It may seem like a silly question, but it’s worth reflecting on why texts are the basis for a language lesson par excellence.
Apart from being a source of reading, structures and vocabulary, the text is a starting point for grammar practice, listening work, pronunciation and intonation practice and discussion. If you accept that comprehension is the source of all real second language acquisition, then reading texts is fundamental. The text exploits the visual dimension and it is our prime source of cultural information too. A good text can be the basis of a multi-skill lesson conducted entirely in the target language. Thanks to the computer and the internet texts are very easy to find and to adapt.
Which text to choose?
Texts need not be completely authentic. After all, they are primarily a tool for teaching the language, so you may need to adapt the source text to suit the group in front of you. The text should be neither too hard nor too easy. Texts which are too hard will be off-putting and some students will have so much difficulty deciphering meaning that they will not be able to go on to other tasks such as discussion. Texts which are too easy may well be a good source for other activities, but will do little to improve the students’ reading skills.
Texts should not be too long. If you have a one hour lesson you may not wish to be spending the majority of that time deconstructing a text if you wish the class to have opportunities to practise their listening and oral skills.
Texts which relate to students’ own experience (leisure, new technologies, television, internet, shopping, school, film etc) can be good as they may well encourage students to talk more. Many students will be happy to talk about the concrete matters which affect their daily lives more than abstract ideas.
Texts may relate to important topics from the world around us. Since we have a wider duty to educate our students, rather than simply teach them a language, texts on worthy issues such as the environment, poverty, inequalities, intolerance and so on are surely worth doing.
Texts which convey information about the target language culture are useful, but they should not be too esoteric.
What to do with texts
Here is a check-list of ways you can exploit texts together with a justification or comment for each task. You could add to these with your own.
- Prepare the ground. To prepare students for the text they are going to read it is a good idea to ask a few questions or give a brief introduction to the topic. You could then get students to guess which points might be covered in the text. Hopefully this will arouse some interest in or provide some knowledge about what students are about to read. You could put some words on the board from the text, placed at random, and elicit from the students what they think the text might be about. This could lead to the next point…
- Vocabulary brainstorming. This could be done before the text is read or, better, at a later stage. You do a vocabulary brainstorm around the class, but with the proviso that words must relate to the topic area covered by the text. With very able groups you could allow pupils to intervene if they think the word is not relevant. Students must not, of course, repeat a word they have already heard.
- Read the text aloud or play a recording of the text. This allows students to hear correct pronunciation and encourages them to read slowly and carefully since they have to go at the pace of the reader. It is a good “settling” activity, but you have to make sure that your students are actually following the text and listening. You could encourage this by saying that after your reading you are going to ask someone at random to say what the text is generally about or a particular fact in the text. Or, with younger learners, get them to follow the text with their finger. The teacher could read and stop - pupils have to say where.
- Get students to read aloud. Students generally are happy to do this if the text is not too difficult. It’s a good opportunity to monitor students’ accent and intonation. You often find that students who read aloud are then able to better talk about what they have read. The process of reading aloud really concentrates a student’s mind on both form and meaning. Don’t get them to read chunks which are too long.
- Practising intonation. Reading aloud allows the teacher to work on stress and intonation. In French, for example, you can practise the rising intonation at the end of words and groups of words and you can work on the slight final syllable stress which corresponds to that rising intonation. Students enjoy work like this.
- Skim reading. This helps students develop their skills of reading quickly for gist or specific details. For example in a text with facts and figures, get students to quickly pick out where figures are mentioned, then get them to note the significance of the figure. Why not give them a strict time limit to complete the task?
- Filling in tables. You can design a grid or table of information which students have to fill in to show understanding of factual information.
- Jigsaw reading. This is an easy task to prepare by cutting and pasting and allows to students to develop their skill of seeing overall structure and coherence in a text. Not all texts are suitable for this activity, so look for ones where there is a clear development from one point to the next and where there are clear links from paragraph to paragraph.
- Match headlines to paragraphs. To show grasp of meaning and structure students have to match short summaries of paragraphs or “headlines” to the paragraphs.
- Match summaries with paragraphs. Similar to above but with longer summaries. This is a popular testing technique used in public examinations.
- “Find the French/Spanish/German for”. This simple task, best done in the early stages of looking at a text, simply involves getting students to pick out vocabulary via translation. It can be done orally, or perhaps better in writing as then all students are definitely involved in the task.
- Bilingual vocabulary list completion. This is an extension of the above, but can be a reassuring task for students. One of the most common questions they ask is “What does this word mean?”. As teachers we often over-estimate how much our students understand.
- Asking for synonyms in the text. This can be done as an oral or written task and gets students to build up their vocabulary knowledge. It is a rather more sophisticated version of the vocabulary list completion task referred to above.
- Asking for antonyms. This works at a slightly higher level than the task above.
- Finding cognates. A good way for less confident students to get into a piece of writing.
- Underlining parts of speech. get students to underline adjectives or verbs, for example.
- Questions in the target language. This is the most traditional activity of all, but one which should not be underrated. Good questioning technique (oral and written) allows the teacher to practise grammar points, vocabulary, comprehension and speaking skills. Good Q/A technique will involve the full range of questioning styles including yes/no questions, true/false/not mentioned questions, either/or questions and open-ended questions. You can ask questions orally and get students to write down the answers. Questions can be designed to allow students of all abilities to take part. Asking questions affords ample opportunity for listening practice and can be finely tuned to each group. In short, question-answer remains an indispensable tool for the language teacher.
- Defining words or phrases. This is an extension of question-answer work. Students, either orally or in writing, have to define the meaning of a word or phrase in the target language. This is a high-level skill, but one much favoured by examination boards at advanced level.
- Making up questions in the target language. Students can practise their question structures by doing this. To do it well they have to decipher meaning carefully. They can then use the questions with a partner for oral practice.
- Give the answer, they make up the question. Students enjoy this and the task can allow for creativity and humour. It also allows students to practise the important skill of question formation.
- Questions in English. Although this has the disadvantage of moving away from the target language, it should not be ignored. It does focus entirely on meaning and with harder texts it can be a way of getting into the text before other tasks in the target language are carried out. It is also an entirely authentic real-life task.
- True/false/not mentioned. In a sense this is just part of our wider questioning technique, but it is good for extracting meaning and is widely used in examinations so is worth practising for this fact alone. You have to be very careful in designing tasks like this. The distinction between “not mentioned” and “false” is often a fine one! Students themselves can make up true/false questions which they can then practise orally with a partner or write for the teacher to do. The latter would be a fun and challenging task for very able students.
- Give false statements. This is a slight variation on the above, but one which students enjoy. You simply make up false statements which the class have to correct. You can do this orally or on paper. You can make this amusing by making up wildly false statements. You can make it subtle too.
- Matching tasks. Typically this will take the form of starts and ends of sentences which students have to match up to show they have grasped meaning. The same can be done with questions and answers.
- Completing sentences. Once the text has been studied in some depth you can get students to complete orally or in writing sentences to which you give them the start. This can allow for some creativity and amusement if you give them just a short phrase or even just a word.
- Multiple-choice. This is a good for allowing students to show a fine grasp of meaning. Multiple choice tasks should give at least three options and can take the form of a question with three answers or a sentence start with three different completions. These are quite fun to design and can be adapted to the level of the class.
- Gap-filling. You can blank out words, phrases or whole sentences from the original text, or from a summary of the text, to revise meaning, structures or vocabulary items. You can also do this as an almost improvised task at the end of a lesson or as the starter to a follow-up lesson. Students cover the text and you read it too them leaving gaps at key moments which they have to fill. This has the merit of allowing you to choose the number of gaps according to the ability level of the group. Students enjoy this sort of memory work and you are simultaneously practising listening. Gap filling can also be done as a pair work task.
- Summarising from memory. After the text has been studied you can get students to summarise the main points to the whole group or, perhaps better, to a partner.
- Written summary in the target language. Students have to show good comprehension and they get a chance to use written language creatively, mainly through the use of paraphrase.
- Changing the point of view. If the text is in the form of, say, a first person narrative, it can be a useful grammatical task to get students to change the text into the third person.
- Dictation. This is a high level activity, but is easily adaptable to different levels. It works best with French, where the sound to orthography relationship is more difficult than with Spanish or German. You could either simply dictate previously read sections of text or design a summary for dictation. A variation on this is where students can ask you to stop, rewind or fast forward as if you were a tape or CD they are playing. Another is “running dictation” (better for younger learners): sections of text are pinned on the wall. Pupils work in pairs, one is the writer and the other the dictator. The dictator has to go to the text, memorise a chunk of the text and then go back and relay this to the writer. The writer writes this down and then the dictator goes back and memorises the next chunk and so on and so forth. This could be done as a race. If pitched at the right level and conducted at the right pace, dictation is a multi-skill, challenging, rewarding and very productive task where all students are engaged.
- Paired dictation. For this you give students a series of sentences of different lengths. One student has to read the shortest sentence to their partner. The partner has to repeat the sentence precisely out loud. If they cannot do this, the first student must read out the whole sentence again (not just part of it). When the second student is successful, the first student can proceed to the next, longer sentence.
- Translation into English. This is a high level skill, but a good “real-life” one and one which demands detailed comprehension of the text. On the negative side, it is partly a test of the student’s skill with English and, of course, it is not allowing a student to use the target language. I would say it is a very good task, but one which should not be over-used at the expense of tasks done fully in the target language.
- Retranslation into the target language. After a text has been studied you can make up a text or sentences in English which students have to translate into the target language. This is good for recycling vocabulary and structures, but has the negative effect of encouraging students to work from English when they are speaking or writing the target language. There is a good “real-life” aspect to this task.
- Texts may be entered into an online tool such as Textivate, where students can do a variety of text manipulation exercises.