Over the past two centuries, as the world has benefited from globalization, the United States has become a monolingual country. I am currently in my fourteenth year of teaching French, and for me, the goal of language acquisition is to develop communicative, multilingual global citizens. But in many schools, an intensive world language program is not available until high school. It wasn’t until I arrived at GEMS World Academy Chicago, with a full International Baccalaureate program—from elementary through high school—that I witnessed the power of global language as a major. Starting language acquisition at the preschool level, sustaining it through grade 12, and connecting it to real-world topics is a great way to teach a new language to our students.
Why should we prioritize world languages in the American education system? In 2018, almost half of young people in the United States belonged to minority ethnic groups. Gen Z, loosely defined as people born after the year 2000, is projected to be the most racially diverse generation in US history1, a figure fueled by immigration and biracial relations. And in 2011, the US Census reported that “use of a language other than English” at home had increased by 148% between 1980 and 2009. Learn World Languages2 develops English literacy, improves problem solving, and promotes attentional control and the ability to switch tasks. More importantly, children inherently learn languages better when they are younger, so early exposure helps them become more proficient and retain more of them. However, it can be difficult to deeply involve young learners in foreign language teaching, especially students from English-only homes. Sometimes we have to “trap” students in teaching, and I have found that using visual technology tools encourages these digital natives to venture outside of their comfort zone.
Ecological superpowers in French
Recently, my class had the opportunity to participate in a live Zoom interview with Céline Cousteau, granddaughter of the late Jacques Cousteau and director of Tribes on the Edge, a documentary exploring the importance of indigenous tribes to the future of the Amazon forest. To engage them more deeply with the material, I asked them to use the online comic book creation platform, Pixton, to create a comic strip defining their ecological superpowers in French. They were able to choose from a variety of scenes, personalized and imaginative characters. Narrative captioning allowed students to create storyboards that demonstrated their knowledge of the unit of inquiry as well as their ability to express themselves in written French.
Comic Book Literacy Superpowers
Comics seem like an obvious choice for “pleasure reading”. After World War II, emerging French comics like Tintin, Lucky Luck and Asterix and Obelix were created as uplifting distractions in the aftermath of the occupation and liberation of Europe. The goal was to invite families to read together, imagine other worlds and create inspiration for the future.
However, comics can be so much more than a happy distraction. Emerging research3 shows that comics and graphic novels are motivating, support struggling readers, enrich the skills of accomplished readers, and are very effective in teaching sometimes boring or dry content. Comics can serve as a gateway to further reading and higher literacy, motivating struggling readers and enriching the skills of accomplished readers. The combination of pictures and written words provide visual context clues to complex emotions and content. This strong visual aspect helps the readers’ imagination to anchor the expressions not only by putting them in context but by making the medium multimodal. Visual details aid in memory formation to establish recall, which is the foundation for learning a new language. While processing text and images together leads to better recall and transfer of learning, having students create comics provides practical validation of neurological experiments showing that we process text and images in different areas. of the brain, known as the dual coding theory of cognition.4. These experiments also indicate that associating an image with text results in increased memory retention of both. With comics, students not only learn the material faster, they learn it better.
Using comics to assess
Allowing students to use comics to “show what they know” also provides a useful assessment tool for educators. Work products are authentic, so students don’t just regurgitate knowledge, they internalize, process, and remix information that allows the teacher to see—in a linear and visual way—if there are gaps in their thinking or understanding in a way they never could with an essay or short-answer formative assessment. And while the ability to write well is an essential skill that I do not wish to overlook, there are situations where the ability to write well, or not, obscures whether or not students have understood a particular lesson. And comics as an assessment tool go far beyond simple “checks for understanding.” Comics are also an excellent tool for summative assessment, giving students the opportunity to explain their understanding of fundamental concepts and ideas, without feeling overwhelmed or embarrassed by the skill level of their current writing abilities. Teaching the language, especially in the early years, can be difficult. I sometimes struggled to make learning engaging and provide the support needed to encourage students on their journey to fluency. By leveraging comics as a teaching tool, I have found that students are more enthusiastic about learning and I am able to assess that learning and identify gaps in understanding with more ease.
Suzanne Giacotto ([email protected]) is a French teacher at the GEMS World Academy in Chicago.