Sunday, 14 February 2016

What makes a good text?

The written text in the target language remains the stimulus par excellence for language teachers. It's a source of what eminent ELT writer Michael Swan has called "intensive input-output work". It is the starting point for a whole range of language activities involving all the four skills.

Some teachers worry about whether the texts they use are authentic. In my opinion they should not. What are we looking for in a good text?

  1. It should (ideally) be inherently interesting.
  2. It should be at the right level.
  3. It should be teachable.
1.  Once you get to intermediate level and above the best texts should have inherent interest value. At this level, whilst still a challenge, you can source stimulating material on all sorts of topics. Authentic texts may be interesting, they may be not. Teacher-adapted or artificial texts may be interesting, they may be not. Authentic does not mean better. Interest in the subject matter of the text should raise motivation and, ultimately, increase acquisition.

2.  You need a text which is at roughly the level of the students or, preferably, a bit beyond. It's what Stephen Krashen vaguely referred to as i +1 (where i = the student's current level of 'interlanguage' and +1 =... er, a bit above that). This is the problem with many authentic texts. They are frequently too hard or contain items of vocabulary which are not easily transferable to other situations. Another way of putting this is to say that the text should be 'roughly-tuned' to the student's current level.

3. By 'teachable', I mean that a text may be interesting and at the right level, but you can't actually do much with it. For instance, an intermediate text about the discovery of a new planet may be inherently of interest, but how can you turn it into a communicative lesson with intermediate level students which goes beyond comprehension and language analysis? Contrast this with a blander text about healthy living, which can be used for comprehension and language practice, but can then also be exploited by relating it to the student's own life experience. Which text will generate the most classroom communication and, therefore, language acquisition?

      The issue of teachability is relevant when you bear in mind some of the topics which will feature in the new A-level exams in England. The committee set up by the DfE to guide the exam boards on new subject content (ALCAB) suggested some fascinating topics (I always mention 'French mathematics' as the most bizarre example), but how would these translate into communicative lessons featuring that 'intensive input-output' work Michael Swan referred to?

     One further point: for beginners we always face the conundrum of finding stimulating material for pupils with little linguistic knowledge. One solution is to adopt a content-based or project-based approach, where you throw out the traditional i + 1 approach and present students with harder language which can be exploited at a mature cognitive level, but superficial linguistic level. This may be stimulating to students to a degree, but it is unlikely, in my view, to be the best path to long-term acquisition. So, we fall back on concocted simple texts which allow us to teach high frequency vocabulary and simple structures in an ordered way. This continues to make sense to me. You still try to make the texts stimulating and, above all, you deliver them in an engaging way, because, as you know, so much in language teaching is about the quality of delivery.

      On I have a teacher's guide page on how to exploit texts. We also deal with this issue (blatant plug alert) in The Language Teacher Toolkit, now available on and Canadian and European Amazon stores.

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