Skip to main content Skip to main content

Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: Workshop

Meaningful Interpretation

This session looks at how the interpretation of texts (including documents, paintings, movies, audio recordings, and more) can go beyond literal comprehension and tap into students' background knowledge while fostering critical-thinking skills.

Invoking the interpretive mode is one of the most creative ways to make a text personal to all kinds of learners. Every student in a classroom can come to appreciate a text on his or her own level.

– Virginia Scott
Chair of French and Italian
Vanderbilt University

Learning Goals
How can you build your students’ interpretive skills? In this session, you’ll review relevant research, observe video discussions and classroom examples, and do a culminating activity on the interpretive mode of communication. At the end of this session, you will better understand how to:

  • lead students from comprehension to deeper interpretation of authentic texts;
  • prepare effective interpretive tasks for students;
  • integrate interpretive communication tasks into a unit of study; and
  • select from a range of authentic texts — such as art, film, folktales, advertisements, and books — based on their cultural and interdisciplinary content.

Unit Glossary

authentic text
Authentic texts are print, audio, and visual documents created and used by native speakers. Examples include books, Web sites, articles, artwork, films, folktales, music, and advertisements.

co-construction of meaning
Co-construction of meaning is a process in which a teacher and a student, or two students, collaborate to interpret and understand written or oral communication.

communicative modes
The three communicative modes — interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational — are the basis of the Communication goal area of the National Standards. (To read more about each of these standards, go to National Standards.) These modes emphasize the context and purpose of communication, unlike the traditional four-skills approach of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, which treats skills as isolated units.

four-skills approach
The four-skills approach focuses on listening, speaking, reading, and writing as distinct skills. The current communicative modes model reconfigures the approach such that the four skills are intertwined in real-life communication. (See communicative modes for more information.)

Schema theory
Schema is a set of rules that people use to interpret the world around them. For example, if you run into a friend on the street and the friend holds out a hand, you understand that this is a request to shake hands with you. The Schema theory suggests that learners draw upon these rules to process new information. When a schema is relevant to a new situation, the learner is able to correctly interpret and predict the next steps or probable events, even if understanding of actual vocabulary is limited. However, if the learner’s schema is inadequate or irrelevant to a new situation, misunderstanding and/or confusion can result.

top-down reading process
The top-down reading process begins with readers focusing on the main ideas of a text and any other information that they can understand immediately. They then use contextual guessing to construct meaning at a deeper, more detailed level and to understand any unfamiliar words or phrases. This is in contrast to the bottom-up process, which emphasizes the words, phrases, and structures of a text over its main ideas. An effective reading strategy requires a balance between both processes, but should begin with the top-down process.

Materials Needed

An authentic text that you would like to use in an upcoming lesson with your students. For example, you could select a Web site, literary text, audio recording, film, or visual (such as a painting) that relates to the theme of the lesson or addresses cultural issues.


Check out these additional resources to explore the topic further.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. National Standards in Foreign Language Education Collaborative Project. Yonkers, NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 1999. (To purchase the Standards document, go to or call 1-800-627-0629.)

“Carnaval en la calle” Web site. InfoCádiz: Cádiz, Spain.

Hadley, Alice Omaggio. Teaching Language in Context. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 2001.

Hall, Joan Kelly. “The Communication Standards.” In Foreign Language Standards: Linking Research, Theories, and Practices, edited by June K. Phillips, 15-56. ACTFL Foreign Language Education Series. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company, 1999.

Lee, James F. Tasks and Communicating in Language Classrooms. McGraw-Hill Second Language Professional Series: Directions in Second Language Learning. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Lee, James F., and Bill VanPatten. Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Phillips, June K. “Practical Implications of Recent Research in Reading.” Foreign Language Annals17, no. 4 (1984): 285-296. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)

Schultz, Jean Marie. “The Gordian Knot: Language, Literature, and Critical Thinking.” In SLA and the Literature Classroom: Fostering Dialogues, edited by Virginia M. Scott and Holly Tucker, 3-31. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 2001. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)

Scott, Virginia, and Julie Huntington. “Reading Culture: Using Literature to Develop C2 Competence.” Foreign Language Annals 35, no. 6 (2002): 622-631.

Swaffar, Janet, and Susan Bacon. “Reading and Listening Comprehension: Perspectives on Research and Implications for Practice.” In Research in Language Learning: Principles, Processes, and Prospects, edited by Alice Omaggio Hadley, 124-155. ACTFL Foreign Language Education Series. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company, 1993.

Tucker, Holly. “The Place of the Personal: The Changing Face of Foreign Language Literature in a Standards-Based Curriculum.” ADFL Bulletin 31 (2000): 53-58.

Library Videos Chart

The following lessons from Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices are listed in the order in which they appear in the “Meaningful Interpretations” video:

Lesson Title Instructor Language Grade Level
Interpreting Picasso’s Guernica Meghan Zingle Spanish 10
Music and Manuscripts Lauri Dabbieri Latin 10-12
Interpreting La Belle et la Bête Michel Pasquier French 11
A Cajun Folktale and Zydeco Paris Granville French 8
Interpreting Literature Barbara Pope Bennett Spanish 11
Russian Cities, Russian Stories Jane Shuffelton Russian 9-12
Chicken Pox Jai Scott French K
Assessment Strategies Nancy Gadbois French 10-12
Sports Stats Amy Garcia German 5


If you are taking this workshop for credit or professional development, submit the following assignments for session 1: Meaningful Interpretation.

  1. Examine the Research
    Read the articles, then submit your written responses to the Reading Questions.
  2. Examine the Topic
    Complete the interactive activity, then write a brief summary of what you learned from the activity.
  3. Put It Into Practice
    Complete the activity, then submit your interpretive task.
  4. Action Research Project
    Submit your completed action research project on any one of the eight session topics.
  5. Reflect on Your Learning
    Review your notes, then write a summary of what you have learned and how you plan to apply it in your classroom.