Category Archives: Exploiting authentic reading materials

Creating effective reading tasks

In my previous post, I looked at the whole idea of reading tasks and the arguments for and against using them. One conclusion I came to is that, ideally, tasks should bear some relation to the kinds of processes we would use when reading in real life contexts.

There are some quite simple task types which will work for a lot of texts. For example, setting up the topic (using pictures perhaps, or the title) and then asking students think of questions that they would like answered about the topic. Alternatively, ask them to write down what they expect to learn and then read to check their ideas.  This kind of approach has the obvious advantage of no preparation, and is very close to what we would do in the real world.

Similarly, with different kinds of texts, particularly factual ones, we can set tasks which require students to scan and find particular bits of information. Classic examples are small ads, tv listings etc.

More typical comprehension questions,such as we see in EL exams, tend to test what the question setter sees as the main points of the text. Of course, in real life, we are able to decide for ourselves what the main points are, which means that pre-set questions are intrinsically somewhat inauthentic. The format of typical question types can also be rather inauthentic, of course. While at IATEFL this year, I saw John Field, talking about listening, and he made the very valid point that when carrying out multiple choice questions, we are asking students to do something much more complex than simply listen for information. As well as listening for the information we require, they also have to pick up on the distractors and discount them, a sophisticated process.

Some traditional question types are closer to real world reading than others. For example, multiple matching, which is becoming a very popular exam type question. This is a task type which can work very well with short texts. In a comment on my last post, ESL Notes, asked about a possible reading task for these very short tasks (death by twitter). I think multiple matching is ideal for these kinds of texts. For example, for theseparticular texts, you could ask ‘Which text is about a fuel related tragedy?’ ‘Which text tells us about a possible miracle?’ (maybe a rather depressing lesson though? 😉 )

Form completion, note completion and summary completion can also be quite realistic, depending on the students’ context. Form completion is important in an ESOL context, note and summary completion are skills needed by students studying in the English medium.

Other tasks are not necesssarily realistic, but do have a definite value in terms of the skills they teach. For example, matching headings or summaries to paragraphs, which encourages students to read in such a way as to grasp the main point of each paragraph. Incidentally, although it isn’t foolproof, it is worth pointing out to students that the main point is often in the first sentence of the paragraph (the topic sentence).

I am also quite keen on tasks where students have to put in missing sentences or even paragraphs, as these really help develop awareness of how texts are constructed. However, they are quite difficult to construct as you have to make sure that there are very clear clues which guide them to the right answer.

This is the first part (there is more text and more gaps) of an example from Real Life Advanced, an Upper Secondary book, published by Macmillan. The original article is here.

Mark Boyle, 31, gave up using money in November 2008. He lives in a caravan that he got from Freecycle, an organisation which matches people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them, and so keeps usable items out of landfills. His caravan is parked at an organic farm near Bristol, where Boyle volunteers three days a week. He grows his own food, has a wood-burning stove and produces electricity from a solar panel (it cost £360 before the experiment started). He has a mobile phone for incoming calls only and a solar-powered laptop. Boyle, who has been vegan for six years, set up the Freeconomy in 2007, an online network that encourages people to share skills or possessions and now has 17,000 members. His book, The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, is out now.

 1_______________My friend and I were talking about all the problems in the world, such as sweatshops, global warming, factory farms, animal testing, wars over resources. I realised they were all, in their own way, connected to money.

2_______________I sold my houseboat in Bristol and gave up my job at an organic food company. I made a list of everything I bought and tried to figure out which I could get in another way. For toothpaste I use a mixture of cuttlefish bone and wild fennel seeds. Things like iPods you just have to knock off the list, but birds in the trees around my kitchen have become my new iPod.

Everything takes more time and effort in a moneyless world. Handwashing my clothes in a sink of cold water, using laundry liquid made by boiling up nuts on my rocket stove, can take two hours, instead of half an hour using a washing machine.

It was meant to be just for a year but I enjoy the lifestyle so much that I’m just going to keep living like this. 3________________

I had a very normal childhood. I think at first my parents wondered what on earth I was doing. But now they totally support me and they say that they may even try it themselves.

A I’ve never been happier or fitter.

B Just being a vegan cuts down the number of women I’m compatible with, never mind being moneyless.

C It all started in a pub

D My girlfriend isn’t that keen on my lifestyle though.

E Sometimes it is frustrating trying to socialise with no money

F I decided to give up cash.

The answer to the first gap is ‘C’. This is clear if you understand how narratives work- that we start by giving the background- where he was, what he was doing. The second gap is ‘F’- this relates back to his conversation- it was the result- and to the fact that he realised that the problems were all caused by money (relates to cash). It relates forward to the impact of his decision. The third gap is ‘A’ and relates back to what he says about enjoying his lifestyle. (‘D’ might also be possible here, but it is clear from the rest of the text that he doesn’t have a girlfriend).

Multiple choice and true/false are perhaps the most artificial task types. True/false also has the disadvantage of being pretty easy to guess. However, they are also the most common in exams, which many of our students will need to take, so it is perhaps worth giving them practice in these task types for that reason alone. Some tips for writing these types of questions:

True/false

  • Don’t use the exact language in the text- paraphrase.
  • Make sure there is only one idea in each statement, so that students aren’t likely to think it is partially true. For this reason, keep statements short.
  • Make sure there is roughly an equal numbe of T/F answers, and be careful not to create a pattern (e.g. T then F then T)

Multiple Choice

  • Paraphrase as above.
  • Make sure all the choices are plausible and can’t be guessed or answered through general knowledge (for example, a well known piece of ESOL material which asked largely Muslim students about what Ramadan is)
  • Don’t make the distractors (the wrong answers) too complex. You are testing what’s in the stem (the first part of the question).
  • Make all the choices a similar length if possible, and don’t make the correct answer the longest or shortest.
  • Make sure the answer isn’t always ‘C’ etc.

Whatever task type you use, in the spirit of demand high teaching, I think it’s always a good idea to devote some time to exploring why students have chosen particular answers. What in the text led them to that conclusion? This will not only prevent guessing, but will, I think, actually go some way towards developing their ability to tackle texts.

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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.

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Should we pre-teach vocabulary before reading- and, if so, how?

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Pre-teaching vocabulary is something that many of us were taught to do on our CELTAs or other pre-service course. I hold my hand up to having trained other teachers to do it- and to having, as a result, sat through an excruciating 20 minutes plus while trainee teachers laboriously explained word after word until the students had lost the will to live, never mind the will to read the text.

Another argument against pre-teaching is that it doesn’t train students for real-life encounters with language; that we’re spoon feeding them rather than teaching them the skills to deal with unknown words.

I am sure this is true, and I would certainly not recommend pre-teaching as a way of explaining all the words in a text that students are unlikely to know. However, done sparingly, I think it can have some value both in terms of practicality (making sure they can actually do the task you set, and that you don’t have twenty people all asking the same question, one after another) and in terms of helping to raise interest and motivation.

The questions you need to ask yourself are, I think:

–          Do the students actually need to know this word/phrase to do the task?

–          Could they guess it from context?

–          Can this word or phrase be used productively within this lesson?

Selecting what vocabulary to pre-teach

1. Look at what vocabulary the students will need to know to do the task you set, rather than what they probably won’t know in the text.

2. Look at vocabulary which is directly related to the topic of the text, so that it can be used to activate schema.

To illustrate what I mean, here is a scan of three pages from IELTS Foundation 2nd edition Macmillan 2012, with a set of activities around a reading text. Looking at the tasks set on the third page, there are certain words which the students will need to know to carry out these tasks. I would suggest:

current    reluctant    short term effects   essential   reduce   prevent   tend to  encourage   efficient

congestion charge  higher parking charges  public transport  pay per mile

The first set of words could be looked at, as necessary, when the teacher is setting the tasks. Many of them are very typical of IELTS questions and so might well be already known. If not, a matching activity with synonyms might work well with these words, especially with synonyms in the text (most IELTS questions will use a synonym rather than the words in the text itself)

The second set of words however are all linked to the topic, so provide scope to act as a lead in to the text as well as a pre-teaching activity. If you look at the first page of the extract, you can see that these and other related words from the text are given to students to categorise into traffic problems and possible solutions. The students then use the words in a personalised way, to talk about problems in their city before reading the text and comparing with their ideas and opinions.

One of the major problems with pre-teaching vocabulary is dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected words, with no context. Choosing words which relate to the topic of the text is a good way round this issue, and the words can also be used productively.

Ideas for pre-teaching vocabulary

1 Categorising is often a good approach, as it should get the learners to engage with the meaning of the words. If the words aren’t related in terms of meaning you could always get them to categorise into ‘words I know’, ‘words I am not sure about ‘and ‘words I don’t know’. Done in pairs, this should lead to peer teaching and you can monitor and then help with any still causing difficulties.

2 Connecting words: ask students to choose two or more words and phrases  from those you want to pre-teach and write a sentence using them. This will only really work if the words are at least half known though.

3 Predicting: Ask students to make predictions about the text using the words given. Depending on the words and the students this could range from guessing the topic, to guessing the attitude of the writer, to guessing the answers to the questions they are going to answer.

4 Using the context of the text: Pull out some sentences which contain the words you want to pre-teach and put them up on the board with gaps. Get the students to decide which words go in which gaps.

5 If appropriate, matching the vocabulary you want to pre-teach with pictures. Relatively easy these days, pictures are a great way of providing the context which would otherwise be missing.

If you do decide to pre-teach (and there are, as we have seen, arguments against it), make sure that the words and phrases are useful and contextualised and that the time spent pre-teaching is worth it for what the students will get out of the process.

Please see the previous post on selecting authentic reading materials if this is an area which interests you, or the next one on reading tasks.

If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.

celta compendium cover

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Tips on selecting effective authentic reading materials

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.

Cultural appropriateness

This is a HUGE area, but I think there are three main points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)

Practical considerations

  • 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.


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