Every Monday morning at my ESL school, a new batch of students show up, and a small group of us in the Academics Office have the unenviable task of figuring out what level each student should go in. Once the students are placed, the responsibility of assessment falls on the teacher but in a slightly different respect. Every test, every worksheet, and every text must be assessed for its level of difficulty and the teachers must agonize over the same question: Is the language of the text challenging but manageable for my students? Do they have the ability, either with the help of other students, or with me, or from the context, to figure out what this is all about? Yes, we look for that sweet spot—Lev’s Zone of Proximal Development.
So clearly I have spent a lot of time considering this issue. One instance in particular stands out. While teaching my Level 8 students (8 out of 10, that is), I planned a thoughtful lesson around Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home. I believed that, as a result of my hard work, my students were going to have a deeper understanding of (what I thought were) universal themes and participate in a thought-provoking discussion. Instead, reading this story resulted in the students feeling demotivated, frustrated, and disinclined to ever pick up another story in English. Worst blunder ever! After examining the story through my students’ eyes, I realized all my mistakes: the language was tough, the imagery difficult to picture, there was a lot of information that had to be got from reading between the lines, and the context was unfamiliar.
When this kind of problem arises, the solution seems simple: simplify the text, and so, make it easier to understand. You can break up long, complex sentences in favor of shorter, easier sentences; reduce the number of complex grammatical forms; and choose synonyms more familiar to your readers. However, this creates a new dilemma for teachers: What does a text lose when authenticity is replaced with simplicity?
As this is a constant balancing act for all ESL/EFL teachers creating their own curriculum and lesson plans (and certainly every textbook publisher in the industry knows how difficult this can be), I want to explore this topic further to understand how and when to simplify texts. And even more importantly – is this okay? I’m pretty sure that I will find out that simplifying texts is a good thing for the simple reason that it is preferable for a student to be reading – anything, even simplified texts – than for a teacher to worry that the student is missing out on a text due to a lack of authenticity. (What I just said will probably be looked upon as sacrilegious by many in the TESOL department.) Of course, I don’t have any info to back this assumption up: this is just my gut instinct.
I found three texts that I might use to further flesh out this topic:
Crossley, Greenfield, & McNamara (2008) – Assessing Text Readability Using Cognitively Based Indices
Young (1999) – Linguistic Simplification of SL Reading Material: Effective Instructional Practice?
Crossley, Louwerse, McCarthy, & McNamara (2007) – A Linguistic Analysis of Simplified and Authentic Texts