In my last article, Reading for Information: Motivating learners to read efficiently, I referred to four stages in a task-based reading lesson:
- Form focus
We looked at the first two stages in this process, priming and reading. Now I'd like to look at the next two stages.
At the beginning of my last article, when I was talking about how we read I said ‘If you are a good reader you almost certainly don't read every word carefully. You read with a purpose, and as your eye skims over the page you take from it whatever you need.' And I pointed out that this is how we want our students to read. But there is a problem with this quick efficient reading. It's very good for getting what we want out of a text, but it's not a very good way of learning language.
Reading for information is very much a lexical process. We focus on the message-bearing words. Often we don't take account of the little words that hold the text together - words like at, the, in, this, 'd and to in my first paragraph above. But if we want our learners to improve their English grammar these are exactly the words they need to look at very carefully. So there is a contradiction between learning to read efficiently and using that reading to develop a knowledge of grammar. They are quite different processes.
The priming and reading stages of our lesson have given learners useful practice in learning to read, and as a result of their reading they are familiar with the text on sharks and what it means. Now it is time to put that text to work to help them to develop their grammar.
We need to look at a text carefully and decide what it can illustrate for learners. There are several very useful things we might demonstrate with this text. One of these is quantification. There are a number of useful expressions like:
- Some sharks live near the surface, some live deep in the water, and others on or near the ocean floor.
- Some sharks even swim many miles up rivers, like the Mississippi in the USA and the Amazon in Brazil.
- It has as many as three thousand teeth.
- But not all sharks are like the great white.
- There are almost 400 species of shark and more than half of these are under a metre in length.
- Only about 25 species are dangerous to people.
- Less than one hundred people are attacked by sharks each year.
Sentence 1. is a very useful one. The phrase Some sharks shows that we are not talking about all sharks. Later in the sentence we have a demonstration of what grammarians call ellipsis, with the words some and others standing in for the complete phrases some sharks and other sharks and the word live is omitted after others. Later in the text phrases like as many as, not all, almost, more than half, (only) about and less than are all very useful quantifying expressions.
Our next step is to decide how to draw learners' attention to these elements and in some cases explain how they are used. Expressions like only about and less than, for example, are used to suggest that quantities are surprisingly small. As many as, on the other hand, suggests that the quantity is surprisingly large.
There is a very simple way of making sure that learners focus on these elements. We can simply give them gapped sentences and ask them to work in groups or pairs to complete the sentences from memory:
- **** ****** live near the surface, **** live deep in the water, and ****** on or near the ocean floor.
- **** sharks even swim many miles up rivers, like the Mississippi in the USA and the Amazon in Brazil.
- It has ** **** ** three thousand teeth.
- But *** *** sharks are like the great white.
- There are ****** 400 species of shark and **** **** **** of ***** are under a metre in length.
- **** ***** 25 species are dangerous to people.
- **** **** one hundred people are attacked by sharks each year.
We can then read out the sentences to allow learners to check their answers and change them if they wish. They can make a list of these quantifying expressions, and as they come across similar expressions in other texts they can expand their list to include things like nearly/almost/not as many as, just over, no more/less than. Finally we can give heavily gapped sentences and see how much learners can recall:
- Surface/ deep in the water / ocean floor
- Many miles / rivers / like ...
- How many teeth?
What we are doing here is encouraging learners to pay close attention to the wording of the sentences. Their first reading of the text was for meaning, to encourage them to read quickly and fluently. Now we are looking at elements of the text in detail and encouraging them to learn from it.
Finally I'd like to look at recycling the text. We have treated it in some detail and learners will probably have reached the stage where they want to move on. So the text should be laid aside for a while, but it can usefully be resurrected later.
A week or two later we can ask learners to review the text for homework. One group can be asked to act as ‘question master' and prepare a comprehension test with ten questions about the text for the others to answer from memory, without reference to the text. I have used this technique with a number of classes of teenagers. The question masters take their role very seriously and do their best to find really difficult questions:
- Do sharks live only deep in the ocean?
- When did the film ‘Jaws' appear?
- Why is the bull shark the one most likely to attack people?
The other learners work hard at the text trying to anticipate the questions they will be asked.
You can take the questions from the question masters and quickly correct them before they are put to the rest of the class, and you can write the questions on the board as they are asked. The important thing about this activity is that it will oblige learners to read the text in detail. As a result of this detailed reading they are more likely to remember both the content of the text and how to express that content. This makes our four stage methodology a useful approach in a CLIL programme which recognises the close link between language and content.
We have now looked at one text and a four stage cycle to exploit that text. In my next article Techniques for priming and recycling I will look at different techniques which we can apply at each stage.
The approach recommended here is a task-based approach. Click here for more on task-based learning and teaching.
For two more lessons illustrating the four stage methodology go to: www.willis-elt.co.uk/taskbased.html and look at LESSON 2 and LESSON 3 and at the commentaries on these lessons.
Written by Dave Willis
Sample Text used in this article
Are sharks dangerous to humans?
Sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Even before dinosaurs roamed the earth there were sharks swimming in the sea. They live in oceans and seas all over the world. Some sharks live near the surface, some live deep in the water, and others on or near the ocean floor. They are even found in fresh water, sometimes swimming many miles up rivers like the Mississippi in the USA and the Amazon in Brazil.
We tend to think of sharks as big dangerous creatures. We sometimes read about shark attacks in the newspapers, and in 1975 the film Jaws terrified a whole generation of moviegoers with the story of a great white shark which attacked holidaymakers in a small seaside town in the USA. The great white is certainly a fearsome creature. It can reach 6 metres in length and up to 2000 kilograms in weight. It has as many as 3000 needle sharp teeth arranged in five rows, so it can sever a man's leg in a single bite.
But not all sharks are like the great white. The pigmy shark, for example, is only about 20 centimetres in length. There are almost 400 species of shark and more than half of these are under a metre in length. The biggest sharks of all are not at all dangerous to humans. The basking shark and the whale shark grow to around 12 metres, but they are quite harmless, feeding on plankton and small fish.
Only about 25 species are dangerous to people. Of these the bull shark is the one that is most likely to attack people. It swims in very shallow waters where people swim and is much more numerous than the great white, which is very rare. Less than one hundred people are attacked by sharks each year. Indeed you are far more likely to be killed by a dog or by bees than by a shark, and some scientists believe that sharks only attack people because they mistake them for seals and sea lions, the shark's favourite food.
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