Using authentic written texts quickly and easily (And how to adapt them with B.A.T.S.)


In planning their lessons, most teachers will find themselves wanting to utilise authentic texts in class at some inevitable point – whether it be for the sake of language, or a wish to branch out from the usual, textbook-prescribed set of topics. Having said that, many teachers also find themselves too busy and run off their feet to easily make use of these texts. This blog post looks at quick, easy ways to work with said texts — in the pre-task, task and post-task stages. It could be used with any authentic text; however, we shall be using a recent article from The Independent for purposes of illustration and exemplification. The link can be found at the end of the blog post.

Pre-task activities.

1: Predictive word cards.

Approximately 7-10 words should be chosen from the text, put onto pieces of paper and given to learners. For our article, we chose “banned, evacuation, detonate a bomb, Minecraft, disgruntled, Twitter” and “harassed.” Learners should use these words to consider, create and share their own story about what the text may be about; they can then compare this idea to the text upon reading it. Words chosen should be those which activate topic-related schemata, such as “Minecraft,” those which are likely to cause difficulty for learners, such as “disgruntled,” and those which lead to predictions which are partially — yet not fully – correct, such as “detonate a bomb.”

2: Predictive learner-written questions.

Alternatively, the title –and potentially first sentence — of the article should be given to learners, who should then write between four and six questions which they think will be answered in the text. In our case, you might simply use the headline: “School bomb threats: Minecraft gamer could be behind email hoax that caused evacuations across UK.” Learner-generated questions might include “Why did the gamer make bomb threats?” “How did the students and teachers feel about it?” “What’s the connection to Minecraft?” Learners should then use these questions to read the text — trying to find answers. The ratio of learner questions answered is surprisingly and consistently very high.

Task activities.

1: Qualitative judgements.

Comprehension of the text can be facilitated by asking learners to form value judgements; this could include asking learners to identify the three most interesting things in the text, the three strangest, or the person in the text they most agree with. As well as finding these ideas, learners could rank them. Interestingly, learners working with our school bomb threat text frequently identified the young age of VeltPvP’s CEO – only seventeen years – as the strangest thing for them in the text.

2: Critical thinking.

Summary writing is another prep-lite way to check comprehension. Learners could be given a word limit for their summaries; or, alternatively, could be asked to write summaries of individual paragraphs. One example 15-word limit summary for our article might be “An unidentified Minecraft player pretended to be a server to threaten schools after being banned.”

3. Grammar and lexis.

Authentic texts provide a valuable opportunity to look at language in context, and for learners to notice the gap between their developing interlanguage and a native-like model. Three key grammatical areas from our article were use of the passive, narrative tenses and reporting verbs, such as “request, deny, suspected, asked, threatened” or “refused.”

In our article, lexis which could be exploited included vocabulary relating to crime, such as “incident, hoax, cybercriminal, evacuated” or “bomb threat.” It could also include nouns to describe people, such as “player, CEO, kids, rebel, criminal, parent, children, gamer, student” or “user.” It could also include vocabulary for emphasis, such as “It’s all kids playing,” “nothing this extreme,” “deny any involvement/harass us in any way possible” or “extremely sorry.”

Lexis can also be worked on by dividing phrases into chunks and asking learners to brainstorm other possible words and phrases which could fit into the slots. For example:


Post-task activities.

1)     Reconstruction activities.

This essentially involves learners reconstructing the text from memory, and can be particularly useful with a grammar focus, as learners can subsequently compare their reconstructed text to the original. In doing so, they can see if they used the grammar in the same way as the text — if not, why that would be. It can be particularly useful in the teaching of passives and articles – two areas of grammar which are arguably simple in terms of form, yet difficult in terms of use. The former would be particularly useful for our bomb threat article.

2)     Rewriting activities.

This could involve rewriting a text into a different format – for example an article into a short story, dialogue or diary entry. For our article, this might be a dialogue between the CEO and concerned parents or a diary entry for a student who had been evacuated from school. Rewriting could also involve recasting the article from another person’s point of view – this could be useful in exploring biased, or qualitative language. In this case, they might write it from the point of view of the perpetrator of the bomb threat. Finally, rewriting could also involve editing the text to change the register – in our case, it might be from formal to informal language.

3)      Spin-off writing.

This involves using the text as a springboard for another task connected to the topic. One example could be a debate on issues raised in the text; in our case, it might be on whether video games have a positive or negative effect on children. It could also be a problem-solving task; for our article, this might be on ways to prevent fraud online. Finally, it could also include using the text as a model to write a similar piece; for our purposes, this might be another newspaper article in the same style.

Frequently asked questions.

1)     What are the advantages and disadvantages of using authentic texts?

Enabling learners to deal with authentic, lengthier texts early on helps to prepare them for the real world outside the classroom. Authentic material also provides a far greater scope for incidental learning of lexis, functional uses of grammatical structures and many other areas. Finally, authentic material provides a greater variety of content and topics – something which can be very motivating for learners.

Disadvantages might be that the difficulty of authentic material can be demotivating for learners – especially if the lesson is not scaffolded well. It can also be easy to miss the mark in terms of topic relevance if the teacher doesn’t know or misjudges his or her learners’ interests. Finally, some learners may fail to grasp the point of a lesson when not provided with structured lessons, such as those which textbooks provide.

2)     Where can we find authentic texts for lower levels?

Using “ten things that” articles can be useful for this purpose. For example, “the ten strangest jobs in the UK,” “the ten most expensive luxury items,” or “the ten most visited tourist attractions.” Texts which utilise negative space and graphics can also be used with elementary learners — these could include brochures and advertising pamphlets. Book blurbs or short TV guides can also be useful and motivating texts to study which promote wide reading and listening outside the classroom.

3)     How can we make authentic texts more manageable for learners?

A quick way to do this can be with something which I call the “Bats” philosophy.

Break up: Texts can be made more manageable if they are broken up into sections and given to individual learners. Learners can then dissect these, before explaining them or fitting them together with those of their peers.

Adapt: Simply changing some of the most difficult words or phrases can create a pseudo-authentic text which is easier for learners to understand. It can be surprisingly quick to do, and still maintains many of the features of authentic material.

Task: By adapting the task, as opposed to the text, an achievable goal can still be set for learners. Elementary or beginner learners could simply be asked to circle the past tense; comprehension questions could focus less on detailed understanding and more on overall comprehension.

Shorten: Texts can also be made more manageable by simply taking out entire sections, such as whole sentences or paragraphs.

These ideas were inspired by and compiled from personal experience, years of CPD workshops and various teacher development books. They draw particularly from task-based learning and the lexical approach.

By Jessica D’Ambrosio, teacher at SGI.



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