Here are some fantastic ways to simplify texts.
It is difficult for a native speaker to appreciate just how much the length of a text can make it difficult to understand due to factors like not being able to find the right information to answer a question and the brain getting tired halfway through. “In the case of news stories…one can generally edit from the bottom up, cutting paragraphs until the required length is reached…[with] other texts…one approach is to read the text a couple of times, put it aside and then write a summary of the length the students can manage” (How to Teach for Exams, Longman, pg 36)
Interesting ways of pre-teaching vocabulary they might need to understand in order to cope with the text include guessing the story from the pre-teach vocab and reading to check, or brainstorming a category of vocab that includes the pre-teach words and expressions. As well as vocabulary, you might need to pre-teach grammar, cultural information, or information about the kind of genre the piece of writing is.
If you can write a brief introduction to the text, you can get students to read this first with one or two easy tasks as a kind of pre-teach whilst also warming up their reading skills. You can also combine this with a real vocab pre-teach stage by including all the words you want to pre-teach in the introduction, perhaps highlighting them so students notice that they are important. An introduction could include a summary of the whole story with the most interesting bits left out, the background to a news story, explanation of why the text is important and/ or interesting, or instructions on how they should read the following text and what they should look for.
4. Questions that give clues
A way of achieving the same thing as an introduction without adding an extra paragraph of text is to write the questions they read before the text so that they give clues to what they will be reading. This can be combined with the pre-teach stage by including the difficult vocabulary etc in the questions and answering queries about vocab before students start reading.
Whilst having a glossary slows down reading speed and is not popular in present EFL textbooks, some language exams and self-study materials still include texts with a glossary at the bottom of the page. It is also fairly common in graded readers. An advantage of a glossary is that it is much quicker and easier for the teacher to write than actually changing the text.
Another thing you can easily add to a text which aids comprehension is paragraph headings, for example to make a newspaper article look more like a magazine article. This gives students clues as to what information is coming next and makes it easier to find information when answering detailed comprehension questions. If an authentic text already has paragraph headings, these are often written is a stylish or witty way and can be easily and usefully simplified.
Talking about the topic that they will read about can help prime students to guess which of several meanings a word they get stuck on in the text has. Being able to predict what they are going to be reading next and just read to check also increases reading speed. Easy ways of starting a discussion that will help their comprehension include predicting the story from the headline or key words, or predicting the answers of true/ false questions before reading to check.
Adding pictures to a text that doesn’t have them helps lighten the load of looking at a page of text and so make it less daunting, and can be used for vocabulary pre-teach and conversation before reading to set the scene. Students can also put the pictures into order or match them to words, sentences or paragraphs in the text much more easily than similar tasks written down.
The easiest way of knowing what vocabulary to replace when rewriting a text to make it easier to understand is to look in a learners’ dictionary of the same level as your students. If a word in the text is not in the Elementary/ Intermediate/ Advanced Learners’ dictionary and is important for overall understanding and/ or to answer the comprehension questions you should replace it with an easier word. Words that are not so vital for understanding can stay to give students practice in ignoring them. If your main purpose is improving reading survival skills like this you can make up for difficult vocabulary with easy tasks, but 90-98% of the vocabulary should be at the right level if you want students to pick up language from the text.
Although the grammar in the text can be set at the level of structures students can understand rather than the easier ones they can produce, and can also include more difficult structures if they aren’t important for the tasks, most authentic texts will include some grammatical forms that are worth simplifying so students can concentrate on something else.
One of the easiest ways of rewriting a text and making a major change to its ease of understanding is to write it as a completely different genre of text. Easy forms for students to understand include notes, postcards and emails. For example, a magazine article about a holiday could be rewritten as a letter from someone taking that holiday.
Students can often be put off by unfamiliar place names, people’s names, names of foods etc. that are not important for the comprehension of the text. Although these things can provide useful practice is spotting words that can be ignored or in widening their international outlook, in texts that are challenging in other ways and in which you want them to concentrate on one thing you could try changing these things to something more familiar such as the name of a local city.
Another major difficulty that native speakers rarely spot is the problem of keeping track of what “it”, “that man”, “one of those” etc refer to. This is often a skill students have in their own language that they lose when overloaded by other things when reading English, but this can particularly be a problem with reference words that do not easily translate such as “one” in “give me one” or when the students speak a language that uses these kinds of expression less often. You can replace all these kinds of words with simple pronouns like “he” or the names, but be careful not to go too far and make it an unrealistic text in English.
Another thing that real English texts do not have a lot of is expressions such as “on the other hand”, as a skilled writer will write the text so the organisation of ideas will make the logical connections between sentences obvious. Adding these to the text can not only help the students understand how the text is organised and so predict what information is coming next, but can also teach them the kinds of expressions they will need to include in their IELTS Writing etc until they reach the same level of writing skill.
Another difficulty that can throw students who can cope with it in L1 is dealing with mentally challenging concepts in texts at the same time as mentally challenging English language. Although you don’t want to explain what they will read so much that they learn nothing when they read it, you can give some help with a kind of “ideas pre-teach” or true/ false questions based on the ideas before they read.
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