Should Non-academic L2 Reading Instruction Involve Authentic or Simplified Material?

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by Li-Shih Huang

[Article reprinted from the Winter 2014 BC TEAL Newsletter]

What are your thoughts about whether to use authentic or simplified texts as the sources of language input in the process of teaching beginning and intermediate-level second-language learners? If you find yourself on both sides of the fence, then you are not alone. The pedagogical benefits of using authentic vs. simplified readings have long been an issue of debate and concern among second-language learning theorists, researchers, and practitioners. I recently had an opportunity to review a set of teaching grant applications, and the topics seemed to confirm a prevailing assumption that using authentic materials is unquestionably a better practice in second-language reading instruction, and that experience prompted me to write this piece. Is this assumption supported theoretically and empirically? What kind of text do you prefer to use in your classroom and why? Which kind do your students enjoy more? And in line with the theme of this issue, learning beyond the classroom, which type of reading can help us promote reading beyond the classroom?

In this installment, I will briefly clarify what is meant by “authentic” vs. “simplified” texts and describe some of the theoretical support for and arguments against each type in the “What does it mean?” section. In the “What does research say?” section, I’d like to invite you to explore your beliefs or assumptions and compare them with findings from a recent study about various key linguistic features of authentic vs. simplified texts. The “What can we do?” section deals with considerations that instructors can take into account.

What does it mean?

Authentic texts have been generally defined as texts “originally created to fulfill a social purpose in the language community for which [they] were intended” (Crossley et al., 2007, p. 17), whereas simplified texts generally refer to texts created “to illustrate a specific language feature … to modify the amount of new lexical input introduced to learners; or to control for propositional input, or a combination thereof” (p. 16). Since the 1970s, the term “communicative language teaching” has referred to “a multitude of different things to different people” (Harmer, 2003, p. 289), and its meaning “seems to depend on whom you ask” (Spada, 2007, p. 272). Still, one may say in general terms that communicative language teaching prominently features the use of authentic materials with the pedagogical goal that learners will be exposed to real language used in real contexts (Larsen-Freeman, 2002). The influence and strong trend toward communicative language teaching over the past four decades has led teaching professionals to prefer the use of authentic texts, despite the lack of empirical evidence to support their superiority over simplified texts. Other theories or approaches that have been cited in favour of the use of authentic materials include, for example, Krashen’s input hypothesis, which suggests that “natural communicative input is the key to designing a syllabus” (n.d., para 11). The whole language instructional approach also focuses on using authentic materials in the process of facilitating language development (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 113) and on the need for language learners to be introduced to enriched context and to experience language in its totality (Goodman, 1986). The major perceived benefit of using authentic texts lies in the way it makes it possible to introduce natural and contextualized language to learners (Larsen-Freeman, 2002). At the same time, many arguments against the use of authentic texts centre on their linguistic difficulty, such as lexical and syntactic complexity and conceptual and cultural density (Young, 1999; Crossley & McNamara, 2008).

The proponents’ preference for the use of simplified texts centres on their practical value, with major theoretical support from, for example, Krashen’s comprehensible input and affective filter hypotheses. The former states that “the learner improves and progresses along the ‘natural order’ when he/she receives second language ‘input’ that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence, which simplified texts arguably are able to provide” for beginning and intermediate learners (n.d., para. 11). The latter theory asserts that a high level of motivation and low level of anxiety facilitate better second-language acquisition (n.d., para. 12). As such, appropriately selected simplified texts presumably could motivate learners more than authentic texts, which might be overly challenging for learners with lower proficiency levels. In addition to making texts more comprehensible, simplified texts are thought to facilitate learning by excluding distracting idiosyncratic styles and offering enhanced redundancy and elaborated explanation (refer to Crossley & McNamara, 2008).

In response to practitioners’ prejudice against simplified texts, Nation (2005) argued that those materials “should be seen as authentic in that they provide conditions under which learners at all levels of proficiency can read with a degree of comprehension, ease, and enjoyment that is near that of a native speaker reading unsimplified text” (pp. 587-588). For Nation (2007, p. 1), any language instruction or activities in a language course must maintain a balance among what he called “the four strands of meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning [accuracy] and fluency development” (see also Nation, 2005). Proponents of simplified texts value how such texts attend to learners’ cognitive load in reading, provide aids to learning, and hold the key to illustrating specific language features, modifying the amount of new or unfamiliar lexical input, and repeating coverage of the most useful language items. In addition, as we know well, decoding and comprehension are crucial to reading. The use of simplified or graded readers helps learners engage in extensive reading, which involves focusing on meaning and fluency, and to promote reading beyond the classroom for pleasure and for the development of reading fluency. For Nation (2013), reading fluency develops when it is meaning-focused and easy, when learners are encouraged to perform at a faster speed, and when the quantity of input is substantial. The texts have also been heavily criticized, however, out of an important concern that they may deny learners the opportunity to learn natural forms of language (Long & Ross, 1993; Newnham, 2013).

What does research say?

Before discussing what previous research has revealed, let’s take a moment to explore our beliefs or assumptions in relation to the following key features of authentic vs. simplified texts. In the “My Prediction” column, indicate which you think would score higher – authentic or simplified texts – by marking “A” if your prediction that specific linguistic feature is higher for authentic texts, or “S” if your prediction is higher for simplified texts. Try not to read ahead before noting your predictions.

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Now let’s check your predictions in relation to findings from a recent study (Crossley & McNamara, 2008), which replicated an earlier study (Crossley et al., 2007), but with a larger collection of texts at different proficiency levels:

  • Causality: This feature tends to be higher in authentic texts (statistically nonsignificant).
  • Connectives: There is no difference in all connectives except for the use of logical connectors, where authentic texts had a significantly greater density of all logical connectors, but there was a significantly greater density of noun phrases in simplified texts.
  • Coreference: Simplified texts showed a higher level of coreferentiality than that of authentic texts.
  • Parts of speech: Authentic texts exhibited a significantly greater number of infrequent linguistic features (e.g., past participles and wh-pronouns); simplified texts had more occurrences of nouns and past-tense verbs.
  • Polysemy and hypernymy: Verb hypernymy and polysemy values were significantly greater in simplified texts.
  • Syntactic complexity: Authentic texts were significantly more syntactically complex than simplified texts.
  • Word information: Simplified texts had a significantly higher level of word familiarity and meaningfulness than authentic texts.

What can we do?

How did your predictions compare to findings discovered by Crossley and McNamara (2008)? What are some implications that may be relevant to our teaching or pedagogical material development?

The causality feature relates to a text’s readability. Causal verbs (e.g., make) and causal particles (e.g., as a result) concern the causal relationships between events and actions (e.g., texts with causal mechanisms or stories with an action plot). In the process of simplifying a plot, for example, a practitioner needs to be mindful of the causal verbs and particles that may be circumvented, as such circumvention may lower the text’s ability to illustrate causal content and cohesion.

Connectives, which play a crucial role in the creation of cohesive ties between ideas, affect the density and abstractness of a text. The use of connectives and logical operators is a concern in simplified texts, because the lack of such devices place demands on a learner’s working memory.

Coreferences facilitate text comprehension and reading speed. Because the simplification of texts often takes the need for clarification and elaboration into account, the level of coreferentiality tends to be higher in simplified texts than in authentic texts.

The evidence so far seems to suggest that the density of major parts of speech is also likely to be different in authentic vs. simplified texts, given the intentional control of infrequent parts of speech in simplified texts. The limited exposure to less common parts of speech in simplified texts is a matter that instructors might like to keep in mind when making their text choices as learners progress.

Polysemy and hypernymy have to do with a text’s ambiguity and abstractness. The process of simplification by shortening words and phrases, removing low-frequency words, and using less abstract vocabulary often leads to the use of more common words that tend to have multiple meanings. As a result, simplified texts may exhibit higher values of polysemy and more lexical ambiguity.

As previously mentioned, a major criticism of authentic texts relates to syntactic complexity. However, previous studies have also suggested that simplified texts “may create a burdensome syntactic structure that does not lead to either authentic discourses or ease of understanding” (Crossley et al., 2007, p. 26). Text modifications, such as through simplification of syntactic structures, may change the distribution of information or the linguistic cues embedded within a text (Newnham, 2013). Such changes warrant researchers’ and practitioners’ further consideration about how syntactic complexity in simplified texts may affect learners’ reading comprehension.

Finally, regarding word information features, simplified texts, as anticipated, tend to contain more familiar and more frequently used words. This feature suggests the strength of simplified texts in aiding text comprehension and the development of reading speed.

It’s helpful to be aware of what up-to-date research can potentially offer us in terms of thinking, guidance, or insights in the process of making informed pedagogical choices, but, as I stated in 2012 Spring of BC TEAL News, “no studies or research articles in the sea of literature out there can … directly answer your own pedagogical question” (p. 16).

I’d like to invite you to consider trying out the freely accessible and user-friendly Coh-Metric tool to do your own simple text analyses or make comparisons between authentic vs. simplified versions using simplified texts you have selected or created on the basis of your experiences and professional intuitions.

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You could also make use of such tools as The Online Graded Text Editor, which are freely available and created specifically for the English language-teaching community.

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Goals include developing a better understanding of some of the linguistic features mentioned in this short article, making informed choices about the purpose of your use of a specific text, and ascertaining whether the chosen material will match your pedagogical purpose for a specific learner group. Naturally, our students’ reactions to a selected text and our observations of their process of working through the text can be very revealing and helpful as we consider and reconsider our choices. Above all, nothing is more gratifying than seeing the text you personally carefully modified or selected from available sources achieve its intended pedagogical purposes!

References

Crossley, S. A., Louwerse, M. M., McCarthy, P. M., & McNamara, D. S. (2007). A linguistic analysis of simplified and authentic texts. Modern Language Journal, 91(2), 15-30.

Crossley, S. A., & McNamara, D. S. (2008). Assessing L2 reading texts at the intermediate level: An approximate replication of Crossley, Louwerse, McCarthy & McNamara (2007). Language Teaching, 41(3), 409-429.

Goodman, K. (1986). What’s whole in whole language. Portsmouth, MH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Harmer, J. (2003). Popular culture, methods and context. ELT Journal, 57(3), 288-294.

Huang, L.-S. (2012). Key concepts and theories in TEAL: Action research. TEAL News: The Association of B.C. Teachers of English as an Additional Language, pp. 13-17.

Krashin, S. (n.d.). Stephen Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition. Retrieved from http:// www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2002). Techniques and principles in language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Long, M., & Ross, S. (1993). Modifications that preserve language and content. In M. L. Tickoo (Ed.), Simplification: Theory and application (pp. 29-52). Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.

Nation , I. S. P. (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 581-595). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nation, I. S. P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 1-12.

Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Developing reading luency. Seoul 2013 World Congress in Extensive Reading [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/HXfY71xmFLk

Newnham, S. (2013). Text complexity in graded readers: A systemic functional look (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://mds.marshall.edu/etd/498/

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Spada, N. (2007). Communicative language teaching: Current status and future prospects. In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (pp. 271-288). Boston, MA: Springer.

Young, D. J. (1999). Linguistic simplification of SL reading material: Effective instructional practice? Modern Language Journal, 83(3), 350-366.


LiShihHuangDr. Li-Shih Huang is Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and Learning and Teaching Scholar-in- Residence at the University of Victoria. She can be contacted at lshuang@uvic.ca or @AppLingProf.

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