T is for text-based curriculum

4 12 2011

Nigel Davies, who runs a school in El Prat de Llobregat, near Barcelona, wrote to me last week:

I’m doing an experimental kind of class here at the school, which, if you have time I would like to hear your thoughts on.

It’s a post CAE class mixed bag of wannabe one day proficiencies and other advanced students. I didn’t want to do an exam-based course, and couldn’t find a suitable high level general texbook, so someone suggested doing some Engl Lit, maybe one of the classics, which was a possibility, but not for a whole course, so I settled on one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. Do you know his work? I chose ‘Outliers’ a study of how people become successful, as it has lots of stories of different people in different situations to back up his central thesis, and there was lots of extra material on internet, both spoken and written.

What we do is varied ( I hope). We do lots of vocab work on the text, some grammar, various approaches to text comprehension, and compare clips of or about the various people involved with the written text. The students have to read sections of the book ahead of time, so that the material is fresh for discussion, and for closer textual work on gram or voc, I have them use the text in class to find examples. […]

They’re finding the material very interesting, and are managing to keep up with the reading load.  Still, as there’s no external ‘help’, I have to create all the activities and do a lot of extra research, which is very time consuming, if at times personally rewarding!!  […]

It would be interesting to know if you’ve ever run a course like this or what your thoughts are on using this kind of authentic material over a long period of time…

A number of thoughts were triggered by Nigel’s account:

Years ago I had a DELTA trainee who was in a similar situation, with a  group of women who had completed the Cambridge FCE the year before and wanted a break from exam-driven classes. They decided they would all subscribe to a women’s magazine, the choice being agreed mutually, and that this would provide the course content, in much the way that Gladwell’s book does for Nigel’s class. The experiment was rated a great success.

The idea of basing a second language curriculum on a single text has a long history. I’m currently reading Jacques Rancière’s (1991) account of how, in 1818, the French schoolteacher Joseph Jacotot developed an innovative method of teaching Flemish (of which he spoke not a word) by basing the whole course on one (bilingual) text, Fenelon’s Télémaque (1699), although – as the translator notes (p. 2), ‘In terms of Jacotot’s adventure, the book could have been Télémaque or any other’.  For Jacotot, “all the power of language is in the totality of a book” (p. 26).

Click to expand

In similar style, I own an 1872 edition of a textbook by a certain T. Robertson that is based entirely on the study of a single text, spread over 20 units. The first unit of the first course starts with the first sentence of the text (apparently a story from the Arabian Nights).

The text is first translated, word by word, and phrase by phrase, and this forms the basis of exercises that involve translating the text back and forth.  The course continues, a sentence at a time, through the complete story.

What are the pros and cons of basing a course on a  single text?

Obviously, one disadvantage would be the possible boredom that might set in, as learners tire of the same text. This, of course, could be off-set if the text were one that had been mutually chosen, and/or one that was relevant to their lives, study or work, and/or one where there was built-in variety (as in the case of the women’s magazine).

Another problem might be the relatively narrow lexical focus. What kind of word coverage do you get from a novel, for example? At the same time, this could be seen as an advantage, in that ‘narrow reading’ allows a greater degree of turnover of the same vocabulary items, optimising the chances of these items being learned. Coursebooks, that jump from topic to topic, are notoriously poor at providing the number of repeated word encounters that are considered necessary for incidental learning to occur. A course based on a single text might lose out on lexical range but score highly in terms of lexical retention.

To me, a real advantage of such an approach is that it is essentially meaning-driven, and that the language that the learners have to engage with, in order to understand the text, has not been pre-selected and pre-graded, and hence is more representative of language in the real world. Moreover, by virtue of its being both self-selected and authentic, such a text may offer a more engaging stimulus (than coursebook texts customarily do) for other, ancillary activities, such as discussion and writing.

Has anyone else out there tried this kind of approach to course design?


Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

G is for Gist

27 11 2011

A couple of weeks ago Patrick Huang, a teacher trainer in Toronto, wrote to me:

I was hoping you could help with this notion of ‘gist’ tasks, which I’ve always thought as helpful in the ESL classroom.  … A colleague in Seoul recently met Michael Swan, and he mentioned that Michael has reservations about the use or usefulness of gist tasks for students. I also seem to remember seeing an article along the same lines.

What’s your current view on this? Do you include / recommend this in your MA TESOL course? Would you be able to refer me to sources where I can do more reading on the topic? I might then be able to give my students and trainees more useful and helpful ideas and practice.

Reading for gist is conventionally associated with the idea of skimming, which, in turn, is typically mentioned in association with scanning. In An A-Z of ELT these terms are defined like this:

  •  skimming (skim-reading, reading for gist): rapidly reading a text in order to get the gist, or the main ideas or sense of a text. For example, a reader might skim a film review in order to see if the reviewer liked the film or not.
  • scanning: reading a text in search of specific information, and ignoring everything else, such as when consulting a bus timetable for a particular time and destination.

Setting skimming and scanning tasks in the language classroom rose to prominence with the advent of the communicative approach, and its promotion of the use of authentic texts. Authentic texts were considered to be more in tune with a functional (i.e. non-structural) view of language, and lent themselves to a task cycle in which different skills were integrated in order to achieve a communicative outcome. Arguably, the only way to deal with such texts – especially at lower levels – was to skim and scan them. “You don’t have to read every word!” the long-suffering students were exhorted.

Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist…”

This overlooks two basic facts: (a) most students already know how to skim/scan texts in their L1, and will transfer these skills to their L2, when faced with texts whose purpose  precludes a closer reading; and (b) the skimming and scanning of texts (in the absence of a more intensive reading) is a characteristic, not of good readers, but of poor ones.

(These, I suspect, are Michael Swan’s arguments too).

Of course, it’s true that students, faced with a text in class, tend to ‘park’ their L1 reading skills, assuming that the text is a linguistic object, rather than a communicative one, and adopt a one-word-at-a-time strategy. Setting gist tasks, initially, is one way of discouraging this tendency. Giving students a time-limit to identify what the text is about, who wrote it, to whom, and why, seems an excellent way of ‘peeling off the first layer of the onion’, as it were. But this is less a skill-teaching strategy than a text-attack one. And, unless it is followed up by a more detailed reading, including some kind of focus on the linguistic features of the text (e.g. its lexical, grammatical, or discourse features), it would seem to be a singular waste of time and resources.

It’s also true that L1 reading skills don’t transfer automatically to the L1 if the text is beyond the learners’ present linguistic competence – particularly if it contains a relatively high proportion of unfamiliar words. This is what is sometimes known as the ‘threshold effect’. As Catherine Wallace (2001, p. 22) puts it,

L2 readers need a minimum threshold level of general L2 language competence before they can generalise their L1 reading abilities into L2. Where proficient L2 learners are good readers in their L1, the consensus view (based on a wide range of research studies and teachers’ observation) is that reading abilities can, indeed, be generalised across languages even in the case of differing scripts.

This would suggest that, in order to optimise skill transfer, the teacher should either pre-teach the unfamiliar vocabulary, or choose (or create)  texts whose lexis is within the students’ present competence. Researchers suggest that familiarity with 95% or more of the words in a text is the cut-off point. (The Vocab Profile tool on the Compleat Lexical Tutor website allows a highly useful test – based on word frequency data – of a text’s readability).

But pre-teaching vocabulary or using graded texts is not ‘teaching reading’. It is simply allowing learners to transfer existing skills into their L2 reading.  Why do it, then? Because texts are a useful springboard into other activities, including speaking and writing, as well as offering the opportunity for a more detailed analysis of the text’s grammatical or discourse features. Failure to exploit texts in these ways, by simply skimming or scanning them, teaches nobody nothing.


Wallace, C. 2001. ‘Reading’.  In  Carter, R.,  & Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge Guide to TESOL. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

P is for Phonics

27 02 2011

A recent item on the BBC website (Reading test for six-year-olds to include non-words) reminds us that the debate about phonics continues to polarise educationalists and the public alike. The fact that a government-mandated reading test for six-year-olds is to include nonsense words, like ‘koob’ and ‘zort’, which the children are required to sound out, has incensed advocates of a more meaning- and context-driven approach to developing first language literacy: “It’s just bonkers!” The very mention of  phonics is guaranteed to elicit this kind of knee-jerk reaction in some quarters.

Just to remind you, phonics (to quote the entry from An A-Z of ELT)

is an approach to the teaching of first language reading that is based on the principle of identifying sound-letter relationships, and using this knowledge to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words when reading.

The analytic, bottom-up phonics approach contrasts with a more holistic, top-down approach to developing literacy skills that is called (in the US at least) whole language learning. Whole language learning is premised on the belief that, “in the development of both speech and writing, children begin with a whole and only later develop an understanding of the constituent parts… Parts are harder to learn than wholes because they are more abstract. We need the whole to provide a context for the parts” (Freeman & Freeman, 1998, p. 65).

Because so much is at stake (i.e. first language literacy, and hence access to all the ‘cultural capital’ that goes with being able to read and write) the debate between advocates of phonics, on the one hand, and of whole language learning, on the other, has become iconic – representing as it does the war between traditionalists (‘teach the facts’) and the progressivisits (‘nurture the child’). The former claim that there can be no learning without knowledge of the system (i.e. the rules), while the latter claim that the only real learning is self-directed, socially-situated, and experiential.

Supporters of the phonics position cite research studies that suggest that the best predictors of reading ability are good phoneme-identification skills (the ability to sound out a word like c-a-t) and a knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, enabling accurate decoding of the written word. In one of a series of studies, for example, Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley (1995) found that children who had been instructed in phonemic awareness in pre-school “were superior in nonword [i.e. nonsense word] reading 2 and 3 years later and in reading comprehension at 3 years” (cited in Grabe & Stoller, 2002).

Advocates of whole language learning, on the other hand, argue that learning to read emerges out of immersion in a world of texts. “Children growing up in literate societies are surrounded by print. They begin to be aware of the functions of written language and to play at its use long before they come to school. School continues and extends this immersion in literacy…” (Goodman & Goodman, 1990, p. 225). Krashen (1999) cites a number of studies that show that what he calls ‘free voluntary reading’ “profoundly improves our reading ability, our writing ability, our spelling, our grammar, and our vocabulary” (p. 54).

Is there a compromise position? In her fascinating book, Proust and the Squid, (Wolf, 2008), Maryanne Wolf argues that successful decoding is contingent upon “knowing the meaning”, and that “for some children, knowledge of a word’s meaning pushes their halting decoding into the real thing”. One clue to a word’s meaning is its context, and an understanding of context requires reading skills, such as predicting and inferencing, of a more global kind than simply knowledge of sound-letter relationships. And it also assumes the existence of an already extensive and well-connected lexicon: “The more established our knowledge of a word, the more accurately and rapidly we read it” (p. 153).

Thus, successful readers are able to marshall both bottom-up (i.e. phonics) and top-down (i.e. whole language) processes more or less simultaneously, drawing on the one when the other is less reliable. Effective teaching of reading, arguably, achieves a similar balance. In the Reading Recovery approach, as pioneered by Marie M. Clay, the child’s reading aloud is supported and scaffolded by the teacher, allowing both a bottom-up or a top-down focus, as appropriate. As Clay & Cazden (1992) observe:

This program should be differentiated from both ‘whole language’ and ‘phonics.’  It differs from most whole language programs in recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print.  It differs from phonics in conceptualising phonological awareness as an outcome of reading and writing rather than as their prerequisite (pp. 129-130).

How does all this relate to second language learning? As I point out in An A-Z of ELT “the phonics debate is less of an issue [for us] since most adult second language learners are already literate”.  Nevertherless, the more fundamental argument – as to whether the parts should be taught in advance of the whole, or vice versa – is just as relevant to  language teaching as it is to literacy learning, and just as capable of inflaming similar passions.


Clay, M. & Cazden, C. (1992) A Vygotskian interpretation of reading recovery. In Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freeman, Y.,  & Freeman, D.  (1998).  ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goodman, Y., & Goodman, K. (1990). Vygotsky in a whole language perspective. In Moll, L. (ed.) Vygotsky and Education: Instructional implications and applications  of sociohistorical psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. (2002). Teaching and Researching Reading. Harlow: Pearson.

Krashen, S. (1999). Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They are Wrong. Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. Thriplow: Icon Books.

V is for Vocabulary size

3 10 2010

Paul Meara, of Swansea University, in Barcelona

How many words do you know? How many words do your students know? How do you count them? Is it important?

These and similar questions came up during a fascinating series of lectures given this week by Paul Meara (“the world’s leading researcher in modelling vocabulary knowledge” according to Paul Nation), at the Pompeu Fabra University here in Barcelona.

Paul Nation at the MASH Equinox Event in Tokyo, last month (Photo: David Chapman)

Traditionally, estimates of vocabulary size have been based on the number of words that subjects could define on a list taken at random from a dictionary: if the list represented 10% of the total words in the dictionary, the number of known words would then be multiplied by ten to give the total. But the method is fraught with problems, not least ‘the big dictionary’ effect: “The bigger the dictionary used, the more words people are found to know” (Aitchison 1987, p.6).

More sophisticated, and more sensitive, tests have since been designed, including Paul Nation’s widely used and very reliable Vocabulary Levels Test (described in Nation 1990), which targets five levels of word frequency (including a university word list) and involves matching words with simple definitions.

Meara himself has devised a number of vocabulary size tests, including the EVST (originally commissioned as a placement test by Eurocentres). Elegantly simple and very easy to administer, this checklist-type test requires takers simply to say which words they recognise in a sequence of frequency-based lists. But, as a way of controlling for wild guessing – or shameless lying! – the lists also include ‘pseudo words’, such as obsolation and mudge.

All the above tests are tests of receptive vocabulary knowledge. Testing a user’s productive vocabulary is more problematic. One approach is the aptly-named ‘spew test’, where test-takers are asked to produce as many words they can that share a common feature, e.g. that start with the letter B. Taking a somewhat different tack, Meara reported on some intriguing research he has done, matching frequency profiles of learner texts with statistical models of different vocabulary sizes. A student writes a text and a profile is generated in terms of the relative frequency of its words; the program then searches for a best match (a bit like the way that fingerprints are matched up), which in turn yields a fairly exact estimate of the learner’s vocabulary size. Magic! (You can check the program out for yourself at Paul’s _lognostics website. It’s called V-size).

But what does vocabulary size mean? And does size matter? Certainly, it seems that having a big vocabulary is a prerequisite for reading (and presumably listening) ability. As Bhatia Laufer (1997) puts it, “By far the greatest lexical obstacle to good reading is insufficient number of words in the learner’s lexicon. [In research studies] lexis was found to be the best predictor of success in reading, better than syntax or general reading ability” (p. 31).

Paul Meara in action

More than that, vocabulary size may be a reliable predictor, not just of reading success, but of overall linguistic competence. Certainly, in first language acquisition, the processes of vocabulary development and grammar development are closely intertwined, with the former possibly driving the latter. Tomasello (2003), for example, cites research that shows that “only after children have vocabularies of several hundred words [do] they begin to produce in earnest grammatical speech”, which suggests to Tomasello “that learning words and learning grammatical constructions are both part of the same overall process” (p. 93).

If this is the case in first language acquisition, does it not also suggest that – for second language learning – the learner needs to assemble as big a lexicon as possible, and as soon as possible – even if this means putting other areas of language learning ‘on hold’?

Aitchison, J. 1987. Words in the Mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. Oxfrod: Blackwell.
Laufer, B. 1997. ‘The lexical plight in second language reading” in Coady, J. and Huckin, T. (eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Rationale for Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, I.S.P. 1990. Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.
Tomasello, M. 2003. Constructing a Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

L is for Literacy

9 12 2009

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the treatment of literacy in An A-Z. This is how the entry goes:

“Literacy is the ability to read and write in a language, usually one’s own. However, increasingly learners of a second language, especially those living in an… ESL context… require native-like literacy skills in order to function effectively in the target culture. … Simply ‘doing reading and writing’ in class is unlikely to meet the special needs of such learners.” 

Ok, so literacy is more than reading and writing – it is socially-situated and functional. And it’s true, a lot of traditional reading and writing work was neither socially-situated nor functional, but was instead almost exclusively form-focused: Read this text and underline all the conditionals… Write about an industrial process using at least six examples of the passive….etc

But surely, when teachers ‘do reading and writing’ nowadays, and within the framework of a communicative approach, this is very definitely socially-situated and functional: Read this article and infer the writer’s attitude…. Write a letter to your local counsellor complaining about the lack of sports facilities …etc.   In other words, where does ‘reading and writing’ finish and ‘literacy’ start?  Is it the fact that it’s ESL-oriented, and addresses “special needs”,  that makes it literacy?  In which case how does literacy training differ from ESP? Or is literacy the converse of illiteracy, and does literacy training therefore imply that learners are not yet literate in any language?

Given these confusions, it seems to me that literacy is a bit of buzz term that has migrated into ESL (and even EFL) from mainstream education. (And even in mainstream education, I get the sense that literacy is a moving target).

In short, how can I improve my definition?