I am halfway through level A2 of my Dutch learning experience as I write this blog post. I am now able to take part in everyday transactions and to ask and share information about myself, people, places, and objects, as long as it’s factual. Being who I am, however, I am aware of the need I have to share impressions and opinions.
We have recently been mixing vocabulary related to goods we buy in the supermarket and features of homes we read in different advertisements to practice the perfectum tense in Dutch. This means that we have the opportunity to communicate what we have done, what we have seen, what we have asked, where we have gone, among other instances.
We have been writing small paragraphs in which we share/summarize, for example, the steps taken to host a dinner, from going shopping, to cooking, setting the table, and cleaning up. Most recently, we were asked to report the direct questions we are asked in different places, and what we respond. We are not using indirect speech yet. The intentions of the teacher are very clear- he wants us to practice the perfectum form of the verbs in as many contexts as possible.
Having succeeded in a task in which I reported what I did to prepare for a dinner to which I invited my best friends, I started thinking how I could transfer the language I employed to produce a text that has no audience, to a text that could actually be consumable. Empowered, as usual, I started crafting a blog post in which I was to inform my readers about the differences in prices in products in Belgium and Mexico.
When I finished the text, I asked my spouse to look at it and help me improve it. I concretely wanted to know
- If I was able to communicate a message
- If the text included constructions that signaled possible translation from other languages that I speak (or even google translate)
When the time came for us to look at the text, I noticed that the conversation revolved around accuracy and the extent to which what I wrote made sense. I thought the intent of my message was clear, but as we discussed how logical some of my ideas were, I started wondering whether my message was not expressed clearly, or whether I wrote things that did were not logical. I even started writing some sentences in English to clarify what I wanted to say.
To make the story short, I lost patience and decided to abort the mission because I did not see how I was being helped.
After a few minutes, once I have cooled off, I started thinking whether we, teachers, are sensitized to the moments when our students go from feeling empowered to feeling powerless. I started thinking about the strategies we may or may not provide our students with so that they can engage in dialogue when being helped. I was being helped, but the “help” focused on accuracy and “logic”, and I felt that what I wanted to express was not being addressed.
I have been writing this blog since 2005. Clearly, I have vast experience to transfer from. Nevertheless, I have never written a consumable text in Dutch, so even if I possess a wide variety of skills to write blog entries with different purposes in the languages that I am fluent in, I am not able to do so in a language that I am acquiring, even when I think that I know the words and necessary structures to create one.
The process of writing a shopping list is very different from the process of writing a text message to tell someone you are late, or from the process of filling out a form with personal information. Are we aware of the steps involved in the production of these texts? Are we aware of the decisions we make when producing one? Do we help students to write sentences that serve as declarations of facts but lack an intent for an actual audience? What is the difference from simply writing “the prices of goods are more expensive in Belgium than in Mexico” and using this statement as part of a text that aims to communicate the summary of an experience?
Evidently, I noticed something that made me conclude the above, and I want to share it. The question is, what kind of questions are necessary for a dialogue in which we focus on how we can use language to communicate different ideas? And which are the ideas that can best help to communicate the summary of the experience one lived?
After being calmed down by my reflection, I started coaching myself as if I were my own student. The following are a few thoughts and questions that shaped my second attempt:
- Thought: I need to use only the words I have learned.
- T: I need to avoid translating long phrases that will result in complex structures that I haven’t been taught.
- Question: How can I say this in a different way?
- Q: What are the ideas that make sense in this text?
- Q: What words can I use to construct an idea that makes sense in this text?
- Q: (After writing an idea) How can I extend this idea so that it adds to the overall message?
- Q: Does this look like a text that someone with my language level would write?
Inevitably, I also started thinking about the steps I would need to take as a teacher if I wanted to scaffold the transfer process in a case like this. These are some of the questions that I was able to recollect:
- Have I shown students how many different ideas can be expressed with the vocabulary we have learned?
- Have I provided my students with mentor texts to refer to when exploring how ideas can be communicated?
- (If I have identified mentor texts) Do the texts progressively show how to integrate facts, questions, summaries of dialogues, ways of using information in stimuli?
- Have I prepared language stems that can help students use language with the text conventions in mind?
- Have I prepared examples to help students see how language is used to address an audience, to communicate ideas with a specific purpose within a theme, to combine ideas?
At the end of this reflective experience, I am left with these questions:
- How many times do we ask students what the intended message of the text they are writing is?
- How many times do we ask them to walk us thought the work they have already done?
- How many times do we ask students what they want to express before we give feedback?
- How many times do we refer them to the work we have already done to continue to support independence?
- How balance is our feedback considering meaning, message and accuracy?
Below, on the left, is a screenshot of the text about the transactions I participated in, which helped me to practice language and grammar, but which had no real audience. On the right, is the text I produced as a summary of an experience: comparing prices.