Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach – Week 6

Why not check out the previous weeks’ post, if you haven’t already:

We are finally here – the last week! This final week has been focused on really making a task from a reading text; in a sense, bringing everything we have learnt over the last few weeks together. There was not too much new content, per se, but we were shown different ways of making tasks out of texts and how non-linear the process can be.

Finding suitable texts

So finding suitable texts for your classroom is pretty important if you’re going to be making your own TBLT reading tasks. But where to start? I can speak from experience that this is a lot harder than it sounds (at least for me it was) but the advice they gave on the course gave me a few ideas. More than that, though, we were given a set of principles, if you will, to follow when finding suitable texts.

  1. Texts can be found anywhere and everywhere: One might take a diffuse approach to text selection, i.e. finding texts that come up spontaneously in your daily life and ‘thinking’ that they could be useful – then turning them into tasks. Or one might take a focused approach – this is where you read a bunch of text on the same topic until you find the right ones.
  2. Choose texts that are relevant and interesting to learners: This is perhaps one of the most important things to consider. Texts that are interesting for you might not be interesting for your learners (I’m especially thinking about teen classes here!). Also, just because texts may be relevant to learners, does not mean that they will find them interesting (e.g. university students may need to be able to read graphs and charts but they may not be over the moon with having to read a lot of these in class or at home). It sounds like this is the hardest part to get right, and from what I have experienced, read and heard, it is – even from a research standpoint. But this is where your understanding of your learners really comes in handy, and why generalised course book texts may not always be the best go-tos.
  3. Be ready to modify texts: Many authentic texts are too long and too complex (both in language and background knowledge). They will need to be shortened and simplified.
  4. Be aware of background knowledge: Texts that require the reader to have a lot of background knowledge can be very hard to understand in a second language, especially if the learner does not have the background knowledge to start with. So, where a number of us might think a newspaper article from a anglophone country might be a great text for our teaching context, our learners, on the other hand, may not have any of the cultural or social knowledge required to interpret the text, which could result in many negative consequences, e.g. a loss in motivation to read. One way you can get around this is to find English language newspapers from your local context. For example, here in Spain there is an English language newspaper, called the Local that has Spanish news in English. The articles here are from a Spanish context, so as a teacher I can be generally sure that my learners are likely to have the necessary background knowledge to understand the content of the text.
  5. Remember copyright laws exist: This is one for if you plan to publish your materials or use them in a way that means you have to modify them a lot. I am still not too sure of all the copyright laws, but to be safe I always reference the article somehow. There are times, however, when I believe you may have to ask permission – I have never done this (please don’t shoot me), but I imagine you would if you were planning to publish the materials somehow.

Designing suitable tasks for texts

Designing a task is often not linear. That is, task writers often go back and forth between text and task, modifying content until they come up with the ‘perfect’ text and task. One might think that course book and materials writers have in their mind straight away what they want, but apparently not so.

Amos Paran suggested an easier approach to tasks and activities, however. This is to have multiple texts on the same topic, which can then be used to engage learners in narrow reading. It is important, however, that the texts are different in enough so that they are justified (e.g. they disagree on a topic, they present different information). Tasks related to these could be focused on jigsaw reading or tasks that get learners to identify differences. Texts that contain very interesting information or controversial points of view can be useful for tasks as well as they can be used to find out the opinions of learners, which can then lead into further tasks such as debates using information, etc.

If you are like me you are probably thinking well that wasn’t really much of a help. In a sense, and unfortunately, there is no recipe for task design. Rather, there is the back-and-forth between text and task, trial and error and revision of work – all of which make up the process of designing successful task.

Adapting reading tasks

So let’s say you want to create your own tasks but you are stumped regarding where to look and what to choose. Well, it just so happens that nearly every classroom has a rich resource for texts – course books. Course book texts can certainly be adapted so that they and their activities are more task-like. We looked at a number of course book lesson plans and were asked to think about how we could make them more task-like. One of the plans was based on a text about how women stay away or ‘disappear’ from executive jobs after giving. The overview of the plan is as follows:

Taken from Herring, 2015

Before Amos Paran gave us some of his ideas, I thought of trying to get learners to create their own graph using the figures presented in the text. I feel like this would be a difficult task, but something that could be done either individually or in pairs for those that would need support. I feel like it meets the criteria for a task, and would be relevant to business-focused learners. Amos suggested that one could turn discussion questions into tasks, e.g. create an action plan for getting more women to stay in work. What about you? How would you exploit this text and these activities so that they are more task-like ?

Interview with Caroline Herring

Caroline Herring was an MA student at the time the course was originally made (I believe around 2015, but not too sure), and she talked us through her process of creating materials for one of the modules. It was really interesting to hear her perspective on the why behind her choices as well as the how. Some of the points that stood out for me were:

  • She couldn’t really find any business material that focused on women (most of her students were business women) and so she made the choice to focus on this area. I think this highlights the fact that as teachers we (I want to say have an obligation to but maybe that is too strong) can really look at our learners’ needs and create materials based around these – or at a minimum adapt current materials so that they are more appropriate.
  • She used authentic texts (e.g. newspaper articles), but made certain adjustments depending on the level of the class. Some of those adjustments were linguistic, some were reducing the size of the text.
  • She included plenty of speaking-focused activities before the reading tasks as she felt that this would benefit learners.
  • On reflection, she mentioned that she would still reduce the length of some of the texts as they take quite a while to get through.

Interview Pauline Foster

The second interview we were able to watch this week was with Pauline Foster, a professor of Applied Linguistics at St. Mary’s University. This interview was very to the point and I really enjoyed how she went about answering the questions – no messing around! Some of the points that I picked up include:

  • Key characteristic of SL reading tasks: learner engagement- ensure that your texts engage your learners, so ensure that they are interesting!
  • Adapting texts: There are ways to take boring texts from course books and make them interesting with tasks (e.g. create the backstory of the characters, create a new dialogue). Foster says that as teachers we should be doing this all the time as our learners are specific. She spoke about a time when she was teaching in Japan and she had to use a specific course book which was quite dull – and then went into detail about how she exploited it, thus satisfying management while keeping learners engaged.
  • Some tips for designing reading tasks:
    • Start with something authentic as it’s easier to find
    • Make sure it’s interesting
    • Have learners read it collaboratively so they can co-construct meaning
    • Build on other tasks
    • Take in mind who your learners are and their level
    • Don’t write texts around a certain form. That is, don’t make the text subservient to form.
  • Alternative dictogloss: Foster mentioned an alternative dictogloss, which I found quite interesting. Have learners read and focus on meaning of a text first (read, co-construct meaning, etc.), then take the texts away and then learner recreate the text together.

Assignment

For our final assignment we had to design a reading task that included a pre-task activity – but it could not be a jigsaw! I decided to create a task around a newspaper article on the recent changes to restrictions regarding masks in Spain. In short, learners read and then create an infographic using the information from the text. Take a read here:

Final notes

This course has been really interesting, insightful and totally worth the few hours each week. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I have been reading TBLT books alongside the course, which have helped a lot, but it was really interesting to be taken just a little bit further down the road regarding the creation of reading tasks specifically. Again, this is not something I have done a lot of specifically for TBLT and I certainly feel a little more prepared for it now. This being said, the few plans I have created have shown me that it can be quite difficult to get things right and find suitable texts. All in all, though, I have thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to letting these drops of knowledge seep into my practice over time!

References

Herring, C. (2015). Materials for Teaching Business English. Unpublished assignment for Materials Development for Language Teaching Module, MA TESOL, UCL Institute of Education.

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