Revisiting ELT Mantras #5: Grade the task, not the text

10 years ago I was teaching in in a school in central London. At that time the internet as a teaching resource was just beginning to take off, and while I and many of my peers were starting to get to grips with how to get the most out of it, there was always the trusty Metro. Metro was (and still is) a popular free newspaper which is distributed on the London underground. It has broad appeal both due to the nature of it’s articles and the range of topics covered. None of the texts are really too taxing which makes it perfect for the bleary-eyed morning commute.

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Newspaper colour by Jon S CC BY 2.0

A typical noughties classroom

It also makes it perfect as a resource for EFL teachers and their students. Not only because of the way it’s written and the topics it covers, but also because it’s a free source of up-to-date authentic texts, and using authentic texts in class brings many benefits. Firstly, reading authentic texts may actually be a ‘very real and tangible goal’ for many learners (Sanderson, 1999:3), and so it makes sense to give them real practice in the controlled environment of the classroom. It can also be really motivating for learners to read a text which they know is real (Lightbrown & Spada, 2006). As a language learning resource, it can provide exposure to idiomatic language, ‘rarer’ words and complex, natural written syntax (Thornbury, 2005:107). And it’s not just language features, using authentic texts can also give learners valuable exposure to different features of a particular genre, or different genres themselves (Roberts, 2014).

But what do we do about the problem of comprehension? Of course there are many benefits to using authentic texts, but is there much point if the language is so complex that learners won’t be able to understand most of it? There’s quite a bit of debate as to how useful it is to expose learners to texts in which they don’t know a lot of the language, but many believe it’s useful. Lightbrown & Spada (2006) argue,

Learners who successfully acquire English outside classrooms certainly are exposed to a variety of forms and structures which they have not mastered.

When I was first training up as a teacher, one of the Mantras I was taught in order to tackle this question was Grade the task, not the text. The idea being that in order to give learners the opportunity to work with authentic texts, even at lower levels, you design a comprehension task that they’ll be able to successfully complete, without necessarily having to understand all the language in the text.

Personally, this idea has always sat rather uncomfortably with me, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve sometimes found myself giving learners fairly menial and pointless tasks just to allow them to interact with an authentic text. Thornbury (2005:108) gives an example of an authentic text used in a coursebook with a comprehension exercise which doesn’t even require looking at the main body of the text in order to complete, and goes on to say,

This raises the question as to whether the strategy of grading the task, not the text may not sometimes be taken too far, resulting in tasks that are trivial and texts that are redundant.

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Non alcoholic beer by jrsnchzhrs CC BY ND 2.0

Something else I don’t really see the point of

So, if authentic texts can sometimes be too difficult, and graded texts don’t bring the benefits outlined above, then what are we to do? Rachael Roberts, on her elt-resourceful blog, makes a very convincing case for a middle way. As a very experienced coursebook writer herself, the authentic v graded question is one she’s always had to face when deciding whether to select or write texts for her books. In her post, she describes how she’ll study features of the genre of her target text, then write her own texts within this framework.

As teachers, we can also adapt authentic texts slightly in order to make them more accessible to learners. One really useful online tool I use when I write texts myself is the Online Graded Text Editor. This is a free online resource into which you can paste an authentic text, select the level, and then it highlights features of language above the level, which you can then decide whether to keep or substitute, depending on your specific learners. This way, you’re making a valuable compromise I think in which your learners are still reaping many of the benefits of exposure to authentic texts, but are also able to do comprehension tasks which are meaningful at the same time.

References

Lightbrown, P. and Spada, N. 2006 How Languages are Learned Oxford University Press

Roberts, R. 2014 Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way? in elt-resourceful (retrieved 13th June 2014 from https://elt-resourceful.com/2014/02/27/authentic-or-graded-is-there-a-middle-way/ )

Sanderson, P. 1999 Using Newspapers in the Classroom Cambridge University Press

Thornbury, S. 2005 Beyond the Sentence: Introducing discourse analysis Macmillan

 

Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00EG71K1Q). I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

4 Comments
  • Philip Kerr
    Posted at 10:55h, 14 junho Responder

    Thanks, Damian – sensible words!
    Experienced teachers can usually predict, without the aid of software, which items will be hard for their students to understand. No problem … provide the students with a glossary. This is beginning to happen in some published materials / coursebooks, but one of the problems with internationally marketed materials is that you can’t give a translation (which language would it be in?) and that an English-only gloss is often as hard to understand as the problematic word.
    But even if you can provide a glossary / translation, some teachers and trainers are reluctant to do so. The reason for this is, it seems, that they want to encourage their learners (1) to tolerate only partial understanding, and (2) to encourage learners to try to deduce the meaning from the context. Both reasons seem reasonable enough, but neither really stands up to closer scrutiny.
    As a learner of a language, I’m almost certainly reading a text because I want to learn some language from it, and not because I have any intrinsic interest in the text. This is especially true of coursebook texts. As a learner, I’m not interested in partial understanding. I’m interested in what I don’t understand (i.e. the words I don’t know) and I want to know what they mean. I don’t especially want to make a guess, which is probably wrong, about its meaning.
    Secondly, the whole business of guessing meaning from context is rather more complicated than the mantra would have us believe. It can only be done if you understand a substantial proportion of the other words in the text (and this may not be the case with lower level learners); the meaning of many items cannot be inferred from context; it’s a high-level skill which some learners may not have in their own language, so there is little likelihood of them being able to employ it in L2.
    The conclusion: adapt authentic texts or use a glossary (preferably, at lower levels, in the student’s own language).

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 11:10h, 14 junho Responder

    Hi Philip, thanks for taking the time to drop by and leave such a reasoned, well thought out comment. It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on this from both sides of the coin i.e. as both a teacher and coursebook writer and a language learner.

    It’s interesting that you raise the issue of level here. I’ve always thought that communicative teaching methodologies (and their subsequent mantras) tend to over-emphasise learning strategies for lower-level learners, who more often than not are learning to be able to communicate or ‘get by’ in the language. However, there comes a point when we can get by in a language and want to do more with it, be more accurate, explore the language in a text and play with language, too (I’m just about reaching this point in Portuguese at the moment).

    This creates a bit of a paradox when it comes to reading and meeting new lexis, as you outline above – guessing unknown words is a complex skill (and not one that I often see taught very effectively either). Also, if I think about types of texts that I’ve needed to understand in order to ‘get by’ in Portuguese, they’ve been things like signs and notices in public buildings, banks, etc. In these cases it’s usually essentially to have a good understanding of the detail. I certainly don’t read these for gist.

    Anyway, thanks again. I think next month it might be timely to explore the mantra ‘Don’t worry if you don’t understand every word’ 🙂

  • Carol
    Posted at 18:04h, 16 junho Responder

    Hi, Damian. Some interesting stuff there.

    First, thank you for sharing that tool with us. I know I’ll certainly be giving it a try.

    But I want to play devil’s advocate here and maybe try to defend authentic “unadapted” (sort of – sometimes shortening is needed) texts a little longer. You ask: “But what do we do about the problem of comprehension? Of course there are many benefits to using authentic texts, but is there much point if the language is so complex that learners won’t be able to understand most of it?” Agree, no point using something they won’t understand. But why choose something they won’t understand in the first place is my question. Sure, the text is cool, interesting, funny and about the topic of discussion, and the temptation of using it with all these “minor” adaptations is big, because, c’mon, students will like it… But still, maybe it’s not the best time for it.

    Let’s say for example we’re discussing healthy eating habits in class. Beginners: why not work with food labels or the old “myPlate.gov” graphic? Basic vocabulary (even in food labels, it’s pretty much standard, you’ll get the same old stuff everywhere, so association is not hard), the genre is short and to the point.

    (And in case anyone is wondering “well, those are not texts” or “what kind of work could be done with those?” Well, first you can work with the genre: what are those? Who writes them? What for? To whom? Where do you usually see those? Do you read then, are they purposeful? Why (not)? Compare two labels. Would you consider this is healthy? Why (not)? Compare two graphics. Compare the labels to the graphic, where would you fit this food item? Is this something you usually eat? What’s your diet like? Write your own MyPlate. Compare with classmates. Check food labels of food you normally eat. Etc. Heck, you could even work with some grammar mcnuggets if that’s your thing: imperatives, present simple, there is/there are, count/non-count nouns, quantifiers, you pick! Though it’s my personal belief that texts shouldn’t be mere supports for grammar, but hey, everyone knows what works best for them, right.)

    Intermediate: why not a magazine quiz on your eating habits? Or maybe a short blog post by a person who’s trying to change their habits to live a healthier life? Upper intermediate: time for magazine articles or those FYI sections in magazines or specialized websites. Internet forums, maybe. Advanced: science magazines (such as popular science) or more in depth articles in newspapers, etc.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is… don’t grade the text, grade the genre. Does that make sense? TBH, it is A LOT MORE WORK than changing a word here and there, trust me, I’ve been doing it for a while and sometimes I literally spend hours trying to find the perfect text and sometimes come away empty-handed. But it’s a lot worth it because 1) tasks are always meaningful; 2) students are still benefiting from an authentic material; and finally 3) students get to explore a wide variety of text genres (and to me, this is priceless). 🙂 Just a thought.

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 09:07h, 17 junho Responder

    Thanks for dropping by and leaving such a reasoned comment full of so many interesting ideas. You raise several interesting issues here, so let me do my best to respond to them all (but forgive me if I miss something).

    First of all, I hope I didn’t come across as anti-authentic texts. I realise now that I discussed the benefits and drawbacks of them, but didn’t really give graded texts the same attention. I guess this was partly as the word limit is a little restrictive, but mainly because I think graded texts come up against a lot of criticism as it is, so was hoping to go some way towards redressing the balance a little here. There seems to me to be a lot of coursebook-bashing going on nowadays, and it often comes from those who are referring to coursebooks from 20-30 (or even just 10) years ago. I think there are some fantastic coursebooks out nowadays, with both authentic and graded texts.

    You rightly question why someone would choose a text which is too complex in the first place, and I completely agree. However, this is something I put both hands up to and can say I’ve been guilty of in the past (for the very reasons you mention) and I’ve seen others do this too. And certainly in my case it was because of the mantra I’d been taught and felt I had to follow.

    I love your idea of grading the genre, as opposed to the text or task, and thanks for sharing your ideas for different levels. These sound great, I think. The example you give for Beginners is interesting, and it’s actually very similar to an activity I wrote for a resource book a few years ago (great minds? : ) ). In fact, although this was a graded text, I actually used authentic food labels as a template. I think if texts are written well (I’m not saying mine are, but those in most modern coursebooks nowadays are), then the line between authentic and graded becomes blurred. But only if we take features of the genre as our starting point, and don’t simply create texts to demonstrate use of a particular structure. So grading them in the way that you suggest is a great middle way, I think.

    One final thing, related to your last point. I definitely agree that finding suitable authentic texts takes a lot of time, much more than adapting, but this is something I think most busy teachers are short of. So hopefully by combining the best bits of authentic v graded texts, we can find a middle way that suits a busy day-to-day teaching schedule, and by using both, over time we can eventually meet all three advantages you set out at the end.

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