Just in case you didn’t read my last blog, I am researching a debate that is common to any ESL/EFL teacher: What type of text is the most beneficial for students – texts that have been simplified or texts that are authentic (read untouched)? My hypothesis is that there is ample evidence to support simplified texts based on a number of personal observations. First, I know I can’t give my students a newspaper or a script or a magazine article and expect them to understand even a quarter of what they read. Second, simplified texts allow teachers to focus on specific features such as syntax, vocabulary, grammar, and so on. Third, there are a variety of industries–everything from readers to pre-made lesson plans–that subscribe to the idea that simpler is better when it comes to texts. But enough about me– What do the experts say about simplified texts?
Crossley, Louwerse, McCarthy, & McNamara (2007) sum up the position of the pro-simplified-text camp pretty well. Basically, they say that beginning second language learners get more from texts that are “lexically, syntactically, and rhetorically” simpler. Furthermore, these texts are more akin to the teacher language the students hear in the classroom, making the transition from the world of the classroom to the world of the text easier to manage. Crossley and co. also discuss Simensen’s (1987) take on the issue. She sees simplified texts as having three benefits in that teachers can use them to: 1) illustrate a specific grammatical feature; 2) manage the amount of lexical input so as not to overwhelm a student’s cognitive processes; and 3) control the “propositional input” (I take this to mean the information we are proposing is true about the world). Any of this sound familiar?
(Okay, I didn’t say all those things—and certainly not so eloquently—but I did get points 1 and 2.)
So what does text simplification look like? Young (1999) offers us Long & Ross’ methods: texts can be shortened, idiomatic expressions and low frequency vocab can be deleted or replaced in favor of synonyms or more concrete language, and complex syntax can be replaced with simpler structures. This last method, according to Petersen & Ostendorf, entails reducing the frequency of adjectives, adverbs, and coordinating conjunctions. The number of phrases per sentence is also reduced. (One result of this, interestingly enough, is the potential to have longer texts because the author has had to add material in order to explain a complicated idea. If this is true, then we should ask if we are not dismantling one obstacle just to put another one up. Students may be more overwhelmed by a longer and more repetitive text than a shorter but more syntactically concise, and yes, complex text.)
But, when all is said and done, it seems that the preferred type of simplification is a lexical change. At least, that is what Young (1999) found when she asked linguists and instructors to simplify four texts. Lexical replacements accounted for an average of almost 50% of the total changes. This seems to beg the question: Was the original vocabulary truly low frequency or was it just believed to be beyond the grasp of the students? If it was the former, then perhaps it was better to modify. If it was the latter, and this is a common enough word that students will encounter elsewhere, it seems worth it to leave it in.
(SPOILER ALERT!) The issues I raised with simplification are just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the literature I have read thus far seems to indicate that, because simplified texts create so many problems, there is a large faction of researchers who favor using authentic texts. It turns out simplifying texts is not so… (ahem) simple. But this is the topic of a future blog.