Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way?

2576372736_04fe9e4026_o (1)One of the often used arguments against published coursebooks is that the texts, especially at lower levels, tend to have been specially written. When I first started writing coursebooks I was very keen to use authentic texts, and, indeed, the first edition of IELTS Foundation is full of them.

There are plenty of points in favour of using authentic texts. Firstly, the enormous sense of satisfaction to be gained from being able to read something designed for a native speaker. It’s no coincidence that the language learning app, Duolingo, encourages me in my learning by announcing, ‘You can now read 96.7% of all real Portuguese articles’ (though I doubt that very much!). Finding that they are able to read an authentic text may also encourage the learner to read more extensively outside of the classroom, which has to be a good thing.

It’s also important that students are exposed to different genres of texts, and, especially for the teacher creating materials for their own class, authentic texts provide a relatively easy way to bring something up to date and topical into the classroom. They can provide us with the opportunity to look at the same topic reported in different ways, or give students a starting point from which to follow the news topic as it unfolds, in their own time.

However, in recent years I have been moving away from using unadapted authentic texts. The most obvious problem is the level of the language. When I was first trained, we were taught, ‘grade the task not the text’, but, while this is usually possible, I’m no longer sure that it’s always in the students’ best interests.

Taking this kind of approach is intended to help students develop strategies to deal with texts where a lot of the language is unknown. There is certainly a value in this, but is it as valuable as giving them a text from which they can get so much more? Hu and Nation (2000) concluded that most learners needed to comprehend 98% of words in a text in order to gain ‘adequate comprehension’

Personally, I think there’s still a value in a text pitched slightly higher than that, especially if we give the learners support, but without a doubt, if the level is pitched too high, class time will just be taken up with explaining tens of words which, in all probability, the learners will not learn and may never need to use again.

But aren’t graded texts dull and decontextualized? Won’t they give students a false sense of security, and fail to prepare them for real world reading?

Or is there a middle way?

I think there is, and that it is based around a proper respect for genre. I now unashamedly write a lot of texts for my coursebooks. Unashamedly, because I think that, as a writer, my writing skills are often just as good as someone writing for the Daily Telegraph etc, and, therefore, my texts are, in their own way, just as authentic.

So before writing a text, I look for samples of the kind of genre I’d like to write (this often gives me ideas about the topic as well, but the genre is most important). Then I look to see how these texts are structured, how formal the language is, what kind of structures appear (making sure that these are the structures I’d like to pull out to work on in the grammar section of the lesson) and what kind of vocabulary is in there.

I might run the texts through something like the Oxford 3000 textchecker to see what level the vocabulary is at, and think about how I could replace some of it, or use something like https://readability-score.com/ to see how complex the syntax is, which I might be able to simplify without affecting the style too much. I then use all this information to write my own text, at a more appropriate level and length, using grammar structures and vocabulary which are true to the spirit of the original sources, but which will be of use productively to the students.

Regular readers will know how I love a middle way!

I’ll be speaking about this and other tips for teachers wanting to write their own materials for the British Council Seminar Series in the next couple of weeks.

Firstly in London on 4th March. Tickets available here (free)

And then in Belfast on the 11th March, which will also be live streamed (also both free). Sign up here.

 

 

18 Comments

Filed under Discourse, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Materials development, Planning, Vocabulary

18 responses to “Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way?

  1. Hi Rachael
    Thank you for this post. I like your ‘middle way’ and I think students benefit from having balance. You said: ‘as a writer, my writing skills are often just as good as someone writing for the Daily Telegraph etc, and, therefore, my texts are, in their own way, just as authentic’ – I think you and your students are fortunate. Would you say that any teacher can create a text ‘in the middle’ and ensure that reading it helps developing both reading strategies and feel for language? Textcheckers are good, but I think there is more to writing than them? Would love to think more about this!

    • That’s a very good question, Zhenya. I think it requires a certain amount of language awareness, so that you can identify the features of the genre successfully. This is the kind of thing which is taught on the DELTA, so it might be harder for a new teacher- but then if they aren’t able to do that, they are also likely to be choosing unsuitable authentic texts (level too high, lots of cultural references, confusing organisation etc).

      • Rachael, thank you for the reply: yes, language awareness plus skills is a good way to look at it. DELTA, or MA is certainly a plus. I might be wrong, but I guess the ability to identify the features of the genre is the first step to creating texts by the teachers themselves. I think where I am coming from (Ukraine, ex-Soviet Union) we have a lot of semi-authentic texts in the books, where the language chosen is often far from being natural or even clear. I like how you turn the point though. Hope your session next week goes well!

  2. Pingback: ‘Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way?’ by Rachael Roberts | Rakesh Patel

  3. heidibeate

    Reblogged this on Veien mot lektor er digital and commented:
    Seeing as I am planning to write my master’s dissertation on teachers’ experiences or attitudes towards the use of authentic texts in their classrooms, I found this to be an interesting read. Like the author, I find that as teacher students we are taught that the use of authentic texts is the way forward, and therefore the preferred teaching material. However, I am aware of the challenges that such use may entail. At the same time, while I am still sitting behind a desk and reading my books (the work-life of a student), I am motivated by the idea and thought of getting to use authentic texts with my future students. A ‘middle way’ seems the most logical solution to the challenges authentic texts might create.

    I like to add that the resources mentioned in the blog – Oxford 3000 and readability-score.com – are new to me and seems like GREAT resource! I imagine using them both in my own text production, but also to check language levels in authentic texts that I would like to use in my classes.

    • Thanks for the comment and reblog. Your Master’s dissertation sounds really interesting- are you going to blog about it?

      • heidibeate

        I am not sure whether I am going to blog about my master or not. As of now, this blog is created due to work requirements in one of my courses, Digital Competence. But I do find blogging to be a very useful way of getting input and ideas that I can use both as a student teacher and as a future practicing teacher.

      • Well, I’d be interested to see what you find out. :)

  4. No, I think that’s exactly right- you need to be able to identify features of a genre in order to create a text (and to choose an appropriate one).
    Thanks for the good wishes :)

  5. Middle way is very often the best choice! And this choice between the authentic and graded has long been quite actual for me…hope to attend the live streaming of your talk.
    Thanks for the links to 2valuable links, too

  6. Hi Rachel,

    Carrot cake is on the way. Love the idea of empowering teachers to create texts for classroom use. And I agree that creating such a text means being aware of and using genre conventions in a thoughtful manner.

    I do wonder if graded texts are experienced as dull. It’s easy for us to pick up a graded reader and to find the language a little limp. But “authentic” is very much a function of how the texts impacts/effects a reader. Gill Claridge has a very interesting article on how learners experiences graded readers (http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/october2005/claridge/claridge.html) and I think she makes a good case that perhaps they experience a graded text in ways very similar to how a native reader experiences an authentic text.

    Another tool is the OGTE Editor over at Extensive Reading Central (http://www.er-central.com/ogte/). It let’s you analyze texts using not only the GSL (http://www.er-central.com/ogte/) but also their own word list which is based on a composite list of the various graded reader headword lists. You can even analyze it with a specific taget level in mind. They are also planning to add the NGSL as one of the word list options in the near future.

    In general, I think authentic texts which are beyond our students’ current level need to be used not to teach reading (or even new structures), but to teach coping strategies. Our students will always have to wrestle with language which is not appropriate for their current learning needs. Helping them deal with that situation is part of our job. But it is a very narrow kind of teaching and should probably be recognized for what it is.

    Thanks again for the read,
    Kevin

    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks so much for your comment, and the really useful links. When I get a second I’d like to go back and add these to the main post, so they don’t get missed.
      I must say I tend to agree that while there is a use for above level texts, I think it’s a fairly limited one.
      I’m not sure I’m ready to completely chuck out teaching reading skills as yet (I know that’s not what you’re saying, but some would), but I certainly think the old adage of grade the task not the text needs looking at again.

  7. Pingback: Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way? | ostankowicz

  8. Hi Rachel, many thanks for an interesting post on a subject I’m currently wrestling with myself as a teacher of ESP and Business English to university level students.

    As regards your observation that “Hu and Nation (2000) concluded that most learners needed to comprehend 98% of words in a text in order to gain ‘adequate comprehension’” – might providing parallel explanation of key vocabulary during, as opposed to before, reading, address this issue when dealing with topics relevant to students’ professional purposes?

    Much has been made of the need to introduce language that lies just slightly ahead of what the learners’ already know (i+1, in Krashen’s parlance). That’s okay, but when teaching pre-experience learners ESP I rather wonder whether it makes even better sense to introduce topics and ideas that lie just ahead of what the learners already know about how the world works. If the topic is relevant, they’ll be curious to learn the new vocabulary for its own sake: we’re working with their intrinsic motivation.

    Maybe I have been spoon-feeding students to an extent, but the challenge with the sort of texts I’m talking about tends to be idiomaticity and as yet unfamiliar lexical chunks. I’ve found explaining these helps students move from bottom-up to top-down processing quite rapidly – speeding up reading and leading to fruitful discussion and debate afterwards.

    • Hi Philip,

      Thanks very much for commenting. As the phrase goes, ‘it’s complicated’. This is very much the kind of thing I wrestle with myself and I honestly think that there are benefits to lots of different ways of doing things. I think Nation and Hu are probably right about the 98%, but then again, they are, I think talking about reading extensively for pleasure, and there are lots of other reasons why we might get students to read a text- as a vehicle for language and, as you suggest, for the actual content of the text itself. Your students need to learn to process quite specific kinds of texts, and these are unlikely to meet the 98% rule. And, as you say, it isn’t all about individual words anyway, they’re much more likely to get stuck on chunks or on implied meanings, so dealing with these could certainly help to develop fluency with that particular text at any rate.
      But definitely, I agree that the content is key.

    • PS And I see we are neighbours..I’m in Leamington and did my MA in ELT at Warwick rather a lot of moons ago.

  9. Pingback: Revisiting ELT Mantras #5: Grade the task, not the text | Richmond Share

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