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Teaching A-level MFL (2) - Working with texts

This is the second post in a series of four about teaching A-level MFL. The first post considered some general principles to bear in mind. This second post gets into the nitty-gritty of pedagogy by considering how we can exploit written and aaural texts.

Exploiting texts is such a fundamental skill in language teaching and this is no less the case at A-Level. I'm going to split this into two parts, the first looking at written texts, the second aural (listening) texts. In general terms, however, all texts are a fabulous source of input, both linguistic and cultural, which can be exploited in multiple ways. For both written and aural texts, a first point to make is that the texts should not be too long. If a text is very long, so much time is needed deciphering the language, that there is not enough time for interacting with the text. The risk is that you end up analysing language at the expense of communicating with it. 

Secondly, when a text becomes too long, it is likely to contain more new vocabulary which has less chance of being recycled. We know that repetition and deep processing is vital for learning and memory, so in general it's better to exploit shorter texts intensively, than longet texts superficially.

So when I produce text-based resources for my website I keep written texts down to no more than a page of A4 (often less) and aural texts limietd to roughly 2-3 minutes. This means that the language and content can be interacted with more intensively for better retention and language development.

Written texts

Choosing texts

You may stick largely to texts and exercises provided by a textbook, but this would most likely be a mistake. Text book writers do not have the space to produce the full range of exercises needed to exploit a text thoroughly. Reading a text and answering some comprehension questions about it is inadequate. You need to milk the text much more thoroughly.

Texts, as mentioned above, should not be too long. They may be authentic (in the sense of written by 'native speakers' for 'native speakers', but this is not important. Indeed authentic texts are often too difficult, since ideally, for a text to be suitable for learning, it ought to contain at least 90% of words which are already known to students. (The figure of 95-98% known words is often quoted by researchers, notably Paul Nation, but at A-level, where students are highly motivated and often of higher aptitude, I think you can go lower than 95%. As an exercise, take a written text and underline how many words you think the class will not know or be able to easily guess (cognates). If the figure is over 10% I'd suggest simplifying the text or rejecting it altogether. For more on the topic of how many new words to include, see this post.

The term adapted authentic is often used to describe suitable texts at this level.

As for the content of the text, this is partly dictated by the syllabus, but, as I wrote in my first post, any text can be useful since it will contain langage that is transferable to other topics. So take advantage of current affairs, the students' interests and your own.

If you use an AI tool such as Bing AI or ChatGPT to produce a text, you can ask it to do so at a certain CEFR level. For A-level this would be around B1. Texts produced by AI are linguistically accurate, but may contain factual inaccuracies and suffer from other issues (implicit sexism or racism, for exanple), so expect to have to do some editing.

How to exploit texts

This is the most important bit pedagogically speaking! Let me send you to another post without copying and pasting it here.

Let me add that a good text is a real gift to a language teacher, since it provides the basis for a whole lesson or series of lessons which provide input and interaction, the two prerequisites for acquisition. At A-level, the texts provided by text books can be a bit on the dry side, since they have been written to provide the cultural information needed for students to score well at AO4 (Assessment Objective 4) - the one about cultural knowledge. we shall come back back to this in the fourth post in this series. Such texts can lack personal storytelling and be difficult to exploit in creative ways. They can also be hard to link to students' personal experience, which can be a powerful factor in lesson design.

Let me share with you, however, a good way to make a potentially dry, information-heavy text the basis for a communicative lesson. I referred to this also in the first post. It's the task-based activity called Ask the Experts (based on a task described by Newton and Nation called 'Ask and Move'.) I have described how this works in posts here and here. Those two links include examples of French texts, but you'll be able to easily apply the principle to other languages.

Finally in this section, I referred in the first post to the importance of integrating the four skills. A text lets you do this so easily. Students listen to it being read, they do interpersonal listening (listening during communication) as you engage in discussion and exercises, they read (of course), they speak  and they write. A well-designed text-based lesson or lessons buildss up the challenge, moving from first deciphering and comprehending the text, to interacting with it in structured ways, then moving away from it for general discussion or other resources on the same topic. Once you have arepertoire of activities to use with a text, the text becomes your lesson plan.

Aural texts

Choosing texts

Texts may be read aloud, from audio or from video. If you are concerned about your own oral accuracy and fluency, you may depend relatively more on audio and video. When choosing audio and video sources, keep them relatively short (see above), choose sources where the language is clear and and a moderate pace. If captions are available (they usually are on YouTube), consider using them, especially for harder texts. Make sure that the language load is not too heavy. Always keep comprehensibility in mind. Not too many new words and not too fast.

Text book recordings may be very suitable, but lack authenticity, so it's wise to mix them up with different voices and more authentic sources. The latter may be more interesting and maybe up to date.

Video texts are often preferable to audio since they are likely to be more attention-grabbing and stimulating. Students may also be exposed to a wider variety of accents and cultural settings.

It's worth mentioning songs at this point since they are a great source of listening and, potentially, intercultruarl understanding. You'll find some ideas for exploiting songs here. Gianfranco Conti wrote a foresnic blog on songs here.

As with written texts, choose topics related to the syllabus or ones which will interest the students in general, or which relate to current affairs. Remember - you don't have to be a total slave to the syllabus. A Chief Examiner once told me when I was a young teacher that A-Level is like teaching General Studies in another language. Any subject matter can be good because it will contain high-freqquency language. Kep thinking: what will the students find stimulating? What will get them thinking? What will get them talking? What will open their eyes to the world?

How to exploit listening texts

Here are some of the exercises you can do with an aural text, once gain with the emphasis on intenstive exploitation to generate repetition and deep processing. When working with aural texts replay short portions of the text as many timess as you need. Keep in mind the heavy cognitive load which listening places on students. Consider using a written transcript as students listen.

A pre-listening task

This may be focused on linguistic issues, e.g. gues which words from this list you will hear. Or, better in my view, it could be about whetting students' appetite to the content of the text - sensitising them to the issue being talked about, ot relating it to their personal experience. This typeof task applies to reading as well, of course/

'While-listening' tasks

  • True/false
  • True/false/not mentioned
  • Tick the correct statements
  • Correct the false statements 
  • Correct the faulty transcript (where students underline where they hear a discrepancy between the aural text and a faulty written transcript, then mark in what what actually said). For an example see this post.
  • Answer questions in the L1 or L2 (the latter is usually harder since it requires both processing input and producing output)
  • Writing bullet point notes (an comparing with a partner)
  • Using the bullet point notes to do an oral or written summary
  • Finding vocabulary (words and chunks)
  • Gap-fill (with or without options provided)
  • Completing sentences
  • Re-ordering sentences (or lines in a song)
  • Transcription of the audio (dictation)
  • Taking notes from a lecture on a topic (in L1 or L2)
  • Finding vocabulary (e.g. by completinga bilingual list or matching words in the text with definitions/synonyms)
  • Produce a written transcript of the audio/video, to use as a written text, reinforcing work done previously.

In the next post, we'll consider how to work with films and literary texts. This forms a major component of the A-level course and may seem like a major challenge to new teachers.


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