This post, based on material used on our Delta Module One Course, discusses the use of authentic reading texts in the classroom. In particular it looks at:
a) the advantages of using authentic reading texts with learners.
b) the disadvantages
c) how the disadvantages can be overcome
d) alternative text types and their uses
Section A – the advantages
Advantage 1) Learners may need to understand authentic language even at the early stages of learning eg learners taking a course prior to a holiday in the States, learners studying Business English (or any other ESP area) who need to read emails, reports, the business press etc in their daily work. “Protecting” learners from authentic language does not meet their needs as simplified/constructed texts will inevitably distort the discourse because of the very features that make them useful are unnatural (grading of language to include only what learners already know, repetition of specific structures, avoidance of others, limitation of vocabulary etc). The Communicative Approach therefore took the view that exposure to natural discourse from the early stages of learning was beneficial and the learners should be taught to cope with the difficulties rather than never meet them.
Advantage 2) It is possible for learners’ receptive competence to be developed to a higher level than their productive competence. They can therefore be “ready” for authentic texts much sooner than they might be able to produce the language they contain and it will be motivating for learners to feel that they can cope with “the real thing”. (Communicative Approach) This creates feelings of achievement (that they are progressing towards their goal of second language competence) and self- esteem (Maslow).
Sections B (disadvantages) and C (solutions)
Disadvantage 1: The high level of content that is not comprehensible to the learners may leave them (especially at lower levels) feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty of the text, feel they will never be able to understand, and because their achievement/self-esteem needs are not being met, become demotivated. (Maslow). This “incomprehensible content may be due to such features as:
i) grammatical structures which the learners have not yet met in their course or which have a different use to that which they have met. Eg second form verbs (Lewis, The English Verb, Heinle - see here for an analysis based on his ideas) used not to express past time, which they would meet at A1 level and believe they recognised, but hypothetical present events – I wish I had more money; Imagine you lived in the Arctic; If I could get another job… etc
ii) features of natural discourse which make the text less explicit and more difficult to decode. (eg ellipsis).
iii) a high density of lexis which the students have not met and which is uninferrable. This will be a particular problem with speakers from non-Romance languages who won’t be able to draw on lexical cognates to help them . Eg an Italian learner, seeing the word hydrogen in a text with a scientific context would have no problem inferring it from the Italian cognate idrogeno whereas for a Finnish learner there would not be this possibility (the Finnish word is vety)
iv) culture-specific references which are missing from the learner’s “knowledge of the world” and which therefore make the text more difficult to understand. Eg : “He thought his chances of success were roughly the same as those of England retaining the Ashes that year.”
vi) a high degree of figurative language which, even if the individual words are understood, is not transparent in meaning. Eg Not in a month of Sundays; He didn’t beat around the bush.
Solution a : Not every text is necessarily extremely difficult. Easier authentic texts can be used to give learners the experience of succeeding to understand a larger percentage than normal of the text, despite the fact that it is authentic. Eg menus, information leaflets. Menus for example can be used at early levels as the foods included in the lists of dishes and their ingredients are easy to illustrate with photos found on the net.
Solution b : “Grade the task not the text” – ie identify in the text what the learners can understand, and develop tasks which focus on these elements. This is a basic principle of receptive skills work in the Communicative Approach and contrasts with the audiolingual reliance on strictly graded texts and the principle “Nothing should be spoken before it has been heard. Nothing should be read before it has been spoken. Nothing should be written before it has been read” which meant that receptive competence could never exceed productive competence.
Solution c : Ensure that the focus remains on what the learners do understand. They could eg be asked to predict what percentage of the text they will understand before reading it, and then be shown that they actually understood more, or that they now understand more of a previously encountered text than they did 6 months ago etc.
Solution d : Teach “text attack” skills/coping strategies explicitly – eg prediction of content from knowledge of the world, visuals etc; using headings and topic sentences to understand main points; inferring unknown vocabulary from context.
Solution e : Scaffold the task to remove some of the major blocks to comprehension and ensures the text will be “manageable” and that demotivation does not set in (Bruner), by eg pre- teaching certain items, providing a glossary, or providing dictionaries and telling learners they can look up five key items.
Solution f : Choose texts that the learners actually have to or want to read outside the classroom, to keep motivation for “coping” with the difficulties high. The T. can choose texts based on his/her knowledge of the Ls’ interests and/or ask the learners to bring texts in which interest them, and give them to the teacher who can prepare a lesson around them. Eg : I currently teach a 121 course with a lawyer who specialises in international family law. Much of the course is based around articles on family law and family law cases which I find on the web. These are used for comprehension work, language focus, spin-off discussion and even writing activities (eg the learner imagines she is the lawyer for one of the protagonists and writes and email to the American or UK lawyer of the other person involved) . In this way authentic texts can be used for more than “just” reading comprehension work.
Disadvantage 2: Learners want to understand everything in a text and will become demotivated by the T. telling them eg “it’s not necessary to understand everything”. This will just lead to frustration and the feeling the teacher isn’t doing his/her job. In contrast, Thornbury argues for an approach that leads to “zero uncertainty” where the learners to analyse and fully understand every word or other language item in the text.
Disadvantage 3: Alternatively, if the teacher does try to explain every item in an authentic text, the Ss will be overloaded by the variety of language, and become confused, so that their grasp of the language they are studying for productive purposes is also affected. I would argue that the text-based approach used by most current textbooks produces this effect. I have seen that Ls, in comparison to those who studied in the eighties, although they may be fluent, are frequently inaccurate and that a large proportion of those inaccuracies are errors rather than mistakes – ie stemming from not having fully understood the language they have encountered in their books. This means that in the courses, time has been wasted which would have been better spent on consolidation of simpler items.
Solution (for both Disadvantages 2 and 3) : Not every authentic text is long. Some are short enough to allow the teacher to scaffold the text and move the learners to the point of “zero uncertainty” without confusing them. Eg I have used short authentic texts from the website “Tripadvisor” reviewing holiday sites, accommodation and restaurants to focus on ellipsis. Ellipsis is pre-taught using sentence level examples and field specific lexis is reactivated/fed in during a warm up discussion about the learners’ own holiday experiences. After gist comprehension (what type of place is being reviewed? A hotel? A museum? etc ) and more detailed comprehension work (What did/didn’t the writer like about the place?) further language focus takes place where the learners identify the instances of ellipsis in the texts and decide what the missing words are.
Section D: Alternative text types
1) Specially constructed or simplified texts can be used where, although comprehension work is done first, the main aim is the introduction of a new structure, focus on a discourse feature such as text organisation, consolidation of a lexical field etc. By grading the text to the learners’ level, the T can ensure that after comprehension work the ls are not “distracted” by other features of the text but can concentrate fully on the specified aim.
2) Specially constructed or simplified texts can be used in lessons with reading comprehension as the primary aim to give the Ls the chance to tackle longer texts without the disadvantages mentioned elsewhere.
3) Graded readers can be used for extensive reading for pleasure either inside or outside the classroom. Writers such as Nation and Wang have pointed to the positive effect that this has on the retention of vocabulary.
4) Lexically enhanced texts can be used where the teacher wishes to focus on as many lexical chunks as possible. By rewriting the texts to include more of these (as eg in Powell, Business Matters, LTP) new lexical chunks can be introduced and those already met can be recycled regularly so as to prevent “forgetting”.