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What makes a good text?

The written text in the target language remains the stimulus par excellence for language teachers. It's a source of what eminent ELT writer Michael Swan has called "intensive input-output work". It is the starting point for a whole range of language activities involving all the four skills.

Some teachers worry about whether the texts they use are authentic. In my opinion they should not. What are we looking for in a good text?

  1. It should (ideally) be inherently interesting.
  2. It should be at the right level.
  3. It should be teachable.
1.  Once you get to intermediate level and above the best texts should have inherent interest value. At this level, whilst still a challenge, you can source stimulating material on all sorts of topics. Authentic texts may be interesting, they may be not. Teacher-adapted or artificial texts may be interesting, they may be not. Authentic does not mean better. Interest in the subject matter of the text should raise motivation and, ultimately, increase acquisition.

2.  You need a text which is at roughly the level of the students or, preferably, a bit beyond. It's what Stephen Krashen vaguely referred to as i +1 (where i = the student's current level of 'interlanguage' and +1 =... er, a bit above that). This is the problem with many authentic texts. They are frequently too hard or contain items of vocabulary which are not easily transferable to other situations. Another way of putting this is to say that the text should be 'roughly-tuned' to the student's current level.

3. By 'teachable', I mean that a text may be interesting and at the right level, but you can't actually do much with it. For instance, an intermediate text about the discovery of a new planet may be inherently of interest, but how can you turn it into a communicative lesson with intermediate level students which goes beyond comprehension and language analysis? Contrast this with a blander text about healthy living, which can be used for comprehension and language practice, but can then also be exploited by relating it to the student's own life experience. Which text will generate the most classroom communication and, therefore, language acquisition?

      The issue of teachability is relevant when you bear in mind some of the topics which will feature in the new A-level exams in England. The committee set up by the DfE to guide the exam boards on new subject content (ALCAB) suggested some fascinating topics (I always mention 'French mathematics' as the most bizarre example), but how would these translate into communicative lessons featuring that 'intensive input-output' work Michael Swan referred to?

     One further point: for beginners we always face the conundrum of finding stimulating material for pupils with little linguistic knowledge. One solution is to adopt a content-based or project-based approach, where you throw out the traditional i + 1 approach and present students with harder language which can be exploited at a mature cognitive level, but superficial linguistic level. This may be stimulating to students to a degree, but it is unlikely, in my view, to be the best path to long-term acquisition. So, we fall back on concocted simple texts which allow us to teach high frequency vocabulary and simple structures in an ordered way. This continues to make sense to me. You still try to make the texts stimulating and, above all, you deliver them in an engaging way, because, as you know, so much in language teaching is about the quality of delivery.

      On I have a teacher's guide page on how to exploit texts. We also deal with this issue (blatant plug alert) in The Language Teacher Toolkit, now available on and Canadian and European Amazon stores.


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What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…