We are glad to have this opportunity to report on our presentation on Science Reader at JALT 2008.
Choosing materials: the matrix
The main message of our presentation was that when we choose real-language materials for our students we have two general criteria: the materials must be interesting, and they must be accessible. To illustrate this idea we presented a matrix.
The matrix has “Accessibility” on the horizontal (x) axis, and “Level of Interest” on the vertical (y) axis. Thus, there are four areas, counterclockwise from the top right:
- Top right: Accessible, and interesting
- Top left: Not so accessible, but interesting
- Lower left: Not accessible and not interesting
- Lower right: Accessible, but not interesting
Certainly, we want to choose materials for our students that will be highly interesting to them, and highly accessible. However, there are many materials that our students may encounter in their formal or informal study of English, and these materials may have any combination of “level of interest” and “accessibility”.
We thus asked the participants to list out some materials in English that our students might encounter, and put them in the matrix. Below are a few possibilities.
Accessible and interesting
As you can see, a letter from a friend, written in English, would be very interesting and likely very accessible to the student. They would have a lot of background information, and would be actively searching for meaning in the text.
Not so accessible, but interesting
In the top left quadrant, materials that are interesting but more difficult to read, we find “Source novel for a favorite movie”. If the student really enjoyed a movie, they will have interest in reading the original novel. However, as the novel was written for a native speaker of English audience, it may be less than highly accessible.
Neither accessible nor interesting
In the lower left quadrant we find “Physics textbook for a non-science major”. Such a textbook, especially a traditional one that is dependent on mathematical explanations, may have content that is of little interest to the non-scientific student. Furthermore, the explanations and exercises may be very inaccessible as well.
Accessible, but not interesting
Finally, let’s take a look at the lower right quadrant, the mysterious “accessible, but not interesting” area. Materials in English here could be reference items, such as a telephone book (when one does not need to search for a number) or a computer manual (when one does not have a computer problem to solve). Once you need to access those reference works, however, their content becomes highly interesting, or at least useful.
Strategy: Help students discover the interesting nature of the material, and help them access it
As with the computer manual example, the level of interest in the content may change with a change in circumstances. When one finds motivation to read, perhaps sparked by necessity, or perhaps by a realization that the content is, after all, interesting and relevant, the student will naturally put more energy into understanding the text. As a teacher, it is particularly satisfying to help students discover the importance or relevance of some material that we have chosen for them, isn’t it?
Strategy: Provide students with an accessible (simplified) version
Another way to help students find appropriate reading material is to change the text itself. For example, few Japanese university students will be able to easily read Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre in its original form. Jane Eyre is not a forbidding work, but it is simply beyond the capability of many people who happen to be separated in time, culture, and English fluency from its original intended audience – 19th century residents of England. In such a case, a simplified (“reader”) version of Jane Eyre will be much more interesting and accessible to the typical non-native speaker or language learner.
By taking out difficult or unnecessary words, eliminating minor characters, simplifying the plot and otherwise making the essential story easier to grasp, reader versions of novels are valuable resources for students and teachers.
Our approach with Science Reader was a combination of the two strategies above. We wanted to introduce students to authentic material, and we wanted to give them the support they need to move up on both the “level of interest” and the “accessibility” axes by discovering the interesting points of the articles and by reading simplified versions of the articles.
We were thus really glad to be allowed to use material from Nature and its website, nature.com. Nature is a highly prestigious scientific publication, and it chronicles the most important and most interesting advances made in science. However, a language learner may find the articles, even those written for the general reader, to be somewhat challenging to comprehend.
In our presentation we illustrated our approach by showing a few slides from a modern version of a stage production. In full costume, a bad fairy explains what she is doing in mime and dance. This is similar to a “full text” — it is interesting, but there is a lot of information and it is a bit hard to understand.
Nobody in the audience knew who the bad fairy was, or which story was being portrayed, until we showed an earlier, made for television, version of the same story. This version of the performance was greatly simplified. For example, instead of explaining herself by dancing, the bad fairy in this production simply holds up a scroll, on which it is explained very directly what she is doing: putting a spell on the newborn princess.
The scroll reads:
In her fifteenth year the Princess
shall prick herself with a spindle
and shall fall down dead…
Now the audience recognized the story as being The Sleeping Beauty. Accordingly, when we showed the sequence of slides again, the audience brought much more background information and interest to the viewing of the scenes from the ballet. Concretely, there was much more understanding of the bad fairy’s actions and gestures. We were pleased that the audience could appreciate the point: understanding the essential story allows the full (or original) text to become much more accessible. And more interesting, too!
What we have done with Science Reader is to support the material in several unique ways.
Words to Know
First of all, we made the vocabulary section modular. Words to Know can be studied before or after the reading. Set expressions, especially those using prepositions, are highlighted, and fill-in blanks are given phonetic unit hints. A grammar transformation exercise is paired with example sentences so as to allow students to pay attention to grammar and also actualize the vocabulary used in the exercise. The goal of the vocabulary section is to prepare a reader to read the article with more understanding on the first, second or subsequent reading. Another goal is to reward the student by making the exercises thought-provoking, but still accessible.
Things to Know
The comprehension questions in Things to Know are similarly made with twin goals of increasing accessibility and boosting interest. We use True/False questions to confirm general understanding; multiple choice questions then question some details of the article. Next is “New Options”: students choose a new beginning or ending sentence for the article. This exercise allows them to put their detailed understanding into the article’s general context. Finally, “Classifications” telescopes out one more level by asking students to put the article into the context of its category. Of the six categories, which three fit? Once students complete these questions, they are ready to see the article differently at an outline level as well as at the detailed level.
The glue that holds the unit together is the additional readings. Again, these are modular: they can be read before or after the original article. If read before, they allow the student to bring background information to the article. If read afterwards, they will allow “Aha!” moments to occur while the student is re-reading the original article.
The FAQ Corner takes two items from the article and explains them in an easy-to-read and easy-to-understand fashion. These items are important for understanding the article deeply, but not are general knowledge for most people. Encountering them in the article on a second or subsequent reading is very illuminating.
The final reading, “To Summarize…”, is a summary. We cannot claim that having a summary is unique. However, the “To Summarize…” passage is not a summary of the journalistically written article. It is a summary of the scientific method from the article. In other words, this summary takes the information from the article and arranges it in the order one would use for an experiment report: Background; Problem; Experimental Procedure; Results; Recommendations. While it is written in a strictly logical format, it is also very accessible. Reading it gives students a clear picture of the material presented in the full article. Thus, once the reader has assimilated the core story, the full article becomes more accessible and more interesting.
Thank you for your interest in our textbook. We will be glad to get feedback from you and look forward to helping you help your students.
Thank you very much!