Tag Archives: reading skills

Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way?

2576372736_04fe9e4026_o (1)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.




Filed under Discourse, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Materials development, Planning, Vocabulary

The Secret Millionaire: free downloadable lesson

As a new addition to the ELT-Resourceful site, I am now adding free downloadable materials, on PDFs. Just click on the link below each picture. All comments very welcome.


ELT Resourceful Materials- The Secret Millionaire

With a reading text about a real-life Secret Millionaire, who wanted to give something back, this lesson introduces a range of idioms to talk about wealth and poverty and gets students thinking about the gap between rich and poor, the responsibilities of those who are better off, and what it means to have someone who believes in you. There is a focus on strategies for skim reading and the lesson finishes with a writing activity where students write to someone who made a difference in their lives.


Filed under Downloadable lesson materials

To read better, improve your pronunciation?

To read better, improve your pronunciation….

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.

Some suggestions:

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.

Psychological Science, 11, 255–260




Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Pronunciation, Teaching methodology

The Language Experience Approach: a person centred, materials light approach to literacy

In a previous post, I talked about some criteria for selecting suitable reading texts to use with learners. Two key points are that texts need to be at the right level and that they need to be intrinsically interesting for the students.

Clearly, one way of achieving both these points is for the learners to produce the texts themselves. The Language Experience Approach (LEA) is a way of doing this, which has its roots in early literacy teaching. It dates back to the sixties and is fairly well known in ESOL circles, but not, I think in general ELT.

Overview of the LEA

1 Working together, the teacher and students choose a topic or activity which can be written up later. This might mean watching a video, taking a field trip or simply bringing in some pictures.

2 Carry out the activity or discuss the topic.

3 Discuss the experience or discussion and write some key words and phrases on the board.

4 The class works together to develop a written account. Typically the students dictate to the teacher, who writes it down. I say typically, because this is at root a literacy activity, so doesn’t assume that the students can write in English. In classic LEA, the teacher does not correct any mistakes or even elicit any corrections. However, I personally feel that for students’ whose first language isn’t English, providing or eliciting a correct model is vital at some stage in the process.

Of course, there is no reason why students who are able to write in English couldn’t work together in groups to write a text.

5 The teacher or a learner or all the learners read the text aloud to the class, and then everyone reads it again silently. This is another stage at which linguistic revisions might be made.

6 Extension activities.  Because the students have written the text themselves, they should be quite familiar with the meaning, even if they do not recognise all the words. At lower levels of literacy, students could:

–          Copy the story.

–          Word or sentence matching (match strips with words or sentences from the text with the text on the board)

–          Write down the story as the teacher dictates it.

–          Complete missing words which the teacher (or one of the students) has rubbed out.

–          Unscramble the sentences from the story (previously scrambled by the teacher)

At higher levels :

–          Students revise and edit the text themselves.

–          Use this text as a basis for writing their own personalised accounts

–          Use the vocabulary from this text to write a new text.

Of course if you have both more and less proficient readers/writers in your class (very common in ESOL), the students could do different tasks with the same text.

The beauty of the LEA is that it is firmly learner centred, using the students’ own experiences as the basis of the work,  and can provide a sense or achievement for every student in the class, at very mixed levels. It is also very materials light, and requires little preparation.

I am sure that there is plenty of room for variations on the LEA and would be interested to hear your ideas.


Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology

Developing meaning-building skills in reading

The default position with regard to exploiting reading texts seems to be comprehension questions. I should start by saying that I am not against comprehension questions as such.  In a previous post,  I looked at a selection of quite traditional tasks and how to write them in such a way that they help guide the learner through the text. As Nuttall (1982) says,

‘The questions that help you to understand are the ones that make you work at the text. They force you to contribute accurately to the process of making sense of it, rather than expecting understanding just to happen.”

However, it is also undeniable that these kinds of tasks are ultimately more about testing than teaching.

Meaning-building is something which happens by interacting with a text, and it is highly personalised. No-one will understand a text in exactly the same way because we all bring our own experience, knowledge, attitudes and so on to everything we read.

As we read, we use our background knowledge, contextual clues and knowledge of the language to build meaning.  It used to be assumed that using contextual information, or information from the co-text (what goes before or after what we are reading) was something that only more confident or capable learners could do. However,  there is some evidence that in fact learners who are struggling to decode a text will also try to use meaning building skills. The difference is that more capable readers will use them to add meaning, less capable or confident readers will use them as a compensatory strategy.

(If you are interested in this last point, have a look at some of the reams of stuff which has been written about Stanovich’s Interactive Compensatory Hypothesis)

Think aloud

One way to find out more about what kinds of interactive processing your learners are doing while reading is to ask them to use a think aloud protocol. This can work very well in small groups. Basically, you get students to read a paragraph, and then discuss with the rest of the group what they think they have understood so far. Tony Lynch, in Communication in the Language Classroom (1996:126), says of this process, ‘My experience is that think aloud tasks make some learners aware of textual clues which other learners in the group have recognised, which would pass unnoticed in individual reading.’

He also suggests following up this task with a round-up where each learner notes something they felt they learnt from the discussion.

Another way of doing this is something called ‘reciprocal teaching’, again mentioned by Tony Lynch. In this version, a different person is chosen to lead the discussion after each paragraph, using four main points:

  • Clarifying any problems
  •  Stating the main idea
  •  Summarizing the content of the paragraph
  • Predicting the likely content of the next paragraph

(Cotterall, S, 1990)


This is a technique which was originally developed for university study, but it works just as well with any slightly longer or more complex text, which needs detailed understanding.

The acronym stands for:

  • Survey: Scan the whole text, looking at any clues in the introduction, titles, layout etc.
  • Question: Decide what questions you would like to be answered by reading the text. Make a note of them.
  • Read: Read the text, trying to answer your questions and note down any other questions that come up.
  • Recite: After each section, stop and see if you can remember the answers to our questions. If not, read through the section again.
  • Review: Once you’ve finished, go back over all the questions and check you still know the answers. Re-read as necessary.


This is an old-fashioned technique, but is actually one of the very best ways of seeing whether students have really understood the salient points of a text. Below is an example from New Total English Intermediate Writing Bank (click to enlarge). It uses an adapted authentic text, but you could easily carry out the same kind of processes on any text you choose.

Alternatively, students could be asked to summarise a text for different audiences. For example, to make it suitable for a child, someone from a very different culture and so on. This angle on summarising means that the students have to think about what background knowledge the reader would need to understand the text- which is a good way into thinking about how they themselves use their background knowledge to build meaning.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Teaching methodology

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.


Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials