31 May Embedded Reading, Part 1 by Michele Whaley
The power of reading as a means to facilitate language acquisition is well-supported by both anecdotal evidence and research. But what is a teacher to do when students don’t like to read? What if students give up, sure that they won’t understand a text, usually because the visual element overwhelms them? Many of today’s students are weak readers in their first languages who have missed the bridge between decoding and forming images in their minds. Meanwhile, stronger readers may not think to transfer habits of successful reading to a new language without guidance.
Russian teachers face the reading issue more often than those of frequently-taught languages, because there is a lack of materials written for beginners, and even “simple reading” in Russian doesn’t repeat structures frequently. Add students who dislike reading and learners’ confusion with a new alphabet, and suddenly reading seems like an insurmountable obstacle. Enter Embedded Reading: a perfect way to scaffold a text for hesitant readers. An Embedded Reading is a series of texts that start very simply and build.
I have read texts in a new way ever since Laurie Clarcq asked colleagues to try out what she would call Embedded Reading (ER). Successful use of ER requires several elements. First, the final text is one that a group can read successfully, but one they may not have the confidence to embrace. The teacher starts by reducing the text to the most critical information in a first version. Next, the teacher inserts dialogue, description, and new information in manageable bites into subsequent versions. Finally, the teacher plans the reading of the texts in such a way that there is both purpose for and different kinds of access to the reading.
Language pedagogy asserts that there are many ways to differentiate so that one text can be appropriate for all levels: beginners might scan for information, while advanced students do high-level activities. But CI teachers want students to read smoothly while they unconsciously make gains in vocabulary, grammar, syntax and other areas, forgetting that they are reading in a second language. We want reluctant readers to find unexpected pleasure in reading, or at the very least, to confidently expect to understand most of a text.
Clarcq developed Embedded Reading because of success with one student who was thrilled to understand a text based on what he and others at his level had written about a movie. Clarcq calls that kind of ER a “Bottom Up” text, because teachers start with their own or student-written text and insert details, dialogues and tantalizing new information in expanded versions. Beginning-level students can contribute to the first versions of a text into which more advanced-levels can fold many surprises.
“Top Down” ERs are versions of authentic resources or existing curricular materials. The teacher (or an advanced student) reduces a text by about a third in each version until it contains only the most important information the students will need to know. Like the “Bottom Up” style, the first version is short, and completely comprehensible for all students in a group. I often use “Top Down” texts because I want to be able to use the information from a single text in diverse classrooms (with many levels in one room). Because Embedded Reading makes an entire selection comprehensible by starting with just the critical facts that students can understand easily, Level 1 students might read the first versions of an ER and move up to version that they are ready for. More advanced students in the same class can start their reading at a later version of an authentic text. Because the first version and all subsequent ones have the most critical information, an entire class can then discuss the same basic ideas, even though each student has read versions of the text appropriate to her level. If more advanced students have extra information, the teacher can draw on the details to illuminate discussion.
To see creative examples of Embedded Readings from Bottom-Up and Top-Down, and find helpful suggestions that will allow you to use versions of a text over several classes or several weeks, visit Laurie Clarcq’s website. Part 2 of this article will share specific examples of different ways to use Embedded Readings.
Michele Whaley is a Russian teacher at West High School in Anchorage, Alaska. She has taught middle school, high school, and adult Russian classes for thirty years. A former president of Alaskans for Language Acquisition (AFLA), she serves on the annual conference committee team. She is the 2014 AFLA Teacher of the Year and 2016 PNCFL ToY. As a Board Member of the American Councils of Teachers of Russian, she writes about technology and Language for the ACTR Letter. Whaley initiated a PLC on teaching with TPRS and CI for a group of Alaskan teachers that has met for seven years. Her passions are literacy and comprehensible input. For her, language acquisition is all about connections and sharing stories. Read more from Michele at her blog.