A link to my latest post for the British Council Teaching English Blog:
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.
Why use news items?
In a recent post I talked about the idea of narrow reading and passed on a suggestion from Scott Thornbury that learners could read a series of articles about a news story they were interested in, thus exposing themselves to the same vocabulary several times (and hopefully thus retaining some of it).
Obviously another advantage to this approach is that learners would be able to choose for themselves what they wanted to read. It seems obvious that this may well be more motivating than something the teacher has chosen for the whole class.
And finally, reading news items is pretty authentic, mirroring what learners may do in their first language, and may encourage extensive reading in L2.
However, there are several potential problems with using news articles.
1 Finding and selecting articles
Students may not be very good at finding appropriate sources of articles, or know how to select articles which are at the right kind of level of difficulty/challenge.
Obviously what makes a good source for news items will very much depend on your teaching context and the level of your students. There are specific sites online with news adapted for lower level learners (such as BBC Learning English), and the style of some newspapers seems to be clearer than others (I find the Telegraph quite good for learners, though it wouldn’t be my personal reading choice). I also rather like happynews.com, which ‘scoops’ news articles from various different sources, but guarantees that all the stories are positive (for when you don’t want a worthy but depressing lesson).
So, either point your students in the direction of suitable sources, or you could select a number of different articles and let them choose which they feel is most interesting or appealing. This can work well with the kind of newspaper which has a number of small articles on the same page. Mike Harrison gives a good example of this in his blog here
2 News articles are notoriously difficult to read.
Before students even start reading, headlines can be impossible to decipher. They often use puns and are frequently extremely culturally bound. This is particularly true of tabloid newspapers, which you might think would use simpler language, but are in fact about the hardest to decipher because of this. A headline chosen pretty much at random from today’s Mirror:
Ruff table manners: Rottweiler needs surgery after swallowing five-inch spoon
Although the picture would certainly help (!), to understand this you need to understand that ‘ruff’ can be the sound a dog makes when barking, and that ‘rough’ also means not very polite. You need to know what ‘table manners’ are and what a ‘rottweiler’ is. You also need to understand the phrase ‘needs surgery’ and, for a full understanding, know how long five inches is! And that’s before we start to look at the syntax and who (or what) actually swallowed the spoon. Not too difficult in this case, but there are some famous examples, such as:
Police help dog bite victim
The text itself is also likely to be very dense and contain a lot of elision and unusual syntax.
As Bermejo (2000) puts it:
‘Journalistic stories are complex and ambitious, they tell new events, but they also include quotations, background and consequences of those events.., so editors very often have to package the information in a way that is sometimes forced and can be difficult to understand.’
If we are going to work with news articles, students need some help and training in understanding the features of the discourse.
For example, the headline is frequently confusing, but there is often a subheadline which makes things clearer. E.g.:
Max had to have an emergency operation after wolfing down a strawberry… and the spoon it was served on.
And then the first paragraph usually summarises the story:
A fruit-loving dog had to have surgery after wolfing down a strawberry… along with the spoon it was served on.
Max the rottweiler had to have an emergency operation after getting the five-inch teaspoon lodged in his stomach.
This first paragraph nearly always contains what journalists call the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where and why). In his 2003 article, Antepara makes the point that getting students to try and find the 5 Ws (or as many as possible), just using the headline and first paragraph, is a way of leading them into the rest of the text, which usually just adds detail to these main points.
We can also help learners to decode typical newspaper syntax. As we can see in the example above, a very common structure is before/after + ing. This can cause confusion because the subject isn’t directly stated. Some practice with simple sentence transformation can help learners:
After he wolfed down the spoon he had to have surgery.
After wolfing down the spoon he had to have surgery.
Another common feature is the use of reference devices. Obviously we find these in all texts, but because of the concise way newspaper texts are written, it can be particularly hard to follow the chain of reference. For example:
The 10-year-old’s owner, Annette Robertshaw, of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, said her brother had been visiting her and was eating some strawberries when Max took a shine to them.
He offered Max one on a teaspoon but was caught totally by surprise when the dog gulped down both items.
I think a lot of students would assume that ‘He’ at the beginning of the second paragraph referred back to the dog, because Max has just been mentioned, when it actually refers right back to ‘her brother’.
A couple of ideas for working on reference, which don’t require any preparation:
– Getting learners to underline reference words and then draw arrows back to what they refer to.
– Asking learners to rewrite texts with as little reference as possible and then give them to a partner to put the reference back in.
And, as you will have noticed, there are also a lot of idioms (especially in the tabloids). With a short article like this one, you can ask students to underline any idioms they find (wolf down, gulp down, take a shine to something) and look them up. They could then try and rewrite the article (or a section of it) without any idioms, put the idioms in a list below and, again, ask a partner to try and rewrite the text or section.
3 Working with authentic news articles can be extremely labour intensive.
Teachers often spend a lot of time thinking exercises to exploit news articles. And, because they date, the material can rarely be used again.
Furthermore, if every student has been reading something different, the task of exploiting all these texts can seem impossible.
One solution is to provide a generic task:
A good example of this would be the 5Ws task outlined above. This could be set for any news article, enabling learners to work simultaneously on completely different texts.
Alternatively, you could create a generic worksheet. Heather Buchanan has a good example of this, though designed for listening to the news. For example, you could start by asking learners to identify the type of news it is (human interest, politics, sport, finance). Then ask about the 5 Ws and finally ask for some kind of personal reaction.
The other solution is for tasks to be learner generated:
We have already seen some examples of this in the second section above. Other ideas might include:
-With a group of very short articles you could give a pair of learners one article each with the headline missing and ask them to write a headline. All the headlines and articles are mixed up and learners then work together to match them. A further stage might be to then match with the original headlines.
-Ask learners to choose, say, no more than 5 sentences which seem to carry the main points of the article. This can then be checked by a peer (while you monitor).
– Ask learners to rewrite a short article, changing some of the information to make it a lie (as outrageous as they wish. For example, Max might swallow a five foot spoon… A partner then reads it and spots the lies.
Essentially, try to rethink any activity you might devise for a text and see if the learners can do it themselves. This way they work harder, you have less preparation and it’s all personalised and learner centred.
The pictures show my great grandfather, who was a teacher of English as Foreign Language in Geneva at the turn of the last century, and one of the ELT Books he wrote (this is a second edition in 1901). So you see, teaching and writing ELT materials must be genetic!
The book is a collection of stories in English, which he used to teach. In the foreword he writes (in French):
The author uses this book as follows: he reads the stories phrase by phrase, the pupils translate without seeing the book. Afterwards, they read the stories and tell them in English. For the next lesson the students study and tell the stories; the teacher tells them in French. If you want to make the students’ task easier, you can question them. When you attack the longer passages in the stories, let them translate for themselves before you give them the exact translation.
Note, however, that the stories should not be studied in depth before the lesson. It is enough to go over the vocabulary. This method gives students confidence in their own abilities, gives them the facility to understand and to speak, and teaches them a lot of words, idioms and phrases in an enjoyable way.
It’s interesting to see an example of the (in)famous Grammar Translation method, but what really caught my eye was the emphasis on vocabulary, rather than grammar, and the idea that reading leads to learning ‘a lot of words, phrases and idioms in an enjoyable way.’
Just lately I have been doing some reading on the subject of extensive reading (ER), inspired by seeing Philip Prowse at the Brasshouse Conference the other week, and also Jez Uden’s great presentation on the British Council seminar series.
There seems to be a lot of evidence that ER does help with developing all aspects of language, including speaking. Perhaps the most research has been done into how ER can help to develop vocabulary. Most people would agree that we learn vocabulary through being repeatedly exposed to it in meaningful contexts, and it is difficult (and probably uninspiring) for lessons or coursebooks to recycle vocabulary 10-20 times. If we read extensively, however, we will be exposed to frequent items many times.
There is also evidence to suggest (Pigada and Schmitt 2006) that being exposed to lexis in this way also helps learners to acquire more about a word or phrase than just its meaning (i.e. exactly how it is used, its grammar and its spelling).
Michael Hoey talks about ‘lexical priming’, the idea that learners store lexical items in the context in which they have encountered them, so that with repeated exposure we are confident about using them in frequently used chunks. (Leo Selivan has a great post on this here)
However, there is also evidence that (unsurprisingly when you think about it) learners need to do an awful lot of reading in order to meet most words and phrases enough times to acquire them.
One solution is simplified readers, with their limited number of words. These can also be more motivating, as it is suggested that anything above 10% of unknown words will be demotivating for a reader. (Of course, it also depends if the readers are intrinsically interesting).
Another solution is what is known as ‘narrow reading’. The idea here is that rather than reading widely, learners read narrowly- around the same topic. In this way they will keep coming across the same lexical items. In How to Teach Vocabulary, Scott Thornbury suggests one way of doing this by asking learners to follow a particular news story on different websites, or over a period of time. They can then report back to other class members on the news story they chose (thus using the vocabulary).
However, there is still the issue of whether students will necessarily ‘notice’ the vocabulary, even with repeated exposure. As Huljstin says:
‘Incidental acquisition-through-reading is a slow and error-prone process with small vocabulary gains (Laufer, 2005; Nation, 2001; Read, 2004; Brown, Waring & Donkaewbua, 2008). Readers do not always notice unfamiliar words when reading a text. If they do, guessing the meaning is not always possible. Moreover, many people possess poor inferencing skills..’
It seems to me that, while we probably don’t want students reading word by word with dictionaries in hand, there is probably a benefit in having some intentional vocabulary learning as well as incidental learning. There is certainly some evidence that a combination of the two leads to the greatest gain in vocabulary acquisition.
So perhaps we could ask learners to carry out some of the following follow up activities after reading, rather than asking comprehension questions- or for the dreaded book report?
Essentially these are all ways of making language noticeable or salient to learners, which should go hand in hand with all the benefits of simply reading, or as one of my favourite acronyms for extensive reading has it- DEAR (drop everything and read).
[Thanks to @Sarah_WG on ELT Pics for the photo]
A little while ago I went to the recording of the listening component of my new coursebook- Real Life Global Advanced. I was surprised to discover (because nobody had ever actually mentioned it) that all the reading passages were also being recorded.
‘But how will listening to a reading passage help them develop reading skills?’ I wondered. In fact, as I have discovered by reading up on the area since, it just might.
We are increasingly aware that reading is an excellent way of developing language, as learners are exposed to language in context. However, many students read very slowly and laboriously in English, slowly decoding every word. At this speed, it is very difficult for them to actually understand the meaning of the text because they are constantly dealing with isolated words and phrases.
When reading in our native language most of us carry out this decoding with a good degree of automaticity, leaving us free to focus on higher order comprehension processes. Think of this like learning to drive a car. When we first start learning, it seems impossible that we will ever be able to manage the gears, clutch, accelerator as well as actually look where we are going. But an experienced driver can do all these things with such automaticity that he or she can also carry on a conversation or listen to the radio, while keeping focused on changing conditions on the road.
But how can we help our learners to get to this kind of automaticity when reading? One way is, of course, by encouraging extensive reading outside of the classroom. But there is another strategy: repeated reading.
The idea behind repeated reading, which was originally developed by Samuels in 1979, is to help non fluent readers develop automaticity in their decoding. Students read and re-read a passage either aloud or silently. Think of it as drilling for readers!
Now, my first thought was that this would help with reading that particular passage, but that it would not necessarily be transferred to anything else the students might read. But research shows that I was probably wrong in that assumption.
According to Taguchi and Gorsuch (2002), for example, the ‘effects of re-reading a passage for L1 readers are carried over to a new unpracticed passage with regard to reading rate and accuracy’ and they cite Carver & Hoffman, 1981; Dowhower, 1989; Faulkner & Levy, 1994; Herman, 1985; Rashotte & Torgesen, 1985 and Samuels, 1979). It also helps with comprehension (Dowhower, 1989; Morgan & Lyon, 1979; Young et al., 1996). And finally, ‘repeated reading enables L1 readers to read in larger and more meaningful phrases’ (Dowhower, 1989).’
Now these studies all looked at L1 readers, and Taguchi and Gorsuch’s 2002 finding with L2 readers was inconclusive, for various reasons. However, it seems from a later article by Gorsuch in Language magazine.com that there is evidence that it can work for L2 learners too. I say seems, because for some reason the end of the article is missing from the PDF!
There are lots of different ways (more fun that it might sound at first) of carrying out repeated reading, which I will look at in a follow up post, but one of the key ways is known as assisted repeated reading, and often involves using a recording of the passage being read.
The student, who will have already read the passage silently at least once, reads the passage again, possibly several times, while listening to the recording. This helps him or her to build the connections between the way the word is written, the word itself, and what it sounds like. It also exposes him or her to all the meaning inherent in the pronunciation: the pitch, tone and emphasis.
Seeing words repeatedly in context has been found to help L1 learners transfer their word recognition to other contexts much better than lists of isolated words. Grabe (1991) suggests that this may apply to L2 learners as well. I haven’t yet come across any research which proves this, but it makes perfect sense to me. After all, isn’t this just another way of getting students to ‘notice’ language in context, which most people agree helps with acquisition.
So, in the end, I concluded that having the reading texts on audio may actually be providing teachers with the opportunity to try out a different way of helping their learners both to read more fluently and to acquire language.
And this kind of practice may also help learners to read more extensively outside the classroom because if they can read more automatically, they will enjoy it more and make more sense of it.