When we teach our students reading and writing in English, what we really teach is how to THINK in a foreign language!

Teaching students how to read and write in English is essentially about teaching them to THINK in a foreign language. If you ask them at the beginning of their studies how they envisage mastering any of those skills, how they actually read and write, you may often get the same response. “Of course I first translate everything into my native language! Of course I first write in my native language!” Of course, as we EL teachers well know, this is one of the most favorite expressions our students learn and freely use in many situations, no matter whether the situation warrants such confidence or not. 

I usually start teaching reading in tiny steps. Letters, words, simple sentences. All ages and levels benefit if we use visual aids. Show some pictures, videos, or simply suggest they look around the classroom and or out a window. Let them describe what they see. You will spot their thinking, their approach at once. “Rain go”, my primary schoolers tell me pointing at the view outside. This is a direct translation from their native tongue, and yet they can produce the correct forms of a verb in the present and the present continuous tenses. “It is raining” however is still not a form which comes readily to their minds. So I may write several examples on the board and suggest that they make up similar sentences of their own. We may spend a lesson patiently asking the same questions, and helping our class formulate the same answers. “This is a boy. She is a girl. They are learning English.” And so on, until you are sure that they do indeed build up short sentences in a foreign language. 

When confronted even with a short simple text for the first time, the students may be completely overwhelmed. You may write down a list of the words they learned, and suggest that they identify those words in a text. Once they pinpoint the familiar units they will begin to see the whole sentences, and eventually a paragraph; the text will make sense to them. 

Chapter books are a logical next step. Start small, take a book with lots of illustrations and little text. Let your students read the captions, then cover them with a sheet of paper. Suggest that they produce their own sentences to describe what they see. If they find it too hard at first, differentiate the task. For instance ask them how many colors are used, or how many people, trees etc they can find, or whether they like the picture or not. 

At this stage it is relatively easy to turn to writing. Retelling and rendering are always good exercises. Allot some time to discuss the content, then suggest that they write down their own versions. Remember that while you may get a paragraph from one or two students, the others may produce only one sentence. Praise and encourage everybody. 

My students began their EL lessons in second grade at age 8-9. By fifth grade they were interested in longer stories, mostly adventure, fantasy, but reading in the original was still a hurdle to be overcome. We discussed it with the parents, and I bought a set of “The Famous Five” stories by Enid Blyton. It was published as a parallel text, with the English text on the left and the translation on the right. This created an illusion of continuous help throughout the longish books, and at first glance eliminated the necessity to use a dictionary. The students would chain-read a page, each one reading a sentence in turn, translate it, and then compare it with the actual translation given. They would notice the differences and decide whether the official version was true to the original. Gradually they began to read without using the translation because they had accumulated enough words to understand the text without props. 

Writing tasks may come after every chapter or a part of any book. We may use the traditional predictions, reviews and evaluations; essays on “My most/least favorite character” are also extremely useful. 

Since our aim is to develop thinking skills, I find it useful to allow students to choose their own genres in reading, and to write their essays on whatever they wish. Since the first installment of the Harry Potter saga was published I would have many fans every school year. I use a couple of examples from the translation to show them why it is better to read the books in the original. For instance for some unfathomable reason Harry’s owl’s name is translated, or rather mistranslated, and she becomes not Hedwig but “Buklya”, which is an obsolete word for “curl”, like those elaborate curls women had maybe two centuries ago. For the life of me I could not understand why those translators used this word until a ten-year-old reader explained it to me: “ They read it wrong, “Hed “ as “head” plus “wig”, so they concocted this “Buklya”. You know, wig on head sort of”. One such example may be enough to evoke interest and the desire to explore for themselves. 

“If I were a magician” or “If I had a magic wand”  are very good essay topics. This is just one example, naturally we can use any existing writing which caters to our students’ needs. 

Last but not least, this topic itself made me think about my own experience with reading and writing. No, I definitely do not translate a text first when I read; nor do I write anything in my own language first, then translate it into English. Since my EL teacher explained to us in primary school that we were going to learn how to think in a foreign language and made every lesson interesting, every new skill a fascinating process, and every piece of writing a discovery, I gradually learned to really think in the language required in the moment. 

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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