Skip to main content

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 frenchteacher.net 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 Amazon.com and Canadian and European Amazon stores.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Two ways to build in recycling: Intensive input-output work and narrow reading

We know repetition is vital for acquisition so we need to work it into lesson planning. There are various ways to do this when reading and listening. “Narrow reading” and “narrow listening” are useful, for example. Stephen Krashen first coined these terms and suggested that exposing students to a series of similar spoken or written sources of input was an effective way to promote acquisition. (His version was much less structured than what will be described below.) Text books often include a series of paragraphs featuring some vocabulary or structures in common to ensure repetition. Gianfranco Conti has turned this into a fine art with highly patterned sets of paragraphs including large amounts of repetition. We adopted this technique for our TES GCSE French units of work. Here are four French paragraphs where you see the technique in use. Repeated chunks are shown in bold.