A link to my latest post for the British Council Teaching English Blog:
Tag Archives: reading
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.
A free downloadable lesson about why smiling, even when we don’t feel much like it, can actually make us happier. The lesson starts with a short video, demonstrating the impact of smiling on the ‘miserable’ people of Edinburgh. After some brief discussion, the students go on to read a text about the various scientific findings about the emotional impact of smiling. The text and task would be suitable for students preparing for IELTS, especially at a lower level, but is suitable for a General English class as well. Finally, the lesson looks at a lexical set of idioms to describe emotions, and the students are asked to discuss how different situations might make them feel.
Download PDF here: ELT Resourceful – The Science of Smiling
A free downloadable lesson about Heidemarie Schwermer, who lives without using money. Suitable from Upper Intermediate (B2) upwards, the lesson uses an authentic newspaper article, and focuses on reading, vocabulary and discussion. Note that the video below, which is in German, with English subtitles, is a lead-in, with the main focus on the authentic reading text to follow.
Click here for the PDF : ELT Resourceful-Living without Money
After the lead-in, students work on vocabulary from the authentic text, related to money and different roles in life. They then look in detail at the reading text before being invited to consider their opinions about Heidemarie’s lifestyle, and the bigger question of whether society is too materialistic and whether (and how) it should change.
This statement jumped out at me recently, from an excellent post by Robin Walker on Pronunciation for YLs. He was reporting from a talk by Catherine Walter at IATEFL 2008, and reading this (perhaps surprising) statement sent me off to find her original research.
In her article Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra, Walter questions the idea that the skill of reading is something which needs to be taught to second language learners. She argues that successful L1 readers already possess the cognitive skills needed to build a mental structure or representation, which is, in fact, what we mean by ‘comprehension.’ According to Walter, comprehension isn’t actually a linguistic skill, so it’s fruitless to talk about transferring it from L1 to L2.
So why are some learners competent at reading in L1, but struggle with reading in L2? Obviously, lack of linguistic knowledge plays a part. Fascinatingly, though, Walter cites a study (Robertson et al 2000)* which used MRI scanning to show that sentence comprehension and comprehension of a text as a whole take place on different sides of the brain.
Walter doesn’t mention this, but, of course, there has been a lot of speculation about left brain and right brain thinking. Interestingly, sentence level comprehension, or decoding, used the left frontal lobe (associated with analytical, logical processing) and text comprehension uses the right frontal lobe (associated with intuition).
So a learner may have effective (non-linguistic) comprehension skills, and even be able to decode L2 sentences, but still struggle. Why?
According to Walter, it may be to do with how we use our working memories. Part of the working memory is something called the phonological loop:
‘a short-term memory mechanism that stores information in phonological form and automatically rehearses that information by unconscious sub- vocalisation.’ (Walter 2008)
In other words, as we listen, we automatically ‘record’ the last two seconds of what we hear in the memory, like a little Dictaphone. It’s why we can repeat back what we have just heard, even if we weren’t really listening properly to the speaker.
There is also evidence that we do exactly the same thing as we read- that we also sub-vocalise and record the sound of what we are reading. We don’t see it, we hear it. At least, this is true for those of us with L1s that are alphabetic (there is some evidence that learners with non-alphabetic L1s, may use more visual representations).
However, if our phonological representations of what we have just read are unreliable, we may find it difficult to associate these sounds with meanings, and thus find it difficult to keep meaning in our short term memory. This, in turn, will make it harder for us to carry out meaning building processes on the text as a whole.
Walter’s research in this paper concludes that unless learners are also poor at comprehension in L1, we would be better off teaching them to improve how they ‘mentally represent spoken language’ than teaching comprehension skills.
As much exposure as possible to the spoken language- so lots of listening and watching videos in English.
Listening while reading – hearing the spoken version while reading a text. This could mean using sub-titles, or following a transcript while listening, or listening to an audio version of a written text while reading. I would suggest that these don’t have to be instead of our usual listening or reading activities (I’m not quite ready to throw out more traditional reading and listening procedures), but as a follow up.
And finally, explicit focus on features of pronunciation, such as minimal pairs work , and focus on word stress and on how words change in the stream of speech . This kind of work will help learners to develop a more reliable repertoire of L2 sounds, which, Walter suggests, could also help them to hold what they are reading more efficiently in their short term memory, which in turn will greatly help with building up the meaning of the text.
And even if this isn’t the case, it will certainly help with developing fluency in speaking and confidence in listening, so what have we got to lose?
Many teachers like to use authentic materials in class, and they can obviously be a wonderful source of language. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to offer some thoughts and tips on how you might go about selecting and exploiting these materials, to maximise their benefit to students.
Nunan (1988) defines authentic materials as those ‘which have been produced for purposes other than to teach language’, so that might mean emails, blogs, statistics, timetables, advertisements, instructions, labels, menus etc as well as articles from newspapers and magazines.
Relevance and interest
Have you ever done any research into the literacy practices of your students? In other words, what they actually read (and write) in their daily lives, in their first language as well as in English. Ask students to keep a note of everything they read, including cereal packets etc, for a couple of days. You may be surprised, and it will probably give you some new ideas of where to look for material.
Similarly, the more you can find out about the kinds of topics your students are interested in, the more successful your texts are likely to be. Obviously, if the students are preparing for an exam, you will also need materials and topics which reflect the exam they are taking.
This is a HUGE area, but I think there are three main points:
- Being careful about materials which may offend political, social or religious mores. If you know the context you are teaching in, this should be fairly easy to avoid. Or, if you are confident about your class, you may be able to touch on subjects which published material would have to avoid. I once taught a fabulous class about dangerous sports, which was fabulous not because of anything I did, but because one of the students suddenly started telling us all about the time he played Russian Roulette. Everyone was, unsurprisingly, fascinated and completely involved in communicating with one another.
- Being careful about materials which your students simply can’t relate to. This is a criticism aimed, not unfairly, at a lot of published ELT materials. ESOL learners in Birmingham are unlikely to want to read about skiing holidays, for example. However, just because something is outside the students’ experience, does not necessarily mean that it is uninteresting. It’s a judgement call.
- Consider visual literacy as well. The way the text is laid out may cause confusion. This is particularly an issue for students with low levels of literacy in their first language, but can also cause problems if the norms aren’t transferable.
For example, look at this leaflet:
The bullet points in the top right hand corner are used to give reasons why you should join- but this is only implied through the visual convention and might well not be obvious to a student.
The speech marks on the left indicate that what is inside them is a quote- but you need to know what the speech marks mean.
The asterisk in the bottom left-hand corner indicates some ‘small print’ information (in itself another convention!)
Students need to know a lot about the conventions of this type of text to be able to make sense of it. Other examples would be speech bubbles which always go from left to right, italics to indicate direct speech and bold or capitals to indicate that something is particularly important.
Linguistic and cognitive demands of the text
To a certain extent, the question isn’t so much about how difficult the text is, but about what you expect learners to do with it (the task). However, realistically, if a text is syntactically very complex and contains a great deal of unknown vocabulary, it is unlikely to be very motivating!
As teachers, we generally have a good sense of the ‘level’ of a text. However, if you aren’t sure, you could try running it through a programme which will assess the difficulty of the vocabulary, such as the Oxford 3000 profiler. According to this tool, if 100% of the words in your text are in the Oxford 3000, it is at a low intermediate level, if 90-95%, it’s upper intermediate and 70-90%, it’s advanced. This obviously won’t help with assessing the complexity of the syntax though, or other factors such as the level of background knowledge or maturity required.
Another factor is how clearly the text is organised. This can be a real headache with newspaper texts, which often have very short paragraphs, not necessarily linked clearly to the surrounding text. I remember an activity in the first edition of Headway Intermediate where the students had to order the paragraphs of a newspaper article. It was virtually impossible, because the links weren’t clear enough- and because the students weren’t made aware that the first paragraph of a newspaper article usually sums up the whole story.
It is also worth thinking about whether you want to use the text as a model for writing and, if so, whether, for example, a newspaper article is a type of discourse that students might actually want or need to write in real life (unless they are budding journalists of course)
- Length (if it’s too long, you could edit it, but would need to be very careful about removing some of the features which make the text authentic or making it difficult to follow the links which make it cohesive)
- Font size and style (may be too small or difficult for learners not yet familiar with different ways of reproducing the Roman alphabet)
In my next post, I’ll look at some ideas for exploiting texts once you’ve found them. If you want to get the next post automatically, just hit the ‘Follow blog via email’ button on the right.