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The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers Texts have always played an integral part in classroom learning, for skills development and as contexts for language study. It has long been acknowledged that choosing texts that are interesting and motivating is key, but we also need to ensure rich and meaningful content. Katie Wood, teacher trainer and materials writer, suggests using four key questions to assess whether a text meets these criteria and discusses why it should.

Question 1: Does the text contain information that can be of use in the real world outside the classroom?

In today’s fast-moving and increasingly digital world students are less likely than ever before to read or listen to something solely because it’s good for them, or because it contains examples of a particular structure. They are likely to want to know which specific skills they’re working on, but also what information they can take from the text and make use of in their life outside the classroom. A good text needs to be engaging, but it also needs to contain information that remains relevant and useful to the student once the lesson is over. Texts need to provide take-away value both in terms of linguistic development and real-world knowledge.

Question 2: Does the content help students relate their experiences, situation and country to the world as a whole?

More than ever before, both students and teachers have access to information from a variety of truly international sources on a grand scale. Facebook, Twitter and the internet in general mean that students are communicating internationally both in terms of their career and social life. As a result the communications themselves have become more related to matters which cross boundaries and borders.

Question 3: Is the text generative and can productive tasks be tailored to students’ needs?

The challenge is to provide both students and teachers with texts that have universal appeal, that are relevant, yet are in some way not already worn out by digital media. Choosing texts which are content rich increases the likelihood that they will generate different responses and points of interests from different individuals, and this includes the teachers. Maintaining the enthusiasm of a teacher dealing with the material for perhaps the fifth or sixth time should not be underestimated. In addition, a large number of students learn English in a General English class, but increasingly they have a more defined purpose in learning than they did in the past. In one group for example, a teacher might find students who want to pass an exam, want to improve their English in a business environment, or want to focus more on social English. A genuinely generative text provides the opportunity to lead into productive work in more than just one of these areas.

Question 4: Is the content of the text authentic and does it lend itself to further research and exploration?

As previously mentioned, students want to feel that what they spend their time reading and listening to in the classroom, has real world application. A text that satisfies this criteria should ideally create a desire in readers or listeners to discover more. Consequently, texts need to be authentic and googleable, and this should be true for all levels. So, while a text chosen for elementary learners will need to be adapted in terms of language, we need the content to be real. A student can then go away and find out more for themselves.


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Teaching Conversation

Two friends having a conversationDr. Jack C Richards is an applied linguist, writer, and teacher trainer. He is the co-author of Speak Now, a four-level speaking course that helps students to communicate with confidence. In this article, he looks at teaching conversational English.

Conversations are longer exchanges that may follow on from small talk and are the more meaningful type of interaction that results from small talk. They are a more serious type of exchange in which what is said and how it is expressed are both important. One of the most important aspects of conversation is managing discourse around topics. Whereas topics are only lightly touched on in small talk, conversation involves a joint interaction around topics and the introduction of new topics that are linked through each speaker’s contributions.

The skills involved include:

  • Initiating a topic in casual and formal conversation
  • Selecting vocabulary appropriate to the topic
  • Giving appropriate feedback responses
  • Providing relevant evaluative comments through back-channeling
  • Taking turns at appropriate points in the conversation
  • Asking for clarification and repetition
  • Using discourse strategies for repairing misunderstanding
  • Using discourse strategies to open and close conversations
  • Using appropriate intonation and stress patterns to express meaning intelligibly

Second language learners need a wide range of topics at their disposal in order to manage conversation as interaction, and developing topic fluency is a priority in my speaking classes. Initially, learners may depend on familiar topics to get by. However, they also need practice in introducing new topics into conversation to move beyond this stage.

Casual conversation between friends or people who know each other well has these characteristics:

  • Topics switch freely
  • Topics are often provoked by what speakers are doing, by objects in their presence or by some association with what has just been said
  • There does not appear to be a clearly defined purpose for the conversation
  • All speakers can introduce topics and no one speaker appears to dominate the conversation
  • Speakers comment on each other’s statements
  • Topics are only elaborated on briefly, after follow-up questions or comments from listeners
  • Comments in response to a topic often include some evaluation
  • Responses can be very short
  • Ellipsis is common
  • The speaker’s co-operation is often shown through speaker support and repetition of each other’s vocabulary
  • Vocabulary typical of informal conversation will be present, such as clichés, vague language and taboo language

Developing topics in conversation is a subtle process that requires skills in topic management.

Personal recounts are very common in conversation and serve to re-tell an event that the speaker was personally involved in. They often involve one person sharing a recent experience followed by the second speaker’s sharing of a similar experience as in this example:

A: Someone nearly ran into the back of my car on the freeway yesterday.
B: No way!
A: Yeah I was going down highway 201 when ….
B: That almost happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was ….

Students need practice in sharing personal experience and exchanging recounts, as in the example above.

Agenda management and turn-taking are also important features of small talk and conversation. The former refers to the participants’ right to choose the topic and the way the topics are developed, and to choose how long the conversation should continue. This includes strategies for opening, developing and closing conversation and for introducing and changing topics. This process is often jointly managed by the participants, depending on the social relationship between them (e.g. teacher-student; friend-friend; employer-employee).

Turn-taking involves providing opportunities for another person to take a turn in speaking and recognizing when another speaker is seeking to take a turn.

Teaching conversation

Ways of teaching conversation include:

  • Awareness raising activities: students examine examples of conversation, either recorded (audio or video) or transcribed examples, and look for examples of how such things as openings, topic introduction, back channeling, etc. are realized, and for indicators of casual or formal speech.
  • Dialog completion: students are given transcripts of conversations with selected features removed (such as opening, closings, clarification requests) and asked to try to complete them. They then listen to or read the completed dialogs, compare, and then practice.
  • Planning tasks: students are given topics to include in a conversation and asked to write dialogs that include them and that also include personal recounts. They then compare and practice.
  • Improvisations: students are given skeleton dialogs or dialog frames (e.g. containing a sequence of topics or functions they should use in a conversation) and use them to improvise conversations.

Both small talk and conversation have features in common:

  • They require being a good listener: this can be indicated through the use of back channel signals
  • They involve asking questions: conversation develops through the participants asking question and following through on the answers they get with further questions
  • They involve sharing of information: participants are expected to share information they have that is relevant to the topic being discussed

Don’t forget to read Jack’s previous post on Teaching ‘Small Talk’.