40 Things to Do with a Text

This article was written by Dominic Braham and Anthony Gaughan and originally appeared in English Teaching Matters, the English Language Teachers’ Associations journal.

Before we get started…

Wait a moment.

Before you go ahead and read this article, grab a pen, a piece of paper and a clock or watch.

Give yourself 5 minutes and write down all the possible things you could get students to do with a business English-suited text. Don’t edit your thoughts according to what you usually do or what you think would “work”: just let the ideas flow…

OK, pens down, time’s up. How many ideas do you have on your list?

Most of the following list of ideas for text exploitation was brainstormed in not much more than five minutes while we were planning sessions to form part of our Certificate in Teaching English for Business (CertTEB) course in Berlin. Seven of the ideas were contributed by CertTEB course participants and we would like to acknowledge and thank Louise Mc Cloy, Mark Giddings, Paul Milkaitis and Jessica Abraham for their ideas.

The ideas are presented in the order they came to us, so there is a kind of logic to the list but it certainly isn’t in order of effectiveness. We would simply like to present them here with a little commentary on each.

None of the ideas is anything new; the fun is in seeing them all together and realising how much more we can (and sometimes actually) do with texts in the classroom. Neither is the list exhaustive, we are sure that you will have come up with ideas that we do not mention here. If you do, we would love to hear about them so please drop us a line at the email address at the end of this article.

Enough background, here’s the list.

Forty Things to do with a text

1. Look at it quickly and decide if they want to read it in detail

Our learners are mature adults who know better than we do what interests them. Also, skim reading for general (or “gist”) understanding is not only something to do before moving onto detailed comprehension questions; businessmen the world over glance through newspapers and stacks of briefing documents employing exactly this sub-skill and it is therefore worth practising in its own right.

2. Summarise it

Some educationalists hold that you have only grasped a subject when you can articulate it succinctly in your own words, so what better test of comprehension than summary? In addition for language learners, the effort of paraphrasing someone else’s text encourages them to draw on their lexical, grammatical and discourse knowledge in a meaning-focused way.

3. Identify the tone and bias of the text

Texts have character: being able to recognise that character is one mark of a good reader. Learners could be encouraged to find lines in the text which reveal where the author’s sympathies lie, for example.

4.  Separate fact from opinion

This is particularly important for those who want to operate successfully in business in a second language – and it can be challenging enough in one’s first language! Highlighting fact and assertion in different coloured highlighter and then discussing whether the opinions are supportable through facts from the students can be interesting work.

5. Answer comprehension questions about it

This is the classic treatment of texts in the classroom, whether the questions are open-ended “why? when? where?” types or “true/false”. It is just important to make sure that the students need to do more than simply “lift” lines from the text without really understanding them.

6. Create comprehension questions about it

Example of questions learners may create about a text
Examples of learner-generated questions

But why do something that your students can do for you? If the students have read the text they can test their classmates by drafting questions of their own. Often these questions reveal much about their own depth of understanding and the areas of interest they found in the text.

7. Create discussion questions

If the text allows, students can design their own post-reading speaking activity by drafting questions that they would like to discuss with their classmates. No excuses for the conversation not taking off there!

8. Answer discussion questions based on the topic

Whoever designs them, questions aimed at getting students to speak on a topic referred to in a text are highly useful for generating talk. If the text contains information on which the student can draw to inform their discussion, then it acts as a useful scaffold both by providing ideas and language.

9. Create questions to the writer

How often have you wanted to do this after reading something? Texts rarely answer all our questions and many questions are worth asking even if they can’t be answered in a language classroom. Many articles now have the author’s contact details attached so there is no reason not to send the questions off and see if you get a reply!

10. Create questions to people mentioned in the article

See point above. This also relates to the point earlier on identifying bias.

11. Expand it – tell the teacher/group what they know about topic beyond what is in text

Students are often highly informed about current affairs and areas relating to their business and this knowledge can be exploited in the classroom. After reading, these “experts” can be given the floor to fill us in on anything they think the author missed out.

12. Discuss it – predicting what is going to happen

Many texts are cliffhangers – they describe events in a state of flux like stock exchange fluctuations, company mergers, impending elections and so on. What better excuse for some practice of modal verbs and future forms?

13. Discuss it – coming up with solutions to problems

Other texts present problems that require solutions: who better to solve the world’s ills than your shrewd bunch of language learners? Much modal and conditional practice ensured!

14. Discuss it – describing causes

Then there are those texts which leave us wondering “how did that happen?” can you already hear your group straining at the leash to get their teeth into some past modality?

15. Discuss it – evaluating writer’s viewpoint

Identifying the author’s point of view is one thing; scrutinising it and deciding what merits it has is quite another and can lead to healthy debate.

16. Discuss it – evaluating effect on their job / company / industry / region / country

If a text deals with a locally relevant issue, what could make more sense – or be more engaging – than to talk about how your students feel they may be affected?

17. Role play  – a meeting / a press conference / an event described in the story

Events mentioned in passing in a text can be extracted, expanded and brought to life through role-play. “The president’s spokesman was under pressure…”, was he? Well, have the students become hard-nosed journalists and let the person from the PR department practise batting off questions.

18. Research the topic – find another article on the same topic

If the text proved interesting for the group, why not let them find other related articles to read either outside or during class? This can lead onto the next idea…

19. Compare and contrast it with another text on the same topic

Comparing two sources and noting where they differ is useful in general for business learners and it also provides opportunity for contrasting phrasing and lexical choices.

20. Compare and contrast it with a report on the same topic in a different medium

Here, you simply take a radio report, podcast, weblog entry, TV report etc to contrast with the original newspaper article. This can lead on to some interesting discussion of stylistic features of different genres (particularly interesting for learners working in advertising and media).

21. Compare and contrast it with a report on the same topic from their country

Translation into and out of the learner’s first language isn’t something to be indiscriminately discouraged; employed purposefully, translation can reveal a lot about how the how languages relate as well as interesting cross-cultural detail. Noticing what is different in the actual content is good comprehension work into the bargain.

22. Prepare a presentation based on it

Students can read an article for homework and prepare a short presentation outlining the key content and (for example) how this should inform company strategy, what threats this may pose their company and its markets etc.

23. Create a title / sub-headings

Simply remove the headings and title before giving a text to your students and you have a very effective gist reading task – what title would you give this article? What is each section basically about?

24. Predict the content from the headline and then read to confirm

Headlines are often highly condensed versions of the article they are attached to. This can also be done with key words extracted from the text. We can predict what text will be about because words are “primed” in our memories to associate with particular ideas and (interestingly) grammar patterns (as Michael Hoey argues in his book “Lexical Priming”).

25. Put the paragraphs in order

Use with caution: a text needs to be highly cohesive (either through clear chronological detail or clear referencing back and forth in the text through use of pronouns) for such jigsaw activities to be effective. On the other hand, articles originally published in a table format can often easily be given the scissors treatment.

26. Write a letter to the editor

We should all be encouraged to enjoy the freedom of the press while we can and so why not let our students write in response to whatever they have read? There is also no reason why their responses could not actually be published, especially as all news sites have “what do you think?” or “have your say” email facilities.

27. Write a report on the implications of the content

Given the right kind of text, students could be encouraged to explore what effects the ideas contained may have on their industry.

28. Convert the information into a table or diagram

Many articles contain data, figures, statistics or other information which can be reformatted by the students. These visual representations of their understanding of the text can then prompt mini presentations for oral practice.

29. Reconstruct it – read it and then be given a gapped version of it

Learners can be challenged to recall key lexical phrases from their short-term memory by asking them to complete a gap-fill version of the text shortly after reading and discussing the content.

30. Reconstruct it –read it and then be given a de-grammaticalised version of it

In / same way / dictogloss (or grammar dictation) / encourage learners / employ structures / normally avoid / writing and speech, ask / students / add /grammar / de-grammaticalised text / encourage / structural complexity.

31. Gap it and give it to a colleague / themselves in a different lesson

Returning to the principle “why do for the students what they can do for you”, get the learners to tipp-ex their own texts an swap them with colleagues for an impromptu lexical practice activity.

32. Extract useful lexical phrases

One of the key principles of the lexical approach is noticing useful lexical phrases and one simple way of doing this is asking learners to extract 5-10 lexical items which they consider key to the message in the text. The student may stand a better chance of learning these words simply because they feel they are important.

33. Chunk it

This can have a positive impact on learners’ public speaking skills.

Ideally,

Using a word processing programme,

have the students

insert a line break

everywhere they would pause

when speaking the text.

Then use bold font

to show which words

carry the main stress.

34. Read it aloud

After the students have done the above, the next step is to practise reading the text aloud in an engaging way, paying attention to chunking and stress. Recording the students on tape or video can have a major impact on their delivery and on the amount of feedback the teacher can provide.

(For more ideas about recording students, see the article “Just for the Record” appearing at a blog near you soon ;-) )

35. Translate it / parts of it – translate it back

See point 21 above. Here the students actively translate sections of text and thereby learn how certain linguistic effect are achieved in the target language compared with their own.

36. Rewrite in a different style/text type

Recasting text in a different text type can be fun and very revealing of genre characteristics. Take a newspaper report and recast it as a television broadcast, or as a public statement at a press conference or as a discussion in the coffee area at a trade fair – each variation calls for different language use and therefore stretches your students.

37. Treat it as a dictogloss

This works best with short, “news in brief” – style articles. Read the text twice, normal speed, pausing between sentences while the students just listen. Then ask students to make notes about what they heard. Then, in pairs or groups, the students collaborate to produce their own version of what they heard. It need not be a carbon-copy; what is interesting is in uncovering the many ways that the same message can be sent.

38. Create a jigsaw activity

Either take two texts dealing with the same topic/event or divide a longer text between students. Each student has questions about the text (the questions may be the same or different). After reading for comprehension and checking with colleagues who read the same text, students summarise what they have learnt for a student who read the other text.

39. Paper-strip gap activity (credit: thanks to Tim Hazell for this idea)

Paper strip activity
Strip-tease?

Give each student a strip of paper (width between 3-20mm) and ask them to lay it on their neighbour’s text, running basically top to bottom. This will block some part or all of some words in each line of the text. The neighbour now has to work out what is lying under the paper – time for another activity? Then move the slip of paper and – hey presto! – another gap-fill! The wider the slip is, the harder the activity will be.

40. Rewrite it with a more positive/negative bias

We don’t always share the viewpoint of the texts we read and why should we have to suffer this in silence? If a group thinks that the writer has got it wrong, have them re-write it in a manner which suits their view. Publish and be damned!

20 comments

  1. Pingback: One from the Vaults – “40 Things…” « Teacher Training Unplugged
    • Anthony Gaughan

      A ‘prentice piece, but still quite happy with it after all these years ;-)

      Glad you like it – I’ll be dusting off some other oldies whenever I find them on my old hard drives…

  2. Phil

    Wow. There’s enough there for a year worth of classes.

    It’s always a pleasure to read your ideas, new or old.

    Phil.

  3. phil

    Hi Anthony,

    I’ve been pondering ways of using blank paper in a Dogme lesson and came across this post:

    http://ddeubel.edublogs.org/2011/05/25/teaching-with-a-blank-piece-of-paper/

    Do you have any old articles on this too?

    Also, I’m trying to put together an article on BAD EFL TEACHER HABITS. After watching your video about teachers being afraid of being recorded from a possible fear of not really knowing what they are doing, I got to thinking about what kind of bad habits we admit to having and if or how we address them. I will openly admit that I talk too much and sometimes assert my power in discussions (arrest me please). It would be nice to hear what other people will admit to and what they try to do about it. I know one teacher who sets tests and goes to his office but doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

    Do you think this would be good to post to the TDSIG?

    Back to the pondering…

    Thanks.

    Phil

    • Anthony Gaughan

      Thanks for commenting, Phil, and thanks for the link (also apologies for the delayed reply but I have been “off the grid” for a couple of weeks.

      Bad habits is a topic well worth exploring over on the TDSIG discussion forum, I think (for those who don’t know, you can find the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group at http://www.tdsig.org/discuss ). Lots of interesting aspects to this: are teacher habits a priori bad (i.e. Unreflected behaviour)? Are some habits always bad or is there always a time and a place for everything? How do our perceptions of these things change over time or when roles are reversed (e.g when teachers become learners again)?

      Looking forward to it (in case it hasn’t started already)!

  4. Pingback: 40 ideas for how to use a text in class | Teacher Training Blog
  5. Betty C.

    I just ran into this post through some Twitter-blog chain of events and practically speaking, it’s one of the best blog posts I’ve ever clipped and saved. Teaching exam-prep courses to college students in France, I use a lot of texts and while I’ve figured out how to find the ones that will interest the students and raise discussion, I must admit I don’t have a lot of original ideas in my arsenal. Thanks!

    • phil

      Hi Betty.

      I was very shocked to hear SamMcCarter in a talk on IELTS that he only takes in texts for 2 hour classes. Even though he writes all these books he exploits the texts. Anthony’s ideas definitely fit with this idea.

      I know the pain of teaching TOEIC in France again and again and again. People don’t understand that an int student won’t get 750 and shouldn’t even bother taking the test. IELTS is a lot more interesting but I could spend all day on my soap box on that one.

      I’m one of the unusual teachers who loves exam classes but I found trying to shift French students mentality away from just doing test, test test to learning about strategies, tips, language and skills tough. They’d been so hardwired that all they wanted was tests and many even repeated the same ones. Ahhhhh.

      How about you?

  6. Pingback: Recap of Resources and Interesting Blog Posts – 25 June 2013 | Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching!
  7. susan klee

    You know . . . I took me the first few suggestions to realize (se) that you were talking about my kind of /text/ and not the students’ kind of text . . . Perhaps make this clear right at the start??

  8. Pingback: Activities for Teaching Writing Skills |

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