Using texts constructively: what are texts for?

Text use may seem a dull topic after all the exciting matters that other guest writers have dealt with recently. 

However, language learning is, after all, learning language, not just doing fun things with it. And texts – by which I mean the relatively short spoken and written passages that come in textbooks and other teaching materials – can, if they are used properly, play an important part in the learning process. So here goes.

Three kinds of input
Let's start by looking at the overall structure of language learning. It is useful to identify three kinds of useful input: extensive, intensive and analysed. Children learning their mother tongues receive massive extensive input from the cloud of language that surrounds them, some of it roughly attuned to their level of development, much of it not. They also receive substantial intensive input – small samples of language such as nursery rhymes, stories, songs, the daily mealtime and bedtime scripts, and so on, which are repeated, assimilated, memorised, probably unconsciously analysed, and/or used as templates for future production. And children receive analysed input: explicit information about language. Although they are not generally told very much about grammar and pronunciation, they constantly demand explanations of vocabulary: ‘What’s a …?’; ‘What’s that?’; ‘What does … mean?’

Second-language learners are no different in principle from small children in these respects. They, too, need extensive input – exposure to quantities of spoken and written language, authentic or not too tidied up, for their unconscious acquisition processes to work on. (For evidence for the effectiveness of extensive reading, see for example Day and Bamford 1998, or Alan Maley's survey of the research in his December 2009 guest article.) Equally, learners need intensive engagement with small samples of language which they can internalise, process, make their own and use as bases for their own production (Cook 2000). And since most instructed second-language learners have only a fraction of the input that is available to child first-language learners, the deliberate teaching of grammatical as well as lexical regularities – analysed input – helps to compensate for the inadequacy of naturalistic exposure for at least some aspects of language.

Three kinds of output
Input is only half the story. People generally seem to learn best what they use most. Children produce quantities of extensive output, chattering away as they activate what they have taken in. They also recycle the intensive input they have received, repeating their stories, nursery rhymes and so on, and speaking their lines in the recurrent daily scripts of childhood life. And some children, at least, seem to produce certain kinds of analysed output, naming things or rehearsing and trying out variations on structures that they have been exposed to, like more formal language learners doing ‘pattern practice’ (Weir 1970).

Adults, too, need opportunities to produce all three kinds of output. They must have the chance to engage in extensive, ‘free’ speech and writing; they must be able to systematically recycle the intensive input that they have more or less internalised (and thus complete the process of internalisation); and they need to practise the analysed patterns and language items that have been presented to them, so that they have some chance of carrying them over into spontaneous fluent production.

A properly-balanced language-teaching programme, then, will have these three ingredients – extensive, intensive and analysed – at both input and output stages. While all the ingredients are important, the proportions in a given teaching programme will naturally vary according to the learners' needs, their level, and the availability of each element both in and out of class.

What can texts do?
So where do textbook texts – relatively short continuous pieces of spoken or written language – come into all this? Clearly they can contribute in various ways to the three-part process outlined above. They can provide material for practice in receptive skills, and thus facilitate access to extensive input. They can act as springboards for discussion, role play, or other kinds of extensive output work. They can support analysed input by contextualising new language items. A further role – and a very important one – is to provide the intensive input that all learners need: short samples of appropriately selected language which are carefully attended to and partly internalised, and which can then serve as a basis for controlled production.

What do texts usually do?
Unfortunately, this aspect of text use is often neglected or ineffectively put into practice. A language-teaching text may simply be seen as something to be ‘gone through’ in one way or another, without any clear definition of the outcomes envisaged. (Text-work is an awfully convenient way of filling up a language lesson, and teachers often feel that any text-based activity is bound to be beneficial. This is not necessarily the case.) One approach to ‘going through’ is the traditional pseudo-intensive lesson where the teacher uses a text as the basis for a kind of free-association fireworks display. He or she comments on one word, expression or structure after another, elicits synonyms and antonyms, pursues ideas sparked off by the text, perhaps gets the students to read aloud or translate bits, and so on and so on. Meanwhile the students write down hundreds of pieces of information in those overfilled notebooks that someone once memorably called ‘word cemeteries’. When the end of the 'lesson' is approaching, students may answer some so-called ‘comprehension questions’. (As Mario Rinvolucri asked in his November 2008 guest article, what exactly are these for? If you have spent an hour working on a text with your class and still need to find out whether they understand it, perhaps there's something wrong.). Students then go away to write a homework on a topic distantly related (or even not at all related) to that of the text. This kind of activity tends to fall between two stools: the text is too short to contribute much to learners' extensive experience of language, but the work done on it is not really intensive either. At the end of the cycle the students have been given much too much input, have engaged with it too superficially to assimilate much of it, and have used (and therefore consolidated) little or none of it. They have been taught – inefficiently – one lot of language, and then asked to produce a substantially different lot.

Another approach which has been fashionable in recent decades is to use a written text to teach 'reading skills'. The text is typically accompanied by a battery of exercises which require students to predict, skim, scan, identify main ideas, match topics to paragraphs, sort out shuffled texts, and so on. There is an implicit assumption that even perfectly competent mother-tongue readers actually need to learn to process text all over again in a new language. For a critique of this view, see Walter and Swan 2008. Here again, students may spend substantial time working through a text without any very identifiable payoff in terms of increased language knowledge or genuine skills development.

While texts can undoubtedly be valuable in various ways, I believe they are best used with a clear purpose in mind, and a reasonable certainty that they will help to achieve this purpose. In a second article I will focus on the intensive input-output cycle referred to above, which I believe is centrally important, and I will consider ways in which texts can be exploited efficiently to support this aspect of language learning.

Cook, G. 2000. Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Day, R. & Bamford, J. 1998. Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walter, C. & Swan, M. 2008. 'Teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time?' in IATEFL 2008: Exeter Conference Selections.

Weir, R. H. 1970. Language in the Crib. The Hague: Mouton.

Read the follow up article by Michael Swan on texts here.

This article was first published in January 2011


Submitted by TEFL101 on Wed, 01/19/2011 - 12:52


I find texts to be a crutch for the students and the teacher. They are not interactive enough and they generally distract from what is being said or could be said. They stifle listening and impair progress.

Textual reliance dumbs down to the way we have always learned things in school; via worksheets and books and it is the single biggest reason why people struggle in listening and speaking a foreign language. Our trust and dependence on text gets a foothold early on. The need to use text grows with and facilitates our intellectual and linguistic development. But the problem is that we do not process text in the visual receptors of the brain. Rather, text is a code which has to be deciphered and translated into an internal monologue. As a result, the use of text distracts from developing strength in listening – the primary requirement for fluent, accurate and complex understanding.

Of course, you need to use texts sometimes but I think they are most useful at the very lowest and the very highest levels. I also think their introduction ought to be delayed and is best used as a confirmation of points and content already covered.


Hanratty, L. 2010. TEFL 101: Principles, Approaches, Methods & Techniques. Cambridge Academic

Hebb, D. 1949. The Organization of Behaviour. John Wiley & Sons.

Much of what you say,TEFL101, is probably true for a lot of teachers and I suspect that with the second part of this piece from Michael Swan you might find other stimulating ways to exploit texts utilising listening skills, vocabulary, structural and phonology work in oral production, and then followed by reading and writing.  Don't knock the simple text until you've heard what the contributor has to say.

To Michael Swan - A nicely balanced presentation and a good analysis of the needs of the learner.  I look forward to part two. 

Submitted by giganick on Thu, 01/20/2011 - 23:56


Thank you Mr Swan.

As a father and teacher, I'm grateful for your descriptions of the three input-outputs: extensive, intensive and analysed. They succinctly clarify my reflections.

I'm looking forward to part two. As in Japan, we have to use government prescribed textbooks, which are notoriously analytical (and like local government contractors, not necessarily chosen on a merit system), I am hoping for ideas on how to use them to the students best benefit.



Submitted by Débora Alejandra on Sun, 01/23/2011 - 22:13


Dear Michael,

I found your article so very much interesting. I've been trying to get help on the subject of textbook use. Twiiter and facebook have not helped me yet. With this tech revolution, and all the social networks, and so many great ideas that I'm willing to put to use with all my students, my dilemma is how to balance my classes with only three hours a week, in the best cases, with the use of the textbooks, which I consider very important as well. Basically because I respect writers and their knowledge to develop the lessons. I must admit that there are a lot of great texts available now.

 I have been teaching for 25 years now, I clearly remember some times when I was overwhelmed by changes, like the time of the beginning of the "communicative approach". I learnt, at that time, that to change is also to learn to leave a area of comfort. I am so eager to give the best to my students, that I find it difficult to make simple decisions like "what to teach today".

Now, I'm looking forward to your second part and thank you very much 

Submitted by Jackson Isaltino on Mon, 01/24/2011 - 16:14

In reply to by Débora Alejandra


Michael and everyone else,

Using texts has become part of my teaching routine, once coursebooks are loaded with them and we are expected to make use of the expensive books learners have bought. Even when I feel those texts are not relevant, adult learners in particular may question the reasons why I have decided to skip that particular page, since it could provide a number of new words and phrases, which, as most students see, will be of undeniable value. However, I have had some good experiences when I asked students to provide the text to be used, especially with upper intermediate and advanced students. I did not plan any comprehension acitivities as I could not predict what students would come up with. Also, I did not see the importance of doing so. I asked them to share info with their peers about the chosen text and try to think of inquisitive questions based on the approached topic. I also asked them to share some information about language, that is, vocabulary or grammar, that somehow had caught their eyes as new, surprising or interesting. By doing so, they chose what they wanted to effectively learn, without an overload of new lexical items to be jotted down and never used. As a result, the exchange was profitable as they were engaged in their discussions, eager to question their peers and promote a genuine debate. I also suggested that they should try and use some of the language learnt by reading the texts and most of them were successful in doing so. The question that some other teachers have challenged me with refers to how I could be sure students were exposed to a homogeneous vocabulary set. I kept thinking about that and I still see no reason for that to happen. Although I recognise that the existence of a syllabus must be respected, I still see that the more choices students can make about what they read and learn, the more effective and permanent the repertoire will be.



Thanks, everyone – a lot to think about. To start with a clarification – when I talk about 'texts', I mean shortish pieces of written or spoken language. While these can certainly be stultifying if badly chosen or badly used, most of us probably feel that mid-length samples of language, which can be looked at in some detail, are an important part of the input that we provide for our students. After all, you can't teach a language without showing examples of the language in action, and neither longer stretches of extensive input nor sentence-length samples can provide everything that is needed, in my view at least.

Texts are certainly multi-purpose tools, but therein lies a certain danger. I don't think the text should ever be the starting point for a decision about teaching – I mean, I don't think we should ever say 'Here's a nice text, what can I use it for?' This is like deciding to spend your Saturday morning doing household repairs, picking up a hammer, and saying 'Now what can I do with this?' My feeling is that one should always approach a text with a clear aim in mind: it contains some high-priority language that you want to present and teach, or it will act as a springboard for discussion, or it will give useful listening practice, or it will serve some other clearly-defined purpose. So that when work on the text is finished, you can ask that rather crucial question: 'What do they know now, or what can they do now, that they didn't know, or couldn't do so well, an hour ago?' You may not totally confident of the answer, but if you don't know what it should be, there's a problem.

I really like Jackson's idea of having the students choose the texts, and his methodology corresponds very well to my own preferences. There's a real problem, though, as he points out, about ensuring vocabulary coverage. If you work through the texts in a good textbook, there's some chance (depending on the course designer's mindset) that all the key vocabulary at the students' level is introduced and recycled. If you and the students pick your own texts, a lot of important vocabulary will certainly fall through the net; so you need to keep track of what's been missed and find other ways of feeding it in. (I once, as a young teacher, taught a class for a whole term and realised when it was too late that they hadn't learnt any grammar or vocabulary for talking about the future – it didn't happen to come up in the highly motivating set of texts that I had chosen to base my course on.) 

It's hard to know what to do in three hours a week – the situation of many of the world's language teachers. All you can do is prioritise ruthlessly, decide what you can teach and what you have to drop, teach properly what you have decided to put into the programme, and make sure text work plays its part without filling too much time with low-priority input. But I think appropriate texts can be very valuable in precisely this situation – more on that in a forthcoming blog and my next article.  






Submitted by leosel on Fri, 02/03/2012 - 20:06


Hello Michael and everyone

I've read carefully both articles (I don't know why comments on the second one have been disabled) so I am posting them all here.

Your remark about teaching reading skills (or strategies) reminded me of Scott Thornbury's series of articles on onestopenglish entitled "The End of Reading". He gives an example of an English person driving in Spain: yes, you have to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road (or rather on the right side of the road) but all the principles of driving remain the same. Likewise, Thornbury argues,and you seem to agree with this position, we do not need REteach reading.

This is so true especially with exam (e.g. IELTS) preparation courses where all students want to learn is what I refer to as 3 Ts: reading Techniques, useful Tips and magic Tricks such as read the first and the last sentence of a paragraph etc. Teachers are often happy to indulge these illusions instead of focusing on language. However, young learners often need reading skills because they may not have sufficiently developed them in their L1, especially as the age of starting L2 in schools seems to become lower all the time - pupils have not had developed them in their L1 and L2 teachers often have to remedy this.

I liked your ideas for working with texts to get maximum benefit out of them and the fact that I've been doing a lot of these things with my students :)  I often approached the texts I've chosen with language in mind but don't we all sometimes use the "hammer" approach? "That's a nice text written or spoken (e.g. video) - I want to use it in class. Let's see how it can be exploited"?

It was interesting to read these two articles in view of the Dogme debate raging in the ELT blogosphere. My main reservation about Dogme has always been the assumption that language somehow - as if by magic - will emerge out of students. You claim here that you can't teach a language without showing examples of the language in action. I wonder if it would be equally true if we reversed this statement: "you can't learn a language without seeing examples of the language in action"?

Submitted by Clio14 on Tue, 02/07/2012 - 09:52


Please help.  What does:

Texts  '  can provide material for practice in receptive skills  ' mean ?

I really want to understand everything from this article because the description of their use as a 'free association fireworks display' made me laugh and feel slightly sick at the same time.  It's something I recognise that I do, but always leaves me, and I suspect the students,  feeling dissatisfied.

Anyway, chaanging the subject slightly, how would publishers fill their glossy text books without those long ,dull texts ? Why do text book writers continue to present them as listening comp.  Why are the topics so awful and why do I continue to use them? Just talking about them makes me want to nod off.

Talking of text books and Micheal Swan (& Jennifer Seidl)  I'd like to say a massive thank you for the 1986 Basic English Usage EXERCISES, a fantastic visual grammar book. lovely drawings easily photocopiable (sorry).  I've been waiting for the higher level version for nearly 25 years  ( Happy Anniversary,  by the way )   if you could possibly do an int/ upper int / adv. level of said book, I would have a great resource to use with my texts.   Please hurry.    

Thank you.




Submitted by eugeniapapaioannou on Sun, 02/19/2012 - 11:13


Dear Mr. Swan,

I read both your articles ‘’Using texts constructively: what are texts for?’’ and I would like to say that they are inspiring for some EFL teachers who may be unsuccessfully struggling to get the new language chunks presented in texts across to their students. They are also challenging for the experienced EFL teachers who need to reconsider their teaching approaches.

I would like to contribute to the impact of your articles by mentioning a few tasks to activate the new vocabulary in our language centres where we use exclusively L2 inside and outside class without the medium of the mother tongue at all so it is very important to exploit the target language in the best way.

We feel that comprehension questions based on new texts are useful not so much to see if the students have understood the text but to help them develop their reading and speaking skills. We are not content only to elicit the right answer from the students. They are expected to find the quotation in the text that offers relevant information and justify their answer(s) by explaining in their own vocabulary. Sometimes they have to argue with other classmates to support their choice. In a monolingual teaching system this is very effective as they have to use not only (new) chunks of the language or rationale but also effective ways to support their points (speaking skills to agree/disagree).

While I agree with you that we may end up accumulating long lists of useless words when we present an extensive text, I would like to stress that it always depends on our approach whether some of this new vocabulary will become active or stay inactive. Some of our approaches regarding presenting/ exploiting new vocabulary / chunks of language in a new extensive text are:

Task: ‘Work in pairs and underline unknown vocabulary. Try to contextualise it and guess the meaning.’

Follow-up: after the students have exchanged information and have short-listed the unknown words the teacher writes on the board the final list of unknown words/phrases eliciting these items from the pairs. The students then offer some definitions/example of usage (not all of these items are unknown to all of them) so they learn from each other while the teacher confirms or draws their attention to the text to give the exact definition (elicitation or demonstration)

Another activity to exploit new vocabulary is to extract 5/6 words from the text to associate them with their verb/noun/adjective they already know.

A useful task is to work in pairs, choose 5 words from the text that they find interesting and write meaningful sentences which are then read out in class and are accepted or corrected by the other students.

Sometimes texts contain vocabulary of the same word family but with variations in meaning/accuracy such as glare/peer/glance/glimpse/stare. In this case it is effective to collect all these words under the ‘umbrella word’ LOOK on the board and discuss the differences (gain accuracy).

Another very effective way to activate new vocabulary after having finished some exploitation tasks such as the above is to collect some key new words from the text in the order they were presented, write them on the board and ask the students to reconstruct the text/story with their books/notebooks closed. This is a very rewarding activity. It can be done orally at first when each student says in turn until everyone has said part of it. It can then be done in writing as class activity. It is not necessary to reconstruct the whole text. The idea is to convey the meaning by using the new vocabulary items (activation by comprehension and recalling the new meaning).

Eugenia Papaioannou - EFL Teacher


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