The inexact science of adapting an authentic reading text

Most teachers and materials writers use written texts from a variety of authentic sources. A CLIL or EAP teacher, for example, might use content-based texts taken from subject-specialism textbooks. Alternatively, in business English classrooms, the kinds of texts used in lessons (either from coursebooks or brought in by the teacher or students) often come from business magazines such as The Economist or are based on texts from their students’ places of work. And in general English courses, where the needs are less specific, the trend in recent years has been to use content-rich texts drawn from authentic sources.

So how do teachers and materials writers set about selecting suitable authentic texts for learners? And having selected the text, do we adapt and change it for the level(s) of our students or is it preferable to leave it in its original form? The aim of this article is to look at some of the key issues behind text selection and text adaptation by teachers and materials writers.

Selecting a text

Text selection begins by choosing the right kind of text according to the needs of the learners or the course. Sometimes these needs are very specific: I recently used a text about the inner workings of a nuclear reactor for some materials for students studying science in English. However, this level of specificity is quite rare, and the needs of individual students in classes of twenty or thirty will vary a great deal.

As well as ‘need’, there is usually a basic requirement for a text to have some intrinsic interest factor and that it is relevant to students’ personal lives and experiences. For a materials writers producing content that will be used by teachers in a variety of countries, this presents a challenge. The topics need to be fairly global, but at the same time something that students can relate to their own experiences. In addition, a text will often include certain cultural perspectives which may affect our choice. For example, a study of texts in coursebooks by Gray (2013) found that a set of teachers in Barcelona didn’t like texts in coursebooks with overtly British subject matter. Another teacher in the same study “objected to a listening about women being bad drivers because she felt by doing the activity she was giving these views her tacit seal of approval”.1

This concern over cultural perspective is echoed by coursebook writer Sue Kay (co-author of the Inside Out series) reflecting on her own first attempts at selecting texts for coursebooks: ‘I teach in Oxford, and most of the students who come to Oxford to study like to get some cultural input about the city and surrounding areas. Whilst this is interesting for people who study here, I had to remind myself not to choose such ‘Brito-centric’ material when writing for students internationally.’ Sue goes on to comment on the pitfalls of topic choice in the process of text selection: ‘Technology is particularly prone to seeming ridiculously old-fashioned after a relatively short time. Famous people can go out of fashion too, or do something stupid, or die.’2

So text selection involves consideration of the student need, interest, cultural background, and relevance of the material to the present day. Where a coursebook fails to offer a text that matches these criteria, teachers often source new texts on the internet or from local newspapers written in English. Which brings us to the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to text selection: is the text too difficult for students to understand? And does it include useful target language that we need to teach such as a particular lexical set or certain grammatical structures?

If we are lucky, we can find authentic texts which need little or no adaptation. For example, I was looking for a short text on the subject of sport for pre-intermediate students. I also wanted to introduce uses of the gerund form. I came across a series of quotes about winning and losing by famous sports stars which seemed ready-made for my purposes3:

hughes1

However, it’s rare that authentic texts can be given to pre-intermediate students without the need for at least some kind of adaptation, and in some cases it’s helpful to make significant rewrites to the text.

Adapting a text

To illustrate how an authentic text might be adapted, I’m going to take part of a text that appeared in The Economist magazine.4 (See the link at the end to read the entire article.) My target students were pre-work business English learners at mixed intermediate (B1/B2) level. The topic of the article was about how companies are trying to use music on websites in order to encourage customers to buy products, much in the same way that shops play background music. I chose the text because I knew it would be intrinsically interesting to business students and it had plenty of useful business lexis. In addition, the topic of online shopping wouldn’t date too quickly and it’s an activity carried out by many people in many countries, so there weren’t any limits in terms of cultural understanding.

In terms of target language, one paragraph in the article would be useful in particular. In it, the writer reports findings of a study carried out by the online seller eBay, to discover what music would affect shopping habits. I was keen that the reading should offer students a model of how to write up results in business reports. Here is the paragraph. Read it, and bearing in mind the target level (B1/ B2), consider which parts of the text might need adapting (if any).

hughes2

Immediately, you’ve probably identified words which will have students reaching for their dictionary or asking you for explanations. One option is to keep the text in its original form and provide a small glossary of unknown words beneath it. Paul Nation5 comments that glossaries listing low frequency words have the useful function of dealing with the words that a teacher does not want to deal with. Nevertheless, glossaries slow the reading down and – in general – they are used with texts for extensive reading (e.g. with graded readers) rather than texts for in-class intensive reading.

So what should our starting point be for choosing which vocabulary to change in our text? According to Nation, ‘English has around 2,000 high frequency words. The remaining words, of which there are well-over 100,000 word families, are low frequency … Because low frequency words are such a large group (and so it is not possible to teach them all), occur infrequently, and cover such a small proportion of the text, they do not deserve classroom time.’5

One online tool you can use to check the vocabulary in a text is the Oxford Text Checker, available to use for free at http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/oxford_3000_profiler.html. It highlights (in red) the words which are outside the top 2,000 or 3,000 keywords of the English language. So here is my text about online shopping with the words in red outside the top 2,000. How many of these words did you predict would cause difficulty and might need adapting when you read it earlier?

Hughes3

Having identified the red lower frequency words in the text, I could decide to formally teach some of them with an exercise such as matching a word to its definition. For example, ‘participants’ is probably a useful word for my business students to learn whereas ‘chirruping’ is not. The meaning of some low frequency words are also important to the understanding the text, so I could replace a word like ‘hazardous’ with the higher frequency synonym ‘dangerous’.

However, adapting a text involves more than just omitting or changing certain vocabulary. With my text, I want the students to understand it, but I also want it to provide a partial model of how they might report results of their own research. So I’ll also need to consider adapting the text in other ways such as:

  • simplifying the sentence structure
  • reducing slang, journalese or cultural reference
  • simplifying text structure and cohesion
  • making the English ‘correct’ or improving the writing style to provide a model
  • including and recycling previously taught language items

How many of these we apply to our adaptation presents a dilemma: too much adaptation can result in what coursebook author Ceri Jones refers to as loss of the ‘core’ or ‘heart’ of the original text. Here, in an interview on her own approach to text selection and adaptation, she comments: ‘The ability to identify the core of the text is important [for a materials writer]. Identify what makes a text nteresting, worth reading, but make sure that this “heart” is not lost in the adaptation. If the heart of the text actually lies in the style and the language rather than the content, it may be worth looking for another text!’6

To end with, here is my final adaptation of the paragraph from The Economist:

hughes4

You’ll see that I’ve changed some low frequency vocabulary and simplified parts of the sentence structure for the level. I’ve also added in linkers such as For exampleHowever and In addition because these were taught in previous lessons, and I plan to draw students’ attention to these as a way to structure their own writing. So the final question is, has my adaptation lost the text’s ‘core’, ‘heart’ and feeling of authenticity? Certainly, if my sole aim had been to use the text for developing reading skills and generating discussion, then I might have kept the adaptation closer to the original. However, text selection and adaptation is guided by a variety of factors, both objective and subjective; it is never an exact science.

References

(1) Reported in Harwood, N. (2014) English Language Teaching Textbooks Palgrave Macmillan, p.14

(2) Author’s own interview

(3) Quotes appear in Dummett, Hughes & Stephenson (2013) Life Pre-Intermediate National Geographic Learning, Unit 2

(4) ‘Beware of Beethoven’ in The Economist April 23, 2014. http://www.economist.com/news/business/21613347-what-youhear-affects-what-you-buy-online-beware-beethoven

(5) ISP Nation (2008) Teaching vocabulary Heinle Cengage Learning, p. 62–3

(6) Author’s own interview

This article was first published in Modern English Teacher 24 (2), 2015. Save 20% on one-year individual subscriptions to Modern English Teacher with code JHMET (not compatible with any other offer or discount.)

 

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