lines by contrasting phrases about the rich and famous.
Alternatively, students can read a text from a more narrowly German perspective and to recognize distinctive viewpoints. A German treatment of a celebrity whose marital problems are depicted in a text, for example, can focus on interpersonal problems -- or on what impact marital status can have on the celebrity's possessions. Understanding that it is important to Germans that a celebrity's art collection is going to be donated to Spain enables students to recognize that an article can criticize a celebrity for wasting national treasures, not simply for a wasted personal life.
Grade 8 and Grade 12 students, however, may read texts about similar topics or even read identical texts with different learning goals in mind.
For example, the Grade 12 students who have read the text about the celebrity's art can then read a text explaining German policies on naturalization of immigrants (a cultural product). This second text can explain that ethnic Germans are treated far more leniently than other immigrant groups. Such a text poises students to understand that, for many Germans, national identity still involves geneology more than shared linguistic, social, and political traditions (a cultural perspective).
The teacher of Grade 8 students might assign that second text, but not necessarily the same tasks. The reader from Grade 8 is cognitively at a level for which concrete information is more appropriate; this reader will focus more on reflecting about the products emphasized in both the celebrity (the art that goes to Spain) and the immigration texts (the policies toward immigration) -- the whole concept of "cultural politics" may be age-inappropriate.
Cognitively more mature than Grade 8, Grade 12 might be ready to consider whether historical events connect to current attitudes toward immigration. In such an analysis, Grade 12's interdisciplinary treatment of the immigration text might prompt research that documents Germany's nineteenth-century struggle for nationhood, the ethnic policies of Nazi Germany, or the divided Germanies after WWII as reflecting consistent or changing attitudes toward national identity.
Following up on the description of what makes texts readable from Units 1 and 2, Unit 3 of Part 1 of the Module will thus show how different tasks can fulfill the goals outlined in the Standards project.
The Practice of Reading as Cultural Difference
The practice of reading on which Part 1 of the Reading Module rests is itself culturally dependent. German culture remains more book-oriented than the culture in the United States. Focus on visual and computerized texts is not as prevalent in either the schools or German society as a whole as it is in the US. Thus reading itself is a cultural difference of considerable significance if learners are to connect with and demonstrate understanding of things German.
For Grade 4, for example, the difference between the actual number of words in children's books originating in Germany and books cloned from the United States (Dr. Seuß auf deutsch) is apparent at a glance. Other cultural practices of reading differ, as well. Grade 8 students who may even be unable to understand more than what the text is about in general terms can still compare articles written for Spiegel and those in Newsweek or Time in more general ways: for instance, to ascertain that longer, in-depth reporting is still given more space (value) in German magazines than in American ones. Using their greater cognitive maturity, Grade 12 students can compare the kinds of details alluded to in a Spiegel analysis of, for example, smoking habits in the United States with a Time magazine analysis of the same topic. The type and amount of information provided in each treatment will, in turn, provide clues about the cultural perspectives each article suggests.
Undertaken in terms of their presentational communication, German practices of and attitudes toward reading that students learn in their language classes initiate those learners into the products and perspectives of German culture -- into the various communities of knowledge and language abilities that intertwine in a culture.
A Note on Examples
The three Units in Part 1 of the Going the Distance Reading Module include examples of texts from various sources, from children's books through newspapers and literature. These texts are offered here not as recommendations for classroom use (although most, if not all, could be used in many classes, if the right tasks were put to the students). They were chosen instead to represent problems in readability for the "average" reader; they were chosen to put the user of this module into the role of that average reader when speculating about the issues of readability.
UNIT 1 INDEX