Tag Archives: text organisation

Taking a genre approach towards IELTS writing part 2: Organising Task 2

Photo Credit: Paco CT via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Paco CT via Compfight cc

In a previous post I took a look at some ideas for using a genre approach to help students with IELTS writing, Task 1. In this post, I’d like to look at some ideas for Task 2, the essay. This is obviously equally applicable to anyone with students who need to write semi-academic opinion essays.

Taking a genre approach means looking at the key features of a particular genre, and helping to raise students’ awareness of these features, and thus their ability to reproduce them.

Useful headings to consider are:

Content or communicative purpose- Layout- Organisation- Grammatical structures- Lexis/formulae

Broadly speaking, all the tasks in IELTS Part 2 have the same communicative purpose- to express your opinions on a topic of general interest. The layout will also be the same, with an introduction, paragraphs for each key idea and a conclusion.

However, the organisation will vary depending on the specific type of question. It’s really worth familiarising your students with the different types of question and how to approach them.

There are essentially three different types of questions in IELTS

1 Presenting your argument: Often phrased ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree.’

2 Balanced argument: Often phrased ‘Some people think…Others think…Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.’ Or ‘Discuss the advantages and disadvantages….and give your own opinion’

3 Problem/cause and solution: Phrasing varies, but could be ‘What do you think are the causes of these problems and what measure could be taken to solve them?’

Each of these should probably be organised slightly differently. In the first type, I’d suggest a good way of organising it could be:

  1. Introduction
  2. State your opinion
  3. A paragraph for each main point you want to make.
  4. Conclusion

For the second type, you need to be less upfront about your opinion, so:

  1. Introduction
  2. Arguments in favour
  3. Arguments against (or vice versa)
  4. Your opinion
  5. Conclusion

And for problem/solution:

  1. Introduction
  2. Problems
  3. Solutions
  4. Conclusion: summary of the situation and your opinion.

Students need to be very confident about these different types and how to organise them so, rather than writing lots of essays, at least to start with, I’d suggest looking at lots of questions (and model answers).

Some possible activities once students are familiar with the three main types:

1. Look at IELTS questions (there are lots of past questions, or close facsimiles, online) and decide if they are type 1,2 or 3.

2. Take an IELTS question that is a particular type and ask students to rewrite it to make it another type.

3. Give students a model answer, and ask them to guess what the original question was.

4. Give out a model answer and get students to identify the different sections.

5. Cut up a model answer and get students to put the paragraphs in the right order (obviously this works on discourse skills as well)

6. Rewrite a model answer so that there is no paragraphing and ask them to divide it into paragraphs.

7. Rewrite a model answer so that the organisation doesn’t flow anymore, and ask students to identify the problem with it.

8. Ask students to pick out the key idea in each paragraph of a model answer.

In some of these activities we started to look at the internal organisation of the paragraphs by getting students to pick out the key idea. One way of helping students to organise a paragraph is by looking at topic sentences. These are a bit of a blunt tool, because in reality, it isn’t always as simple as any rules we can give them. However, while it may be oversimplified, the recipe  of topic sentence, supporting ideas and examples isn’t a bad start for many students.

You can practice this by:

  1. Getting students to identify the topic sentence, sporting ideas and examples in a model answer.
  2. Giving them the topic sentences for each paragraph and asking them to add supporting ideas and examples.
  3. Removing the topic sentences from a model answer, and asking them to write what they think they were from looking at the further ideas and examples.

As with the post on IELTS Task 1, it’s worth putting in some specific practice on writing a good introduction. Careful analysis of the question will help, as we’ve seen, with organising the essay, but it should also help students to know how to start their essay.

Let’s take an example from IELTS Foundation. A good place to start is always by getting students to underline the key words:

‘People will never be willing to make the dramatic lifestyle changes needed to control climate change. For this reason, governments must force people to do so.’

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

A good introduction should explain what they understand by the question, and might give a little background information. So identifying the key words will help with pulling out what the main idea is.

Then you could ask students to choose the best introduction from a selection. Here are the choices from IELTS Foundation:

1 I think that it is very important that we should all look after our planet. After all, it is the only one we have. There are lots of small actions that we can all take such as switching off computers and televisions, rather than leaving them on standby or walking short distances rather than going in the car.

2 Nowadays, most people are aware of the threat of climate change and are willing to make small changes to the way they live. However, for the majority of people this does not include such things as giving up their car or giving up flying abroad.

3 Governments must force people to make changes or the problem of climate change will never be solved. If necessary, people who continue to pollute the planet should be sent  to prison.

[The answer is 2, because it simply summarises the background situation, and students could then go on to discuss if and whether people should be forced to do these things]

Variations on this activity could include:

1 Giving a question and asking students to just write an introduction as a warmer or change of pace activity.

2 Asking students to compare these introductions in small groups and choose the best one, or make changes together to improve what they have written.

Most students seem to feel that the best way to prepare for IELTS writing is to write lots and lots of essays. However, very often there is no significant improvement from one essay to the next. Students also get very caught up in the accuracy of the language being used, when there are still some serious structural defects. Language is very important as well, and I think there’s another post in that, but getting the structure right can also make a huge difference.

9 Comments

Filed under IELTS, Writing

Taking a genre approach towards IELTS writing (Part 1)

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

In a previous post, I looked at how a genre approach could help students who need to produce a specific type of writing. IELTS is a perfect example of this, and in this post, and the next one, I want to look in more detail at ideas for helping students to become familiar with the genres required for the IELTS Writing Test.

At first, the IELTS Writing Test (whether as a teacher or student) can seem rather intimidating. Many people are not particularly familiar with the kinds of texts required, and students are penalised for not producing exactly the right kind of text.

However, as a teacher of General English we ask our students to produce many different genres. For example:

  • Thank you letter
  • Letter of complaint
  • Narrative
  • Description
  • Biography
  • Form filling
  • Short message
  • Email to a friend
  • Postcard
  • Letter of application
  • Instructions
  • Report
  • Summary
  • Poem
  • Anecdote
  • Magazine article
  • Newsletter
  • Essay

In contrast, IELTS requires much less:

Part 1: Describing data

  • Graphs and charts
  • Process
  • Map

Part 2: Essay

  • Argument
  • Balanced opinion
  • Problem-solution

In addition, although I have separated out the different kinds of tasks in each part of the Writing Test, they do in fact have a lot in common. Learning what the features are of these different genres is quite manageable and, while it won’t solve problems like not having an opinion on the topic in Part 2, it will go a long way towards helping students produce a decent answer.

The features of a particular genre can be grouped under the following headings:

Content or communicative purpose

Layout 

Organisation

Grammatical structures

Lexis/formulae

So, looking at the most typical IELTS Task, describing a graph, chart or table, we could say:

Communicative purpose

  • Summarise information  (not to give your opinion about it)

Layout

  • Should use paragraphs
  • About 150 words

Organisation

  • Introduction which rewords the rubric to summarise what is shown.
  • Clear overview
  • Identifying key features- not every little detail
  • Logical grouping of information

Grammatical structures

  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Describing changes over time

Lexis/formulae

  • Rise, fall, plummet etc.

Once you’ve identified the key features, you can start to devise activities to work on each of them.

Rewording the rubric

This comes under organisation, so we aren’t starting at the top,  but it is the first thing the student needs to be able to do.  Students who ‘lift’ phrases from the rubric will be penalised, so it needs to become second nature to paraphrase.

You can start by doing this together on the board, eliciting different words and phrases for the underlined sections. For example:

‘The table below gives information about changes in modes of travel in England between 1985 and 2000

Don’t forget that you can change the sentence structure too, so ‘changes’ could become ‘how…have changed’. This is particularly useful if students can’t think of a synonym. Once students have got the idea, and a few useful phrases up their sleeves, this can become a regular warmer, with a competition to see how many appropriate paraphrases they can produce in a time limit. E.g.

The table illustrates how methods of transport in England changed between 1985 and 2000.

In this table we can see the changes in how people in England travelled between the years 1985 and 2000.

This table shows changes in modes of transport in England over a 15 year period, from 1985- 2000.

Summarising information/identifying key features

This is probably the biggest challenge of Part 1, and it takes lots of practice.  Depending on their educational background, students may not be very used to interpreting graphs and charts, so you need to try and familiarise them with how they work. A good way to do this is to start off by getting students to make their own, based on information about themselves or the class. In this way they will really understand the data, making it easier for them to identify the most important features.

Next, you could try giving students model answers without the graph or table, and ask them to draw it based on the answer. They can then compare it with the original.

There is usually some kind of contrast in these types of questions-e.g. some sales fell while others grew, so train your students to look for similarities and differences, and any particularly striking contrasts.

One way to practise this is to take a kind of jigsaw approach. Divide students into pairs and ask A to look for similarities between the pieces of data and B to look for differences. They can then share information and decide together on the most relevant pieces of information to include.

Giving a clear overview

This is related to identifying key information, but requires students to summarise the main point(s). It is really important that they are able to do this, though it doesn’t really matter if they give the overview at the beginning, as part of the introduction, or at the end, as a conclusion.

Show students a chart of graph with three possible overviews and ask them to decide which one is best, and why. As they become more familiar with this task, they can write their own choice of three and swap with other students to decide on the best overviews.

Using paragraphs/logical grouping

Once students have identified the key features, they need to decide how to group them.  There are different ways of doing this, depending on the information. For example, they might choose to organise it from smallest to biggest (though still not describing every little detail), or first look at similarities and then differences.

Again, model answers can be very helpful. Try asking students to decide how they would organise their answer to a question, and then compare their ideas with the model answer.

Language focus

Students are very often asked to compare and contrast in these tasks, so a good grasp of the kind of language they need to do this is really helpful. ( Incidentally, it’s also really useful for the other IELTS tests, especially Speaking) This can be achieved through work on formulae (e.g. In contrast, we can see that..) , comparative and superlative structures and linkers such as whereas, while, however.

They might also be used to describe changes over time, which also involves comparing and contrasting, but will need more complex use of tenses (not just present simple).

An excellent resource for typical language can be found on Alex Case’s website

Try using model answers for students to find examples of comparing and contrasting (or any other suitable language focus). Then ask them to look back at a Part 1 task they have written and ask them to improve it by adding similar language.

Essentially, this approach involves breaking down the component parts of the IELTS genres and practising them separately, rather than simply writing practice paper after practice paper. Of course, you can then put it all together and do some practice papers as well.

In my next post, I’ll look at some more ideas for developing familiarity with the features of Part 2 type writing tasks.

20 Comments

Filed under IELTS, Writing

Responding to students’ writing

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

I have called this post responding to writing, rather than error correction on writing, as I believe that there is a lot more to responding to written work than simply correcting errors.

To begin with, it is very important to respond to the content of the writing as well as the form. Otherwise we risk being like this teacher:

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

When we assess a piece of writing there are various questions we could ask:

  • Is the content interesting and/or appropriate to the task?
  • Is there a clear sense of audience (who the writer is writing to or for) and is this reflected in the language chosen?
  • Are the ideas well organised? Is there a sense of ‘flow’?
  • Does the writer use paragraphs and connectives well to help get their message across?
  • Does the writer use a good range of vocabulary in an appropriate and flexible way?
  • Can the writer structure sentences accurately, and with variety and flexibility?
  • Is spelling and punctuation accurate, adding to clarity?

It is, I think, important that we look at the questions further up the list, as well as picking out discrete errors with word choice, agreement, spelling and so on. Equally, it is important that learners are thinking about all of these areas as they write and rewrite.

Yet most feedback from teachers still tends to focus on error correction. Why? Could it be that it is actually a lot easier for teachers to give feedback in this way?

When students give peer feedback on each other’s work there is also a strong tendency to concentrate on discrete items, such as grammar and spelling, rather than looking at the whole. I suspect that this is both because it is easier, and because this is what has been modelled time and time again by teachers.

In fact, some would argue that focusing on these discrete items (by teachers or students) is not only just part of the whole picture, but may even be pretty much a waste of time. Truscott famously argued that ‘grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned’

Of course, other academics, such as   Ferris (2006)  disagree, but it is true to say that no-one (as far as I know) has yet come up with any hard evidence that grammar correction makes any dramatic difference. This post by Jeff McQuillan, on The Backseat Linguist reviews several studies which purported to show the positive impact of correction and concludes that, considering the huge amount of time and effort expended, the difference made was not really very significant. McQuillan also cites a study showing (no surprise here) that extensive reading had a much more noticeable beneficial effect.

Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a correction code to mark work from time to time. It can be a helpful way of focusing on accuracy, and perhaps has the added benefit of encouraging learners to proof-read their work more carefully.

However, I also think it shouldn’t become the default position when responding to students’ work.

In some very interesting comments on my post about process writing, Simon Marshall and Brian Morrison (@ButeBob) make alternative suggestions:

  • Using the Microsoft comments function to rewrite a small section of the text in a more fluent and/or appropriate way.
  • Focusing on what is successful about the writing- such as more complex or sophisticated language.
  • Pushing/encouraging students to try and make ‘safe’ language a little more sophisticated.

To these I would add:

  • Where possible, conferencing with students about their writing, rather than (or as well as) giving written feedback. This makes it easier (and actually less time consuming) to explain why something is wrong and what could be used instead.
  • If conferencing isn’t possible, try using the comments function not to reformulate, but to provide metalinguistic comments- explaining as you would face to face. You are unlikely to have time to do this in detail for all your students,  but even selecting a few key aspects to comment on could be very helpful.
  • Reformulating (as Simon suggests), rather than correcting. As well as using the comments box, you could reformulate a certain section of each essay, such as the introduction in an IELTS Part 1 essay. Or you could choose an essay (perhaps from a previous group, and anonymous) and rewrite the whole thing, asking students to then make comparisons between the two versions.
  • Deciding (perhaps with the students) whether to focus on paragraphing, linking, vocabulary, grammar, accuracy, range etc,  rather than trying to cover everything.
  • Correcting grammar mistakes or using a correction code, but choosing to focus on just ONE area (such as articles). This should help to make the point more salient, and thus students should notice and retain more.
  • Using models to help students learn about the different features of different genres, so that they can start to use them themselves (this fits in with McQuillan’s point about extensive reading)

And finally, bear in mind that in all likelihood, different approaches and methods will suit different learners, so it may be a good idea to provide a variety of ways of responding and correcting.

22 Comments

Filed under Writing

Collaborative writing activities

6018337079_83dd60b963

Collaborative writing

Some teachers tend to avoid writing in class, perhaps feeling that as it is something which learners do individually and in silence, it is better done for homework.

However, when writing is done as a collaborative activity, it can have many of the same benefits of a group speaking activity:

Discussing the writing process obviously provides more opportunities for learners to interact in English, a benefit in itself.

It can also help learners to develop their communicative competence by forcing the negotiation of meaning. As learners try to express their ideas to each other, they will have to clarify, rephrase and so on. The process should also help them to actually develop their ideas.

According to Vygostsky’s theory of ZPD (zone of proximal development),  working with others  can provide the opportunity for learners to work at a level slightly above their usual capacity, as co-operating with others who know a little more can boost achievement.

Collaborative writing has been shown to lower anxiety and foster self-confidence, compared with completing tasks individually (Johnson and Johnson 1998)

Research by Storch, found that texts produced by pairs were shorter than those produced individually, but that they were better  ‘in terms of task fulfilment, grammatical accuracy and complexity.’ It appeared that the process of working together meant that learners were giving each other useful feedback as they went along, and thereby producing more accurate and complex texts. [Incidentally, I plan to look at feedback on writing in a future post]

Collaborative writing can also be a lot of fun, and, with the growth of webtools for collaboration (not my personal expertise!), it is becoming increasingly popular.

Planning collaboratively

Planning is usually an important part of a successful writing process (though ‘free’ writing has its place). Even if students are to go on to write individually, planning together can be very motivating. It tends to work best if the process is given some kind of structure, so that the group is not simply staring at a blank sheet.

In terms of getting ideas, I love this activity from Learner based Teaching. Students are preparing to write about a topic they know a lot about, such as a hobby or their job. They write the topic at the top of a piece of paper, then, sitting in a circle, the pieces of paper are passed round clockwise. Students have to read each topic and add a question about it, making sure that they don’t duplicate any questions. When the paper comes back to its original author, they then have to write a text which answers ALL the questions, organised in a logical way. The texts are then displayed with the questions and see how they question was answered, asking for clarification if necessary.

One of my favourite activities for collaboratively planning academic type essays is to start by brainstorming the topic onto a mind-map on the board, or use a mind-mapping tool. For example, in describing a festival in your country, you might have sections for dress, food, music and so on.

Then stick a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour onto each section of the mind-map. Of course, you could use coloured strips of paper, but I like Cuisenaire rods… Next, put the students into smallish groups and give each group a set of rods in the same colours. They can then use the rods to decide or to order and arrange the topics within the essay. It’s a simple idea, but there is something about the tactile nature of the rods that seems to help with planning. It’s also concrete, rather than abstract.

Writing collaboratively

The first activity that came to my mind when thinking about collaborative writing was the time-honoured circle writing activity. One student writes a line, then passes it on to another who writes the next line and so on. I have to admit that I am not actually very keen on this activity. It can have some amusing outcomes, but I wonder what exactly the students are learning, as the process rarely produces a coherent or cohesive outcome.

One activity of this sort that I do like, however, is Genre Circle Writing, which I originally found in The Minimax Teacher. This works beautifully with more advanced learners who have been learning about the features of different genres. Start by brainstorming different types of narrative genres, such as news article, romance, conversation, fairytale, sci-fi. Ask each student to choose a genre they would like to write in and ask them to think about the features of their genre, e.g. typical vocabulary and fixed expressions, register, word and sentence length. Put the students into groups of 5-6, then ask each of the to write the first paragraph of a narrative in their genre. After an agreed time limit they pass the papers clockwise, read the new story and write the next paragraph, but in their own genre, rather than following the original genre. Continue until the story reaches its originator, who writes the concluding paragraph. Some of the stories can then be read aloud and the students listening have to say what genre they think each paragraph is. These texts won’t be any more coherent than the usual circle writing texts, but they are really good for raising awareness of genre.

Jigsaw writing is another way of structuring collaborative writing, so that the process is clearly defined. This works well with picture stories or cartoon strips. Put students into small groups and give each group one or two pictures from the sequence. They have to write a paragraph describing what is happening or happened in their picture(s), and should have a copy each. [Incidentally, make sure everyone is using the same tense. ]Then regroup the students into larger groups so that there is someone in each group who has written about each of the pictures, and ask them to decide on the correct order of the pictures and make any changes necessary to turn their paragraphs into a coherent whole. Students can then read and compare the different versions.

If students are quite used to working together, and don’t need quite so much structure, adding an element of competition can provide some fun and motivation. This activity also comes from Learner-based Teaching. Ask the class to choose a current event or issue. Then put them into small groups (3-4) and ask them to write a short article about it together. They should try to make the article as informative as possible. Once the groups have finished the articles are passed around. Each group should look for pieces of information or facts which their group did not remember. Students can then vote for the most informative (and best written) text

What other collaborative writing activities have you used successfully?

47 Comments

Filed under Teaching methodology, Working with groups, Writing

Using a genre approach for writing

Real Life Adv Pearson (1)Real Life Adv -Pearson (2)As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.

However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.

This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:

1 Reading and analysing a model

2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table

3 Freer or guided writing (such as  using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)

4 Free writing of a parallel text.

In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.

Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate.  In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.

‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.

‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.

At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.

1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.

2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)

There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.

3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.

4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.

5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.

Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:

1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.

2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.

3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.

4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language

5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?

11 Comments

Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, IELTS, Planning, Teaching methodology, Writing

What kind of reading tasks might be worthwhile?

In my first reading related post, I looked at things you might consider when selecting authentic reading texts. There’s quite a lot to consider, I think, and I can sometimes spend several hours searching for the right text. As Ray Williams said, back in 1986 (ELTJ 40(1)), ‘in the absence of interesting texts, very little is possible.’

Having spent all that time, the last thing you want is to only end up with a 20 minute activity in class, so I think it’s really worth considering how you can maximise what students get out of the text . Clearly, a major reason for using texts in class is in order to provide students with the opportunity to ‘notice’ language in context. However, can texts also be used to develop students’ actual ability to read effectively and efficiently?

Some of the reading skills which teachers and materials commonly aim to develop include:

  • Skimming
  • Scanning
  • Reading for gist
  • Predicting content
  • Identifying point of view and tone
  • Identifying main points
  • Guessing meaning from context
  • Recognising the organisation of a text

In recent years there has been some debate about the whole idea of developing  students’ reading skills. Walter and Swan point out  that there is perhaps an assumption that the learner does not already have these skills and that, if they do have them, that they are unable to transfer them into their first language. Thornbury  gives the example of how he was able to apply his L1 reading skills to reading in Spanish, and how, as his Spanish improved, so did his reading. I think these are both very valid points. However, I do slightly wonder if Thornbury should consider himself typical of a language learner, as he was clearly very aware of his own language learning process. In my experience, many learners do not always have good reading skills in their first language and many do not seem able to automatically transfer them.

I certainly agree that it can be patronising to make students jump through hoops of skimming and scanning and I also agree with Swan and Walter that guessing meaning from context activities are too often impossible. That said, that if we reduce reading texts to no more than vehicles for useful language, we are selling our students short. What about the information and/or pleasure that can be gained from a text? We don’t read in our daily lives in order to notice language.

Of course, we don’t usually set ourselves a task either!

But we do need to give our students a reason to read, and a well designed task can provide that, as well as the opportunity to develop reading skills if they need to be developed. In order to be able to use a text as a source for language, the text needs to have been understood first and a task can also help to ensure this.

The question, perhaps, is not so much whether we should be setting reading tasks, but what kind of tasks we should be setting. Ideally, I think that the task should bear some resemblance to the way we might naturally read that genre of text. So, if you want students to read a set of food labels, there is not much point in setting a gist task! If it’s a carefully argued article, on the other hand, you might want to set a task which helps learners to identify these arguments and how they link together

Research has found (Carrell 1984, 1985), that understanding how different types of texts are organised is a key factor in understanding a text. This is something which is often focused on in EAP, but, I think, much less so in General English. Obviously this is partly because academic writing tends to have more clearly defined text types (cause and effect, problem-solution etc). However, I think all students can benefit from being able to recognise the organisation and development of a text. Here are a few prediction type activities which might help with this:

1 Get students to look at the visual clues- how the text is laid out, any pictures, any headings or sub-headings. Where do they think the text came from?

2 For a newspaper article, try getting students to read the title and the first paragraph. This is often a summary of the rest of the article, so students could predict what will be found in the rest of the article.

3 Ask students to read just the first sentence of each paragraph. This is often the topic sentence (sentence with the main idea), so this can give a good overview of the content of the text, and its organisation.

4 If the text already has comprehension questions (i.e. an exam practice text), give out the questions before the text and ask them to use the questions to predict the content of the text. Exam questions should go in the same order as the text, so it should be possible to make some predictions about the organisation of the text as well.

In my next post, I’d like to look more carefully at some different types of tasks and questions, the aim behind them, and some tips for creating them. If you want to receive this through your email, the button is on the right.

9 Comments

Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials