Parallel texts – How they can enhance learning and effectively scaffold reading proficiency development

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A few days ago, one of my colleagues approached me in the MFL Department corridor to share a resource he referred to as ‘Parallel texts’ from Steve Smith’s www.frenchteacher.net . ‘This is excellent!’ – he said, showing me a worksheet (here: http://frenchteachernet.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/parallel-reading-texts-for-near.html) . This contained a text in French on daily routine on the left hand-side and its translation on the right; some comprehension activities were included, too. ‘My students find them very useful!’ he added.

I hardly needed any convincing as I had used Parallel Texts (French / Italian) myself in the past when working as a translator for the European Union in order to refine my English, day in day out for a few months – and it paid off; my English vocabulary, syntax and awareness of text-specific discourse features grew exponentially as a result. In this article I will show what the potential benefits of using parallel texts with L2 learners can be in light of L2 acquisition theory and how they can be best exploited, in my view, in the classroom and/or as homework.

How can they impact foreign language learning?

Benefit 1 – They encourage ‘noticing’

‘Noticing’ is a phenomenon first documented, in the L2 acquisition literature by Richard Schmidt. According to Schmidt’s (1990) ‘Noticing hypothesis’ the learning of a foreign language grammar structure cannot occur unless the learner ‘notices’ the gap between the way that structure is used in the target language and his/her own L1. In my classroom experience I have witnessed many a time that Eureka moment when a student said, almost thinking aloud, “Oh, I get it! ‘I went’ in French is actually ‘I am gone’. That would be an occurrence of ‘noticing’. Another common occurrence of this process is when our students process our feedback on error and notice the gap between our version and their erroneous output.

One of the benefits of parallel texts, when the translation is as faithful as possible to the text, is exactly that the co-occurrence, side by side, of the target language and the first language version on the same page facilitates ‘noticing’. What’s more, such noticing, occurs in an ‘authentic’ linguistic context (not on the board through teacher-led examples), under lighter cognitive load (as the translation facilitates information processing) and in a safe ‘environment’ (as the translation takes away the risk-taking that inference-making involves). It is advisable, obviously, when using parallel texts, to encourage and scaffold ‘noticing’ by asking, for example, metalinguistic questions on the text, which can become the springboard for an inductive or explicit grammar session on a specific grammar / lexical structure.

Bringing the importance of ‘noticing’ into the learners’ awareness as a powerful catalyst of language acquisition can, in my opinion, impact those students who are more motivated and metacognizant. In fact, if we aim at forging autonomous learners, fostering noticing is a must and I cannot think of any other reading or learning activity that lends itself as beautifully as Parallel texts to creating a context for learning to ‘notice’. They certainly worked for me as a learner.

Benefit 2 – They can effectively scaffold reading with less confident readers

This is especially true of less confident learners who are put off by texts with masses of words they do not understand. The fact that one knows that there is a translation one can fall back upon when one ‘doesn’t get it’, may lessen the anxiety levels of such learners and provide a solid affective scaffold. But won’t this, someone may argue, encourage over reliance on translation? It won’t if parallel texts are used sensibly, with the right students and emphasizing the importance of looking at the translation only when they are stuck or when they need to double check that their inferences are correct. The use of parallel texts as scaffolds for reading is recommended at the early stages of instruction; the translation support will be gradually phased out as the students become more confident.

Benefit 3 – Students learn vocabulary in context

Parallel texts are one of the most ‘authentic’ ways of presenting new lexical items, as the learners do not process the target vocabulary through artificial means (e.g. through flashcards) or in a vacuum (e.g. vocabulary lists), but in an authentic linguistic environment (e.g. articles, short stories, poems), without the direct mediation of or need for the teacher. Moreover the process is relatively effortless both for teachers and students, thanks to the translation. But would it not be better, instead of ‘spoon-feeding’ them, to get them to find out the target words meaning inductively? Surely, the cognitive investment would result in deeper processing and consequently ‘better’ learning, right?

The answer is: it depends on what you are trying to achieve. If my aim is to develop/enhance student reading strategy use, I will elect not to use parallel texts. However I will prefer parallel texts when they represent a first step in a sequence of vocabulary activities aimed at recycling ‘to death’ useful words/phrases I have identified in the text and I want my students to learn. Hence, being the ‘presentational’ stage in a planned sequence of tasks I will have my students process those items effortlessly, to start with (i.e. with the support of the translation). After this first stage, one can, for instance:

  1. Gap the L2 or English version and ask the students to fill them in with the missing words (in the context of a multiple choice quiz)
  2. Cut up / Jumble up the English text and ask the learners to rearrange it based on the French text;
  3. Then the English translation may be removed and typical vocabulary building and reading comprehension activities can be carried out (e.g. matching lists of English words with L2 words in the text; matching lists of L2 words with synonyms in the text; true or false, questions and answers; summaries or even translations of specific parts of the text; etc.)
  4. Another activity students enjoy is to be given a modified version of the original texts, where the L2 or the English text contains errors ‘planted’ by the teacher. The learners are told the number of mistakes in the translation and are given ‘X’ number of minutes to spot and fix them.

In order to sensitize the learners to the target words in the text, quizzes and other vocabulary activities can be carried out prior to reading the text, which focus the students on those words. This, in my experience, can significantly enhance retention of target lexis.

Benefit 4 – They facilitate access to more challenging texts

Often, at lower levels of proficiency, learners cannot access texts due not so much to the vocabulary per se, but because of the complexity of the grammar or syntax. Parallel texts make it possible for learners to access higher level texts by providing valuable support in this respect, by means of the bilingual translation.

Benefit 5 – Differentiation

Parallel texts can be very helpful in differentiation from a more practical point of view. Imagine you want to carry out one or more comprehension tasks on a text. You could first either download a parallel text from a source or create your own; then you could eliminate the translation altogether for the more able learners whilst keeping ‘bits’ for the less able. With a little bit of editing you will be able, in a few minutes, to obtain three or four differentiated versions of the original.

In conclusion, parallel texts are a very useful and versatile learning tool that can be used to (a) scaffold reading with less confident learners (by virtue of being ‘safer’); (b) to facilitate conscious or subconscious ‘noticing’ (thanks to the co-occurrence on the same sheet of the L1 and L2 version); (c) to differentiate (with little work on the teacher’s part) and (d) to present new vocabulary in context. The best examples of non-electronic parallel texts for lower levels of proficiency I have located on the web so far are found at http://www.frenchteacher.net . I hope that the author, Steve Smith, will carry on producing them targeting higher levels of proficiency, too. Great interactive online parallel texts can also be found at http://www.textivate.com.

2 thoughts on “Parallel texts – How they can enhance learning and effectively scaffold reading proficiency development

  1. So great a post!You have said what I want to say.But I wonder how many applications of parallel text learning there are.I can’t find adequate suitable learning resources online after realizing even the most translated book Bible is not. 😦 I hope you can post on good resources.

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