Crossley, S.A., Louwerse, M., McCarthy, P.M., & McNamara, D.S. (2007). A linguistic analysis of simplified and authentic texts. Modern Language Journal, 91, 15-30.
As you may have already read from my previous posts, there is a divide in the ESL/EFL world (although it is lessening – more to come!) regarding the use of authentic texts (AT) as opposed to simplified texts (ST). As this concern has been mentioned in journals since the late 70s/early 80s, I was interested to see how far the debate has come in the decades since. This is the reason why I have chosen to review one of the most recent articles to discuss the topic: Crossley, Louwerse, McCarthy, & McNamara’s “A Linguistic Analysis of Simplified and Authentic Texts”.
The most striking element in the debate, according to Crossley et al. is that advocates on both sides support their arguments with the same observations gathered from linguistic features, syntax, and discourse structures. The reason for this comingling of support is that previous studies have looked at the effect of text on student recall and comprehension (mainly done with “shallow-based readability formulas and vocabulary counts”) as opposed to the linguistic properties of text. In light of what Crossley et al. believed to be a serious lack of empirical evidence, they set out to analyze these features using Coh-Metrix, a computational tool that measures text cohesion and difficulty. (There are a number of reasons why Coh-Metrix rocks and these reasons include phrases like “syntactic parsers” and “causal cohesion”. And who could forget “latent semantic analysis metrics”?)
So here’s the nitty-gritty of the study: The researchers rounded up texts – 105 in all – from seven ESL books. Then Coh-Metrix was put to work analyzing seven linguistic metrics: causal cohesion, connectives & logical operators, lexical coreference, density of major parts of speech, polysemy & hypernymy, syntactic complexity, word information & frequency. I’ll save you the less-than-thrilling specifics and explain the pros and cons of AT and ST.
- Ability to clearly show cause-and-effect relationships
- Ability to clearly develop plot lines and ideas
- Variety is both natural and profound in terms of lexical items and syntactical structures
- Greater use of abstract and low-frequency words (read: reading is slower but more nuanced)
- Strong cohesion
- Beneficial redundancy and semantic overlap
- Clear language
- Greater use of high-frequency words (read: reading is faster but less nuanced)
- Lack of natural language
- Reliance on facile syntactic constructions (overuse of nouns phrases and qualifiers)
- Reliance on simple constructions means elaborating on syntactically tight authentic constructions (read: reading results in a higher cognitive processing burden)
- Short, unnatural syntax (read: meaning is clouded)
Whew – that was a lot!
So, what is the upshot of all this? According to the researchers, it may behoove beginning L2 students to have ST because ST have a lot of repetition as well as high-frequency words, and these elements make comprehension easier for the already taxed cognitive processes of an L2 learner. That being said, AT are the big winner in all other respects: despite not having the degree of cohesion that ST do, AT make up for this deficit by providing a greater degree of cause-and-effect comprehension. In addition, low-frequency words and syntactically complex structures expose students to language that is more natural. Crossley et al. make it clear that they prefer AT to ST with almost all learners with the exception of beginning L2 learners.
All in all, this is a pretty compelling piece of evidence, and I think evidence is the key word here: these findings provide the debate with the support that has been, until now, mainly based upon intuition.
However, I told you I was an advocate of ST so let me give you my perspective on the study. First off, Crossley et al. say that ST can be useful for beginning L2 learners but they don’t define what they mean by this. After all, “beginning” is a relative term which means it could be viable for learners who are learning a language from word one up to learners who have a good handle on conversation but still make grammatical errors. This article would be more useful if the authors included a clearer dividing line between beginners who could benefit from ST and those students advanced enough to benefit from AT.
Another issue I have with AT is that they are time consuming. AT may be fine for pleasure reading or self studying or even as homework, but they typically do not work well in the classroom because the questions that arise from AT can easily suck up precious class time that could arguably be better spent in achieving the day’s objectives.
Despite these reservations, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to read this article (and others like it) because I have a better understanding of what’s at stake when educators talk about using ST and AT. And, I have a newfound appreciation for AT: in particular, we can extrapolate from this article the fact that, although AT makes use of low-frequency words and complex syntactical structures to a greater degree than ST, through sheer dent of practice, L2 students are likely to find the language in AT more useful and more natural. If a student can get to this level of understanding, the rewards are limitless.