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Texts, and what to do with them

news standImagine this: you’re a keen learner of English in a small town somewhere in Europe, and you’re attending an English course two evenings a week. The course follows a coursebook published 15 years ago and containing outdated and unappealing texts about Britain and the USA. If you’re lucky, you can find a few books in English in a local library or bookshop. The only other way you can get hold of English-language texts is by travelling to the nearest big city where, at a newsagent’s stall at the main railway station, you can choose from a small range of expensive English-language newspapers (probably a couple of days old) and magazines.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this was a reality for many people, even in western Europe. In the last few decades the quantity of text available has increased exponentially, and current technology enables any kind of text to be located and accessed almost instantly. Whether you want to read about tips for home brewing, recent developments in quantum physics or the history of railways in India, it will only take you a few seconds to find something suitable.

You generally read in your first language (L1) for information or entertainment, or a combination of both, and you can  – and should! – do the same in English, provided you have sufficient knowledge of the language. But as a language learner, you can also approach English-language texts from a different perspective: you can regard them as raw material for learning, and take an interest not only in their subject matter but also in their language content. As well as reading a text, finding out what you want from it and enjoying it, there are plenty of other things you can do with it. Here are a few examples.

1 Take a short text and translate it into your L1. A couple of days later, take your translation and translate it back into English. Compare the result with the original.

2 Read an international news item in your L1. Locate the key words and expressions and predict what their English equivalents will be. Then read the same news in English.

3 Make a note of the key vocabulary in a text and then try to reconstruct the complete text.

4 In a text you’ve read, find a sentence which is particularly interesting for you, perhaps because you can only understand it with some difficulty. Copy each of the words of the sentence onto separate slips of paper. Jumble these slips and spread them out on a table. Try to reassemble them in the right order. Try again a few days later.

5 Look through a text and find all the words containing a particular sound, e.g. /u:/. Check your results in your dictionary.

6 Look through a text and find all the words containing a particular spelling, e.g. ‘ea’. Sort them into categories according to pronunciation, e.g. /e/, /i:/, /eə/ etc.

7 Look through a text and find all the two-syllable words with stress on the second syllable.

8 Take a text with, let’s say, 60 words. Reduce it to 59 words while keeping the meaning intact; you could do this by changing the vocabulary or grammar, or by simply removing a non-essential word. Then reduce the length to 58 words, then 57, and so on.

Returning to the same text a number of times, and doing exercises such as these, you can deepen your understanding of the language in the text as well as appreciating the content. Perhaps you use other such exercises? If so, let us know!

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Jonathan Marks

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