My Take on the Simplified Text vs. Authentic Text Debate

Have you heard of the new movie, The Cabin in the Woods? The Telegraph, the internet version of the popular, British journal, recently reviewed the new film for their site:

Memento, The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense and all had final-reel secrets that weren’t just worth discovering – they were worth keeping secret afterwards, too. Like all of the best thriller traditions, this can be traced back to Hitchcock: adverts for Psycho implored prospective viewers: “Please do not give away the ending – it’s the only one we have.” Pulp auteurs Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s uproarious detonation of the horror genre, The Cabin in the Woods, fits squarely into this category.

As a piece of writing, native English speakers might enjoy it for its interesting punctuation, unique word choice, varied syntax. Ironically, the very elements that make this a fun piece of writing for native speakers make this text seem impossible for most second language (L2) learners of English.

As an ESL teacher, I have come up against this problem time and time again. In fact, one of my more recent and utterly demoralizing mistakes was thinking my students could read the Hemingway story, “Soldier’s Home”. Despite my best efforts at planning a thoughtful lesson that would generate a lot of reflection and discussion, the result was that my students felt demotivated, frustrated, and disinclined to ever pick up another story in English. In order to right the wrong I had done, I decided to begin simplifying authentic texts so as to make them more accessible to my students.

Since entering the M.A. TESOL program at SFSU, I have learned of the debate surrounding the use of simplified and authentic texts. Because this issue is germane to the field of reading in TESOL as well as my career as an ESL/EFL teacher, I wanted to explore this for my culminating inquiry. What follows is a brief introduction to the issues at stake followed by how I have used what I have learned to inform my own practices.

 SIMPLIFIED TEXT

Young points out a number of ways text can be simplified. Jargon and low-frequency words can be swapped for easier ones (instead of saying “The don used the vernacular of the institution”, you could say “The professor used the language of the institution”). Idioms can be changed or deleted all together (instead of saying “The Giants are ahead in the count”, you could say “The Giants are winning” or “The Giants are beating the Phillies”). Sentences can be shortened or divided so as to make the cognitive load less. And of course, texts can be shortened as well. On the flip side of this, some texts are made simpler by making them longer. For example, subordination and pronouns with complex antecedents can be rewritten in multiple sentences to provide greater redundancy and less complex syntax. Text glossing—an in-text definition usually in the form of a footnote—is another example of lengthening text in order to simplify. As you can tell, simplification has many modes.

Over the years, a number of apologists have championed the use of simplified text (ST). O’Donnell makes the case that L2 learners can have trouble understanding texts due to insufficient linguistic and cultural knowledge; ST removes this problem. Simensen (cited in Crossley, Louwerse, McCarthy, & McNamara) agrees: ST modifies an original text’s lexical choices, or propositional input, or both, to make the text easier to understand. Another reason for simplifying text is to highlight certain grammatical and/or syntactical features so that students are more likely to notice them. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Crossley et al. cite the following researchers and their arguments in favor of ST:

  • Twiessi held that ST mirrors the L2 acquisition process and so provides the learner with a structured model for language learning.
  • Allen & Widdowson pointed out that ST removes idiosyncratic language that has the potential to confuse and distract learners.
  • Kuo stated that ST provides cohesion in the redundancy and explanation that help learners notice grammatical features, language, and syntactical patterns.
  • Davies & Widdowson, as well as Krashen, saw ST as a means for giving students reasonable challenges without overwhelming them. This concept of input that is slightly above a learner’s current level is known as comprehensible input, or i+1.

In my opinion, motivation is another key argument in favor of ST. When students are bombarded with new words, low frequency grammatical features, and unique syntactical patterns, the effect can be overwhelming and, eventually, demotivating. Teachers want to create opportunities for student success, and motivation is essential in this process.

Not only is English demotivating, we have to wear these stupid scout uniforms too.

AUTHENTIC TEXT

Oxford defines authentic text (AT) as being“unedited, unabridged text that is written for native…speakers” (as cited in Day & Bamford). Swaffar takes a slightly broader view. The matter of the receiver being a native speaker is irrelevant; if the text serves a communicative objective, it is AT. In my opinion, I tend to agree with Swaffar, although I would add that authentic text is a real message that is created for the purpose of actual communication from a real writer to a real audience.

This debate of ST or AT really gets interesting when we compare the two camps side by side. (You’ll see why in a minute.)

First, AT has a higher degree of cohesion because it makes use of natural syntactical patterns and redundancy which have been disrupted in ST. Second, researchers cite AT as being motivating. Petersen & Ostendorf believe that AT has a positive effect on student motivation because students are interacting with real language. This is supported from a pedagogical standpoint as well: In the recent trend of communicative language teaching, authenticity is touted for the reason that students will have improved learning if they have access to real language in natural contexts. Moreover, Gilmore cites research done by Peacock and Crookes & Schmidt that shows that there is a connection between authenticity and higher student motivation. Finally, Swaffar makes the case that AT is easier to read because it is rich in linguistic and cultural clues that help learners to guess meaning through the context.

Obviously we’ve got both camps using the same arguments but for different purposes! So who’s right? Well it has been difficult to tell because, as Crossley et al. point out, previous research only looked at ST and AT in terms of their effect “on student recall and comprehension, not with the linguistic properties of the texts.” This conclusion led Crossley et al. to reexamine simplified and authentic texts using Coh-Metrix, a piece of software that measures a text’s cohesion and difficulty.

The upshot of this research is that it may behoove beginning L2 students to have ST because ST has 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 is the big winner in all other respects: AT provides a greater degree of cause-and-effect comprehension, and 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.

MY TAKE

In the end, I believe that the debate of authenticity versus simplification must be a second priority to a more important issue – the learning goals of the class. These goals vary from level to level and institution to institution, but to give you some examples of SWBATs (ESL speak for Students Will Be Able To…): write a cover letter; compare and contrast cultural values; weigh the pros and cons of modern society; and the list goes on.

Today’s lesson: Learning how to work it on the picket line.

Curricula designers and teachers must decide their purpose and then decide the most appropriate texts. I feel that too often in this debate researchers argue that authentic texts be used for authenticity’s sake because current trends dictate that authenticity should take primacy.This does not sit well with me, nor does the idea that anything is so black and white in the realm of education. To use another example: Every day I make decisions for my students regarding what is and isn’t important to discuss so that I am able to achieve my goals. Simplifying text in terms of removing unusual, low-frequency lexical choices is just another method to do the same thing. The final decision of what to include and exclude will have to be determined according to objectives, students’ proficiency, context, and general importance of the word or feature.

However, this sounds like I am too much in favor of simplified texts. It has been my experience (and the experience of most of the researchers that I have read) that even when students are faced with a text that is challenging in terms of syntax or grammar, students are still able to make sense of the thrust of the text. Exposure to forms that are new for the learner poses the best possible means for student uptake.

If this position is extended, students can also gain a lot from exposure to what Wray refers to as formulaic sequences, such as idioms and collocations. In my opinion, this is where I diverge from the AT camp. In terms of teaching idioms and collocations, I believe that teachers have a serious duty to their students as gatekeepers and should use their discretion to simplify or gloss language as the teacher sees fit. On one hand, I think teaching idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs, and jargon is essential for students who wish to participate in a specific discourse community. On the other hand, if these lexical items cause confusion or overly complicate texts, teachers should feel no allegiance to AT but should simplify as they see fit for the sake of their students.

 MY CLASS

I teach an intermediate-level ESL class. Now, “intermediate” is a relative term but, suffice it to say, my students are a long way away (at least a year, more likely two) from being able to handle a newspaper or magazine or English website. Thus, to make the in-class readings more understandable for them, I have gone to great lengths to simplify texts as well as create appropriate texts.

       I’d love for my students to understand               Herbert ‘Mourn-ya-till-join-ya H-dawg’ Kornfeld        but then they wouldn’t need me.

However, after the implications of my research, I have reexamined the class texts I use and found that I am guilty of doing all the types of simplification that are most harmful. Specifically speaking, I split complex sentences and this has the effect of distorting sentence structure, making the resulting sentences longer, more redundant, more unnatural, and ultimately less cohesive. (Although greater redundancy may seem like a good thing, Goodman posits that authentic text’s natural redundancy helps learners reconstruct texts as well as understand texts through context.) Moreover, I do students a disservice by restructuring syntactical and grammatical forms because I am not familiarizing them with the authentic forms they will find in other texts.

While I may be guilty of problematic syntax and grammar simplifications, I feel justified about my choices in linguistic simplification. L2 learners clamor to know what every word on a page means; it is a natural impulse. And yet, what is the value of teaching intermediate students words like twixt or pulp or marsupial? None. Not when there are more common words or phrases that are not only suitable but also expose students to language they are more likely to encounter. Furthermore, despite my use of linguistic simplification, I haven’t noticed any demotivation.

Fun? Yes! Important? No!

That is not to say I have done away with unfamiliar words. As gatekeeper, if I determine a word or phrase has a high frequency, I will leave it in for the purpose of using it in a post-reading vocabulary building exercise. Moreover, I am conscious of occasionally peppering the texts I create with unfamiliar words for exactly the same purpose. In my mind, the thing to remember is that teachers should provide the contextual clues that make it possible for students to guess at the meanings of new lexical items. I have found that using these methods, students are engaged and motivated by the opportunity to discover words on their own. This has the added benefit of strengthening their contextual reading skills when they eventually read authentic texts.

Understand that these conclusions are based solely on the class I’m teaching now; another class and another context, and these conclusions might need to be revised. The point is that ESL/EFL teachers need to consider the lesson objectives before they make black and white judgments on the authenticity of their texts.

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2 responses to “My Take on the Simplified Text vs. Authentic Text Debate

  1. I agree with your final position. I think the important things is to start with an authentic text, then edit it so that you can draw Ss’ attention to the feature that you’re teaching. I like how you bring up the fact that the whole idea of deciding what’s best based on Ss’ needs often gets lost in debates like this. One way I motivate Ss to guess unfamiliar words from context and rely on their dictionaries a little less is to remind them that it’s a TOEFL skill.

  2. Another thought came to mind. There is also the possibility of elaborated texts which offers some of the benefits of using authentic texts with glossing. The trick is that the information that is normally contained in a gloss or footnote is actually incorporated into the text. I forget who the researcher is, but I think it’s mentioned in one of the articles I passed on to you.

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