TeachingEnglish
Designing a WWW reading task

The world wide web offers a myriad of opportunities for authentic English reading texts.

Any good teacher can turn a reasonable authentic reading text into a useful and fulfilling activity, so why not take the same skills you might use with a newspaper article and turn them to good use, bearing in mind various aspects of the newer medium that are peculiar to it. This article gives advice on designing tasks based on the internet.

  • Search Tasks
  • Controlled Site Tasks
  • Criteria for selecting websites
  • Keying in
  • Conclusion

 

Search tasks
Whilst still a type of reading task, simply looking for information using search engines can be quite hard for students at lower levels, or for students with relatively little experience of computers. This is because the students must sift through a fairly large amount of information on a search engine's results page and interpret those results correctly, which requires a high level of language-interpreting skills, and may be quite time consuming. This could lead to problems with sustaining the students' interest and motivation, and eventually not be particularly constructive.

Controlled Site Tasks
For less experienced learners, and for a more intensive reading session, a "controlled site" task is much better. This is where the teacher decides on the website(s) and designs the task based on this. It's also a good approach for less technologically able students (and teachers!) or students having a www lesson for the first time.

The first step is to choose a website. The simple rule here is that the obvious ones are the best, so if the topic is "News" then the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk) or CNN are fairly good starting points - they both have good international news sections. For some tips on finding relevant sites, see Using the Internet 1. Once you have a topic, things become a lot easier, but there are still several criteria which need to be considered.

Criteria for selecting websites

  • How topic-specific is the site? - That is, if you are doing "relationships" and you have focussed on the extended family, then a site on marriage isn't likely to help much. Many websites might seem to cover the relevant topic, but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the site covers other things or even something else entirely.
  • How appropriate is the language? - Is there a lot of technical language or culturally specific references that may be beyond your class? You may have to pre-teach certain vocabulary for the reading, as with many reading activities. There may also be informal language that your students may not be familiar with or indeed a section with inappropriate terms such as swearing and offensive slang (although I don't imagine many younger students would be too horrified!!)
  • How accurate is the language? - Badly written websites are more common than you may think - as well as sites which use emoticons and text-style abbreviations ("R U OK?"). Granted this could be used as a language point for higher level students, although the relevance of such language is debatable.
  • How reliable is the site? - You go into your lesson on Thursday and find that the site has changed its front page content, making your clear instructions completely incomprehensible. This updating is fairly common, particularly those carrying topical information such as newspaper or TV channel sites. Some sites change about once a year, many change everyday. Beware! In some cases the site may disappear altogether.
  • How navigable is the site? - Is it easy to move from page to page, and to get back to the home page if necessary? Your students may end up not only grappling with the language content of the website, but also with the navigation of the website, particularly if they lack experience and confidence with the technology involved.


As well as these web-specific criteria, there are also the normal criteria which need to be used when designing any kind of reading task, for example how interesting is the site to your students? Interest is a key point because distractions are easy to find and swift to download on the web! However, if you know what your students should be looking at then classroom management issues are reduced.

Keying In
Once a site has been chosen then you need to decide what you want your students to do with it. This is where your knowledge and experience as a teacher and the materials you have designed in the past come in. The questions and activities are the same as any reading task (multiple choice questions, reading for gist then scanning for specific points within the text and so on). Tasks like this can be compiled and used again and again as long as they are well designed and flexible enough to take into account any changes that might take place. Ideally keep the original on a PC that can be changed at any time.

Conclusion
Designing a task is as simple as that, but often requires internet access during preparation time as well as just during class time. In both cases, however, you find that your students will quite happily scan through the equivalent of ten photocopied pages without a single sigh or murmur of complaint.

They can have online dictionaries (www1.oup.co.uk/elt/oald, http://publishing.cambridge.org/ge/elt/dictionaries/ and www.longman-elt.com/dictionaries/webdictionary.html) on hand and the activity will fly by.

Sam Shepherd, Eastbourne School of English

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