The Internet TESL Journal

Using ‘Text’ to Promote Communicative Language Learning

Oliver Dammacco
dammacco (*at*)
Salalah College of Technology (Salalah, Oman)
This article introduces 1) the necessary elements for the successful execution of a text-based task and 2) focuses attention on ways to manipulate text in order to facilitate a learner-centred communicative flow. The author believes it would be useful to adopt the definitions for task and activity, as set out by Vigotsky (1962). The term task we will define as the teacher’s intended framework for an activity, in which learners develop semi-autonomously (i.e. with external parameters/goals). Think of it this way: you tell a group of children to play a game only in the little park outside - not beyond that boundary. They must come back in within thirty minutes, without a trace of mud on their clothes – a tangible but unlikely goal!


The use of 'text' as a channel for communication may seem rather dry and demotivational.  While it is important to provide a range of materials, including colourful pictures, photos (particularly from authentic news stock), ‘text’ is rich input that can be manipulated and serve as a springboard for highly communicative tasks. However, it is important to remember that tasks must include an overriding purpose (goal) in order to create a motive or need for the learners to communicate. Karpova (1999), Willis & Willis (1996) and Rooney (2000), point out that more traditional theories of language based on Structural-Functional approaches, rely heavily on activities, which result in the abstract practice of target language without purpose, without meaning for the learner. To this end, learners are restricted in their own linguistic resourcefulness and thus evaluated according to tight parameters of language form (as set out by the teacher). It is important to remember that the goals set allow the learners certain (creative) manoeuvrability, with some emphasis on meaning. This is more likely to result in greater motivation.

Creating Text-based Tasks

In the development and successful execution of tasks, consider the following points:

1) Learner Needs – based on your experience, your needs analysis (provided by your learners) and your overall lesson objective(s). Although you may have a large group, consider also learners who stand out, in terms of being particularly strong and particularly weak communicators. (See point 6)

2) Input – this is the material (text and possibly images) we select according to learners’ general level, interest and /or major and overall needs. What skills should we focus on? We may be gearing towards English for General Purposes, English for Special Purposes, etc.

3) Task Type – A description of the activity and goal: now we need to develop a task from our input that we feel will address the learner needs, more specifically e.g. skimming, scanning techniques etc.  What modifications need to be made for e.g. individual learner roles? (See point 6)

4) Goal/Purpose – This must be clear in our minds, and in the minds of the learners during set-up. The teacher needs to be mindful in his/her instructions before shifting the ‘ownership’ and conduct of the task onto the learners. Time constraints, organization of material, justification of choices are examples of goals.

5) Task Link – This is probably the most difficult consideration. The task does not exist in isolation and functions as a component in the overall lesson objective(s). What precedes this task? What follows? Why?

6) Learner Organization and Roles – What are the groupings? Who is the ‘leader’? Who are the ‘followers’? If a learner has weak listening skills, we might consider their role as note taker/observer/reporter.

Choosing and Modifying a Text (Input)

The first concern is the learners’ level; when dealing with e.g. false beginners we must consider what is realistically achievable in using ‘text’ as our input. The content should reflect learner needs but is likely to be less authentic i.e. adapted to focus on specific language forms (e.g. adjectives) and be extremely short in length – probably no more than 10 lines. Another idea with lower-level learners might be to have them complete rather than produce information.  However, one shouldn't rule out the use of authentic texts all together. Consider the rich input of real menus, travel pamphlets, recipes, etc.  Dialogues or monologues (e.g. from a film) may be appropriate if the content reflects learner needs, results in a tangible goal, and is slightly more difficult than the learner’s current ability, as Krashen (1982) maintains. Also, the accompaniment of images/commercial designs is highly recommendable for lower levels.

As we move up to higher-level students, it is desirable to shift more toward, authentic material, which as in real-life situations, include an integration of language. For useful ideas and considerations in the use of authentic material, see Karpova (1999), and Kelly et al (2002). The choice of topics will again be determined by learner needs. Nunan (1999) provides some useful ideas and templates for needs analysis design.


Some examples of text-based tasks are presented below, which can be modified according to level and goals. They have been classified according to:

1) Speculation – With clues learners predict the nature/topic of a text

Sentences:  The teacher (physically) cuts three sentences from a text (the choice is important). Learners are shown these one at a time and have to come up with an overall impression/gist. (For lower levels, images could be used).

Titles:  Show learners only the title and have them speculate on what the text is about.
First Line/Last Line:  The teacher reads the first line of the text. Learners have to speculate about the rest; the same can be done by revealing only the last line.

Keywords:  Learners are given keywords from the text and have to suggest how the full text goes.
Image and Text:  The teacher reads the text. Learners have to decide which, of a group of images, most closely relate to the text.

Cloze:  The teacher whites out i) every nth word, ii) all words of a certain type (adjectives, verbs etc.) or iii) key items of vocabulary. The learners must come up with appropriate words to fill the blanks.

Completion: Students provide a likely completion for a given part of a word, sentence, paragraph, narrative, or dialogue - e.g. “Steven Biko’s life was diff…”  “When I have exams, I get...”, “… and stir in gradually” .

2) Matching - pairing together words, items, objects, pictures etc. which have something in common.

Pictures and Texts: Students match a selection of pictures with the appropriate texts (e.g. newspaper photographs and their captions).    

Pictures and Words: Students match a selection of pictures with the appropriate vocabulary.

Texts and Texts: Students match texts that have something in common with each other (e.g. news headlines and the related story).

3) Jigsaw/Sequence - A text/image is cut or divided into pieces, and reassembled in order.

Words/lines/sentences:  Sentences are cut into words and learners read each separately. Learners share information to put a sentence together using all the words. The same can be done with paragraphs i.e. cut into lines or whole sentences whereby learners will reassemble the paragraph.

Paragraphs:  The teacher cuts the text into paragraphs and learners read each separately. Learners share information to put the whole text together.

Fractions:  The teacher cuts up an article at random, into strips for example. Learners have to put it back together in a logical order.

Actions:  The teacher breaks a text into actions. These can be represented by words and/or images. Learners have to put the text together.

4) Ranking and Rating - A number of words / items / pictures etc. must be prioritized or categorized.

Rank and Compare: Learners individually rank a number of short news story headlines in terms of their importance and then ask questions to ascertain the others' results. With more advanced groups, the teacher should encourage more justification on the part of the learners.

Rate and Compare: learners individually rate a number of news headlines / events / images etc.   (5 stars = most interesting, 1 star = least interesting) - and ask questions to ascertain the others' results

Rank and Reach a Consensus: learners are given a short story with, say, a tragic outcome involving several characters. Learners are asked individually to rank “who is most responsible for the outcome”.  As a pair or group they are required to discuss and reach a consensus on this not unlike a jury would.

Rate and Reach a Consensus: learners individually rate a number e.g. job or life-skill descriptions in terms of their ‘usefulness’. As a pair or group they are required to discuss and come to a consensus in order to arrive at one (or several) item(s) deemed “very useful”.

Setting a Purpose/Goal for Communication

A purpose or goal is given at the outset, and should include a condition or set of conditions which learners might encounter in the wider society. Completing an information gap under a time limit, solving a conflict of interest, deciphering misinformation, awarding points for say, error recognition (which could be corpus-based), are just some examples. Also we should consider time constraints; in the real world we are frequently made subject to deadlines, when it comes to completing tasks in the workplace, filing our taxes, and so on. Alternatively, personalizing the task i.e. creating a meaning for the student is an equally effective motive for communication. If asked, learners sometimes express that studying English is not just about acquiring skills or knowledge. It is a way of relieving stress, after say, a hard day at work. Raising issues such as working conditions, specific duties, gender inequality might, considerably enhance a text on ‘jobs’; these issues may relate (at some point) to the experience of the learner. The learner’s motivation is fueled by a desire to let out personal frustrations – a very natural way to communicate! Furthermore, the classroom may seem a like a ‘safe-house’ for the learner in which to freely express job anxieties, where such talk may be discouraged in his/her L1 community.

Task Link

It is important (and equally difficult) to consider how a text-based task fits into the scheme of the lesson. What preceding task will ensure a smoother transition?  Preceding text-based tasks with, for example, a brainstorm of ideas/vocabulary surrounding the topic/theme offers the teacher insight into what the learners already know, thus allowing for the ongoing modification and development of the lesson.  Also, the learners may provide additional information surrounding the topic, which may serve as ‘fodder’ for a later task. By encouraging learners to brainstorm, rich and versatile material is created that can be utilized in a variety of ways. Material (input) that derives from the learner’s experience, knowledge, preference and imagination is more likely to result in topicality, relevance and participation, as well as greater stimulation and interest.


Text-based input can be used in a number of ways to produce meaningful (and thus motivational) communicative tasks. It is important to remember that the success of any task is dependent upon the six key factors listed in this article: learner needs, input, task type, goal/purpose, task link and learner organization and roles.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, January 2010