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CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

Mapping Our Way to Critical Thinking: Reading Strategies in the German Classroom

by Eric Klaus,
Assistant Professor of German Area Studies

German 202 is a fourth-semester German class that aims to develop linguistic and cultural proficiency. A key component of cultural proficiency is cultural critical thinking – discovering and reflecting on common experiences and traditions that members of a group employ to create cultural products, practices, and perspectives. Detective stories (in German, Krimis) offer rich opportunities for this kind of investigation.  Therefore, my German 202 students work with these detective stories to learn about how the language functions as well as about the history and culture of Germany.

This semester students struggled with the content of the Krimi, which hindered our progress: if students could not understand the content of the story, how could we analyze it to foster the thinking and understanding skills they needed to carry out the intercultural learning so central to the course goals?

To overcome this obstacle, I used two methods:  applying reading strategies I have used in my First-Year Seminar, and folding in mind-mapping techniques.

In my FSEM, I regularly have first-years read selections from Keith Hjortshoj’s Transition to College Writing, specifically his section on reading strategies. Hjortshoj says that students entering college are confronted with an immediate, and seemingly insurmountable, challenge: how to tackle the voluminous reading assignments. Students often approach all reading as they would a novel, and read linearly, from beginning to end, without any guiding purpose. We see this in German language classes:  students plod through a text, reading linearly until they come across a word they don’t know (which can happen quite often), then turning away from the text to look up that word, writing down the word’s definition, and then resuming reading from where they left off. This method is most inefficient and, as I told my students, is guaranteed to have five unproductive outcomes:

  1. students will not retain the events of the plot
  2. students will not remember the words they look up
  3. students will not finish in a reasonable amount of time
  4. students will become frustrated
  5. students will end up hating the story, the German language, and, most likely, me.

Instead of this linear and inefficient method of reading complex texts, Hjortshoj suggests that students become predatory readers by articulating why they are reading the text before opening the book. This helps them to identify what specific information they need to take from the reading, and prepares them to go into the text and “hunt” for what information they need.  This approach is particularly useful for learners of a foreign language.

To help my German 202 students analyze both Krimis and culture critically, I adapted Hjortshoj’s strategies to our specific task:  I told them to identify the purpose of their reading, which is always to find out what happened in the story. Easy enough. Then I say that they should not read linearly, but skim through the text in a series of passes.  The first pass should identify where the scenes take place, to identify locations as the basis of a storyboard-type outline for their mind maps. The second skim should focus on who is at the locations, grounding students in the plot to solidify the mind map. These first two passes should be quick and easy, as students need only identify locations and names. The third pass needs to focus on what occurs at these locations, and should result in a list of verbs associated with the where and who already identified.

After this purpose-specific skimming, we began to apply location-based mind mapping:  in class, I asked students to draw pictures, and use the images to associate with vocabulary when reviewing the maps. Students were very creative: it was obvious that they were very engaged, and that the text was no longer an intimidating chore but a game or a puzzle that needed to be solved.

At this point, I asked the students to read more or less straight through the text without stopping to look up words, but instead merely underlining words that seemed important based on proximity to a location, character, or verb. Students were not allowed to look up the word right away, but needed to try to surmise what the word meant from its context.  Only after a fifth skim should students then turn to their online dictionaries for assistance.

We first practiced these strategies in class together with a section of familiar text.  Then I gave them an assignment to mind map the next section of the Krimi for homework. The maps showed a wide variety:  some students had jotted down a few words with lines connecting them, others had elaborate diagrams resembling the hieroglyphs of an Egyptian tomb.

For the follow-up exercise, I began by having students work with a neighbor and then in groups of four to compare and to expand their mind maps, which provided a chance to compare notes and pick up information they may have missed. Finally, students presented their group maps on the board and we compared their work.

Once we had incorporated this process into the class, students began doing much better on their reading comprehension quizzes. 

The next step was to use the text for cultural critical thinking (i.e. to use the text to uncover cultural differences and to elaborate on how an American may navigate those differences to minimize confusion and misunderstandings). For instance, I asked students to locate cultural differences between north and south Germany as expressed in the story. Using their new reading strategies, students pinpointed examples of cultural confusion on the part of a character from Hamburg struggling with the traditions and dialect of Bavaria and working with a Munich-born colleague. Beyond merely finding these moments in the text, students were able to explain the character’s confusion and link the situation to earlier theoretical discussions of cultural construction.

Students said the reading strategy/mind-mapping techniques helped, and they were excited to continue to use these techniques in their reading. And this semester’s successes demonstrate something I have always believed:  that students are able to carry out sophisticated thinking about culture and intercultural learning, but need a clearly explained and modeled method for gaining information from the text to do so.

This kind of hands-on, instructor-modeled lesson in reading strategies will be a part of every German class I teach in the future, for it is applicable and necessary at every level of instruction.

Click here for an adapted version of Klaus’ critical reading strategy.