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Reading: Preparing Intermediate Students to Tackle Authentic Texts
by Alex Case - 1


Description of Article: The theory and practice of taking the stress out of authentic reading texts

Simply from the two terms used, it seems obviously preferable to use something 'authentic' rather than 'inauthentic', but when you are tackling an authentic piece of reading text in a foreign language for the first time, or have possibly tried and failed many times before, this is easier said than done. This article plans to examine how the stress can be taken out of this experience for intermediate students. To this end the article will examine

- my own personal interest in this area
- a brief history of reading in EFL
- reading in general in both L1 and L2
- classroom activities to prepare these students for authentic texts
- how well current published materials deal with this skill.

My interest in this area
This comes from two sources. The first is that in my feedback forms from my classes last year the strongest demand by students was for more 'reading newspaper and magazine articles', and this was most true at intermediate level. In contrast, a recent lesson based around graded readers failed to prompt any interest in these amongst the students. This factor is also relevant, I believe, in the issue of the 'intermediate plateau'. I should state here that I think the problem of the 'intermediate plateau' is sometimes overstated, and in my teaching experience students are just as likely to suffer from a 'post-FCE' or a 'post-CAE plateau', or even to get stuck in Elementary. However, in my teaching and language learning experience I have found it is possible to experience a surge in progress, sometimes almost as dramatic as that of beginners, precisely at the point when students begin to make sense of authentic listening and reading texts. Hence my interest in preparing students for exactly this.

A brief history of reading in EFL
Reading in a foreign language goes back to the very beginnings of the grammar- translation method, when the aim of language learning was to read foreign literature, rather than visa-versa. A pure audio-lingualism approach was very much a reaction against this, and reading was reduced to that of dialogues. More recently, the debate on reading has very much centred around theories such as Krashen's that language acquisition can occur only through input (reading and listening texts), or whether examination and production of the language is also necessary or desirable. An interesting side-current to debates on reading has been the decreasing amount of reading aloud used in the classroom, until more recent attempts to partially revive it amongst teachers such as Alan Maley (1) and Andrew Wright (2).

Reading in L1 and L2
In examining the more recent findings on reading in general terms, in both L1 and L2, the questions are:

- Why do people read?
- What do people read?
- How do they read?

Why do people read?

People's reasons for reading can be split into 3 main categories; (3)

- reading for survival
- reading for learning
- reading for pleasure

It might be expected that all but Proficiency students would choose to read for pleasure exclusively in their own language, although motivations for doing so in English might be the impossibility of obtaining what they want to read in their own language, an idea that books lose something in translation or, in my own case, a feeling that reading in another language 'gives you a justification' to spend time 'just reading'. Reading for survival can obviously be expected to be more prevalent in an English speaking country, although an example in other countries might be reading for work. I can assume, then, that most of my students' reading in L2 in my present teaching situation is likely to be reading for learning- more specifically the learning of English. What exactly, though, do they want to learn? An interesting survey on a mixed group of international students (4) found that most students read to improve their vocabulary, and put 'learning to read' as a much lower priority. I instinctively feel that this is generally the case amongst my own students, and since reading the paper above I have certainly given more emphasis to the vocabulary part of reading, something I had somewhat regarded as an 'add-on'.
Also, why do we as teachers want our students to read? The chief answer must lie in the jump in learning it can produce, but another lies in modern theories of language being slowly understood rather than 'learnt', where the chance to see the language in context combined with a developed ability to 'notice' it seems the most natural way to gain real mastery.
Why, then, do our students not read more, and more specifically more authentic texts? Listening in to a pairwork discussion in a mid-intermediate class on reading in L1 and L2, I heard several examples of what I believe would generally be the answer- 'It is too difficult'. The question of how to tackle this is examined in some detail throughout this article.

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