* Techniques for producing reading texts for low level students

Workshop, QATESOL Conference, Brisbane September 2005

Hazel Davidson is co-author with Dorothy Court of the Australians All series of reading materials for low level ESL, EFL and Adult Literacy students.  The series includes The First Australians and A Very Big Country and a new set, Gold!, is about to be launched.  Hazel and Dorothy are also the authors of The Great South Land (NCELTR).  For the last twenty years Hazel has taught ESL & EFL students at primary, secondary and adult levels.

In this workshop Hazel will start by outlining the principles and techniques she uses when writing reading texts for her low level students.  Then participants will divide into groups to work on "translating" one of a selection of passages into a form which is more readily accessible to their students.  Sample passages will be drawn from school SOSE and Science texts and from the AMEP Citizenship course.  If possible, teachers interested in this session are asked to bring with them a copy of Oxford Elementary Learner's Dictionary, Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, and/or the Macquarie Australian Learners Dictionary (or any other favourite dictionary they prefer for their work with low level learners).

For the purpose of this workshop “low level students” are defined as having English language skills at approximately ISLPR 0+ in the adult context and, for schools, about Level 3 on the NLLIA ESL and Indigenous Bandscales (for Queensland Year 5); i.e., with some, but only extremely limited, knowledge of English.  The suggestions below also pre-suppose students will read the resultant texts with assistance from a teacher or trained tutor. 

Within the framework of those conditions, there are, to my mind, a number of basic principles to follow in writing for very low level ESL students.  Although we all ignore some of them from time to time, I believe it’s important to have them in mind while we write and to check back through them after we have written a first draft of a text.

 1. Don’t start at the complex and try to simplify.  Start with the simplest and add complexity.  I picture a particular student in my mind’s eye and write to him/her.

 2. It is crucial to be clear on what are we trying to communicate.  I make a list of dots points, both of assumed knowledge and of new information I want to impart.  I break these into the smallest possible pieces of information or single events in chronological order.

 3. At the risk of stating the obvious, I find the list below useful:

a) Concrete is easier than abstract.  I test myself by asking whether a picture or demonstration is possible.

b) Choice of vocabulary is very important.  Dictionaries such as Oxford Elementary Learner's Dictionary, Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary and Australian Learners Dictionary (Macquarie Univ.) can be very useful as you search for appropriate words. 

i) Am I using mainly known words? 

ii) Are unknown words few and easy to explain, or easy to put into an understandable context?  We need to avoid using too many unknown words because, although we want to expand students’ vocabulary, this needs to be done gradually so that they are not overloaded with unfamiliar words. 

iii) Are the words easy to decode?  Regularly spelt, short words are a lot easier to deal with but an occasional difficult word is not in insuperable barrier, especially if it is important in the context.  Moreover, while polysyllabic words are intimidating, they are often not difficult to decode once students have been taught syllabification rules.  Again, a few irregularly spelt or long words can be tolerated but not too many.

c) Sentence structure is crucial. 

i) I generally use sentences which have one principal clause only or, at most, two principal clauses joined by and or but. 

ii) In my opinion, the only acceptable subordinating conjunction at this level is because. 

iii) I try to use adverbs to produce flow in the text: then, next, also, too. 

iv) I always chunk text for meaning, rather than allowing the computer to wrap where it happens to reach the end of a line. 

v) I avoid passives like the plague.  While I make an exception of  I was born, I change  structures such as, Captain Cook’s ship was called …to  Captain Cook called his ship…Basically I feel we need to ask : Who did what?  which produces Subject + Verb + Object. 

vi) I try to limit myself to one or two sentences per page to avoid intimidating students with the quantity of text.  If more than two sentences are really necessary on the one page, I generally break them up by putting an illustration in the middle.

d) The format I find works best is:

i) Font size – 16 point

ii) Font style – Century Gothic or other very plain script

Note: Since I delivered this session, I have oloded the Qld school beginners' font onto my compters and intend to use that for future reading & spelling materials. 
See Other Links of Interest in this site for details of the font.

iii) No fancy arrangements – simple, straight lines, left to right: no diagonal print, no print over illustrations, no dialogue bubbles, no handwritten bits, no distracting graphics etc.  These fancy things might look attractive but often cause confusion for students who are struggling with print text.

iv) Illustrations for meaning, rather than decoration.  We need to be especially careful here of cultural assumptions which often interfere.  So it’s imperative to make sure the meaning which is clear to us is also what the students grasp.

 4. Demonstration example

Serving on a jury

 NSW AMES Writing team: Let's Participate, a Course in Australian Citizenship,
Fact Sheet 5, NCELTR 2001

 One important responsibility of Australian Citizens is to serve on a jury, if called upon.  They may be contacted and asked to serve on a jury for a particular case.  People can ask to be excused from jury duty for special reasons, such as illness, English language difficulties or to take care of their children.

The role of the jury is very important, and jury members must promise to do their job properly.  They are helped by the judge who explains the law to them and gives them advice about making their decision.

In Australia the court system is completely separate and independent from the government.  It is called the separation of powers.  This independence is very important. It means the government cannot change or influence judges' decisions.  It also means the government cannot influence who is on the jury in a particular legal case, or do anything to influence the jury's decision.

 1. Prior knowledge

a)     Jury – a group of ordinary citizens (usually 12) – decide guilt or innocence with judge's help

 Sample first draft “Translation into ESL”:

p. 1
Sometimes the police say
someone did something wrong.
Then the person must go to court.

Picture: Police arresting someone

Sometimes a judge decides.

Picture: Judge in court

  The judge can say the person
  is innocent or guilty.

p. 3
Sometimes a group of ordinary citizens decide.

Picture: Jury in court

We call this group a jury.

 2. New information

a)      Court can ask any Australian citizen to be part of jury.
b)     Person can make excuse
 Very important job
 Judge helps
 Government has no part – can't change decisions; can't influence court

A court can tell
any Australian citizen to join a jury.

Picture: Receiving court letter

Sometimes people have a problem.

Picture: Person upset

Maybe they are sick.
Maybe they cannot understand English very well.
Maybe they have small children.

So sometimes the court says,
"That's OK.  You can stay home."

Picture: Person relieved with letter

The jury have a very important job.

Picture: Jury in court room taking oath

They must promise to do their job very carefully.

The judge tells them about the law.
They can ask the judge questions.

Picture: Judge & jury talking

The Government is not part of the court.
It cannot change
anything the court decides.

Picture: Court room & Parliament separated

 Participants then worked in groups on one example each from a number of texts supplied.