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Have a repertoire, lighten your workload (part two)

This is the second blog in the series of four where I dip into my archive to suggest some simple, evidence-informed approaches which you could reuse multiple times to create both routines and a bit of variety for your classes. Taken together, the four blogs offer a possible template of road-tested go-to teaching sequences which can be part of your repertoire and reduce workload. The first blog focused on using sentence builder frames as a very useful tool for introducing or practising language with near-beginners up to low-intermediate level.

In this post I'm going to look at simple ways to exploit written texts. Now, you often come across a piece of writing in a text book, or find an interesting, comprehensible text you fancy using. Yes, I did throw in comprehensible there, since (in case you need reminding!) the research suggests that for a text to be useful for acquisition it needs to be at least 95% comprehensible, i.e. the students should already know at least 95% of the words. (It 's Paul Nation who writes about this. In fact, he even suggests that 98% is the magic figure, but you need to take into account the individual differences in your class and how many words are easily guessable because they are borrowing from English or close cognates. 90% might even do with some classes.)

So you have your text and think "What shall I do with this?" Here is a slightly adapted post I wrote in November 2017 which describes what you might do:

Guide to exploiting a written text

The fundamental principles underlying this teaching sequence are about:
  • Making the language comprehensible and interesting.
  • Scaffolding activities, building from easier to harder.
  • Building in repetition.
  • Varying the task.
  • Varying the skill mode (listening, reading, speaking, writing).
  • Allowing each skill to reinforce the others.

Here is the text - pitched at intermediate level (e.g. Higher Tier GCSE):

A new survey in France reveals that young people spend more than 27 hours per week online. This figure has tripled over the last decade. The opinion pollster IPSOS carried out the study based on thousands of young 16-24 year-olds as part of its report in 2017 about media usage and attitudes towards it. IPSOS concluded that although most online content continues to be viewed on a computer, the proportion of access via mobile devices is rising rapidly. Currently three quarters of adults regularly use a smartphone or tablet computer. Online content has also changed considerably over the last ten years. Today people spend much more time watching video clips, playing games, using instant messaging and checking their social media accounts. An expert in online media explains why people are spending more time online. “New technologies are opening up lots of new possibilities for young people. It’s not just about looking at content. They are sending messages to friends at the same time. Over time, as young people grow older and set up their own homes they will watch less television. Over a quarter of young people now watch television programmes and films online rather than on a television. A 50 inch television screen offers quality you cannot obtain on a tablet or smartphone, so televisions will always have a significant role.

Suggested sequence
1. Pre-reading
Display two columns of words from the text with L1 on one side, L2 on the other. Get the class to match words from each column, either done as whole class hands-up, in pairs or individually + feedback).
2. Teacher reads aloud with text visible on screen for students to follow.

3. Choral reading aloud of part or all of the text. Teacher reads a chunk, students repeat. Correct any obvious errors. Insist on total participation.

4. Invite volunteers to read aloud paragraphs.

5. Hand out a printed version of the text. (You could have done this at the start.) Ask students to highlight or underline any cognates they can identify. then get feedback.
6. "How do you say...?" task. Teacher gives a word or chunk and students identify from the text. Either hands up, no hands up or responses on mini whiteboards.

7. True/false - teacher makes statements for the class to respond to with mini-whiteboards (or on paper).

8. Correcting false statements. Teacher makes a series of false statements for students to correct. (Not how at this point, having got better acquainted with the text students now have to provide more spoken language.)

9. Repeat the above activity but this time students write down their answers. Feed back.

10. Teacher asks questions in L2. Students respond (hands up or no hands up).

11. Provide students with a list of written questions. Students work in pairs asking each other the questions. Monitor the work from a distance ensuring all students are on task. Answer questions.

12. Check with the class if there are still parts of the text they don't understand.

13. Have students write out their answers to the questions they did orally. Add questions about their own use of their internet use (personalising the topic). (This might be done as a homework task.) Alternative written tasks could include translation into L1, retranslation into L2 (i.e. producing a set of sentences similar to those used in the source text) or a short composition about internet use.

Follow-up lesson(s)

Display the text again and check meaning of key phrases. Re-do short parts of the activities described above. Don't assume that language covered last time will have been remembered. For many students this will not be the case unless you recycle the language at spaced intervals in the future (spaced learning principle). In future lessons try to recycle some or all of the language in different contexts.


This is just a selection of the many tasks you can do with a text, but in this example I tried to build up the sequence moving from easier to harder, giving plenty of time and exposure to allow some "implicit" learning to take place before asking students to be productive themselves.
Exactly the same principles could apply with easier texts and with near-beginners. ELT writer Michael Swan has called this type of sequence "intensive input-output" work. I think it's better to work a short text intensively, building in repetition, rather than exploiting a longer text in a shallow fashion. This doesn't mean that there isn't room for more extended reading, but limited classroom time makes intensive work more fruitful in my view. 

It's quite a teacher-led approach, but bar in mind that pupils get to hear a LOT of comprehensible target language in the process. If done on repeated occasions, just think how much listening input students receive.

In the third post in this series I'll take a look at exploiting picture sequences to build listening skill, grammatical awareness and spoken proficiency.


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