Many teachers produce their own materials, either from necessity or to provide something more tailored to the needs of their students. However, writing materials for a whole lesson, which really engage the learners and focus effectively on language, is quite a challenge. Teachers learn through experience, but are rarely given much support or training in this area.
In this session, given at IATEFL 2014, and recorded earlier for the British Council Seminar Series, I looked at a simple recipe or template (based on Hutchinson and Waters 1987) for producing complete lessons, and considered a variety of do’s and don’ts taken from my experience as a professional materials writer. There are plenty of practical examples and tips, as well as mini tasks to try.
Click the picture for the link to the recording (also including an interesting presentation non using corpora in the classroom, by Adam Kilgarriff).
The handout with a summary of the main points, and the links, is available below as a PDF.
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.
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?
* Robertson, D. A., Gernsbacher, M. A., Guidotti, S. J., Robertson, R. R. W., Irwin, W.,Mock, B. J., et al. (2000). Functional neuroanatomy of the cognitive process of mapping during discourse comprehension.
How successful were you in noticing? Whatever we are doing, we don’t tend to notice everything- and we can miss some quite important elements!
We tend to notice things which are either frequent or salient. So, when I first went to live in Portual, I quickly noticed the word ‘puxe’, which was written on a lot of doors. It was something I saw frequently. It was also salient, or meaningful for me because the pronunciation is ‘push’..but it means ‘pull’!
Schmidt, who first coined the term ‘noticing’(I think), carried out a study of his own language learning in Brazil (where they use ’empurre’ rather than ‘puxe’ btw). He concluded that he was more likely to actually use language himself when his attention had been drawn to it in some way.
Or as Scott Thornbury puts it:
‘1. Learners must attend to linguistic features of the input that they are exposed to, without which input cannot become ‘intake’.
2. Learners must ‘notice the gap’, i.e. make comparisons between the current state of their developing linguistic system, as realised in their output, and the target language system, available as input.’
A reading text is full of language that we can draw students’ attention to in this way, and thus, hopefully, help them in the process of acquiring this language into their ‘store’.
Before we can start to focus on language though, it is important to focus on the actual text as a whole (see previous blog posts), and then we have to consider which aspects of language to focus on or we risk not seeing the wood for the trees (or the monkey for the basketball players).
Activities which help students to ‘notice’ vocabulary
Many texts will have a clear topic, so this is a good place to start (especially if the topic is one which is relevant to students’ needs and interests- and if it isn’t why are you using it? 😉 ). You can simply ask the students to find words and phrases in the text connected with the topic of X, or ask them to categorise the words and phrases they find into subsections of the topic (example here from IELTS Foundation 2nd ed-click to enlarge).
You can help to expand students’ vocabulary by asking them to find synonyms of words you give them, in the text. This is particularly useful for those taking exams, where questions are usually paraphrased.
You can help students to see how texts are put together by asking them to find lexical links and chains in the text (example here from IELTS Foundation 2nd ed-click to enlarge)
Students can also develop their awareness of chunks and collocation by asking them to find chunks of words that go together, or asking them to search the text to find what collocates with a list of words from the text which you have given them.
Activities which help students to notice grammar or discourse
The most obvious task is to ask students to look at the examples of the language focus in the text and use them to complete rules about its use. Or they could try writing their own rules and then comparing them with a grammar reference.
An alternative is to remove those examples (or parts of them) and get students to complete the text, comparing their versions with the original. This is something which works very well for articles and for discourse markers.
Or you could give students another version of the text with deliberate errors, and ask them to find a ccertain numbers of mistakes and correct them- before, again, checking against the original.
Try a dictogloss (read a short section aloud, which contains the language you are focusing on) and ask students to write down as much as they can before reconstructing the text together. This works well for structures which are very frequent, such as reference links or articles.
Having thus drawn the students’ attention to language, I believe that it is important to give them some opportunity to use the language. Opinion varies as to whether practising the language per se helps students to acquire it, but at the very least it is another opportunity to notice it, which does seem to help with acquisition.
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:
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)
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.
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:
Reading for gist
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.
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.
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