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Teacher's Corner: Adapting Materials for Students' Levels
Finding and choosing materials to use in classes can be a challenge. Teachers must take into account a number of things, including authenticity, the original source, the target language skill, and learners’ language levels and ages.

Finding and choosing materials to use in classes can be a challenge. Teachers must take into account a number of things, including authenticity, the original source, the target language skill, and learners’ language levels and ages. After choosing materials, teachers must then decide if the material needs to be further adapted to fit the needs of their learners.

Last month’s Teacher’s Corner focused on finding authentic materials. This month’s Teacher’s Corner focuses on adapting authentic materials to fit students’ levels and offers several factors to consider when making those adaptations. Week 1 offers an overview of those factors and how each factor can enhance or potentially diminish materials. Week 2 will model how to adapt songs to fit the needs of beginning learners. During Week 3, the activity presented will offer suggestions on how to adjust the vocabulary in a reading to meet the needs of more advanced learners. Finally, Week 4 addresses modifications needed for multi-level classrooms.

Additional Resources

For additional information about adapting authentic materials, check out a few of the many resources available on the American English website:

Adapting Materials to Meet Your Classroom Needs

Adapting Authentic Materials for Language Teaching

Adapting Textbook Activities for Communicative Teaching and Cooperative Learnin

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Table of Contents

Considerations for Adapting Materials to Meet Learner NeedsExpand

When adapting materials for language learners, teachers must consider a number of factors in order to offer an effective and relevant activity. First, teachers must think about the chosen material in relation to the target skill of the lesson, the class environment and size, the language level of learners, and the ages of the learners. Following that, teachers must look closely at the material itself in order to identify what adaptations are possible; these adaptations need to be considered in terms of the sub-skills targeted, such as vocabulary, grammatical components, structure and design, and idiomatic expressions. After considering these factors, teachers can then decide if they need to edit, add to, or cut out some of the material. Though adapting materials can seem like a difficult task, the value added to students’ learning can make the entire process very worthwhile. In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, teachers will review the considerations necessary for adapting materials to meet learner needs.

LARGER CONSIDERATIONS

The majority of materials available for use in class can be easily adapted to fit a variety of teaching environments, but adaptation does require some time and forethought. Here are some key factors to consider as you adapt resources to best suit your goals and the needs and interests of your students.

Target Skill of the Lesson

The target skill (reading, writing, listening, or speaking) is the foundation of a language lesson. When bringing in outside materials and adapting them for a lesson, teachers must prioritize the lesson’s target skills and objectives over other factors. For example, a teacher might find a wonderful material that is relevant to the lesson’s theme and easily adapted for class size and environment, but the material does not fit well with the lesson’s target skill. Therefore, this resource may not be the best choice. Here are questions to help consider target skills:

  • Can the material be adapted to work with the target skill of the lesson? What kind of adaptation is needed for this material to be an effective part of the overall lesson?
  • How much time and effort are required to adapt the material to fit the target skill of the lesson? Is that time and effort better spent on incorporating other materials?

Class Environment and Size

The number of students in your class or your classroom context can affect a resource’s impact and usefulness for your students. Consider these questions before you adapt a resource for your learners:

  • How easily can the material be adapted to fit a large or small group of learners? For example, teachers with large groups of learners (40 students or more) might avoid using a long article due to the number of copies it would require. Resources and access to copy machines and other tools might be a limiting factor for large groups.
  • How does funding and access affect what can be adapted? Some teachers have a number of resources at their fingertips while others are working with limited resources. Again, consider a classroom with a large number of students. Is there enough money, paper, or even ink to provide this resource to a large class?
  • What other factors in the teaching environment will contribute to the need to adapt certain materials? For example, do you have access to technology that can help you make adaptations to listening materials?

Language Levels of Learners

Along with target skills, learners’ language levels are at the core of lesson planning and design. Materials, whether adapted or used in their original format, must be evaluated in terms of learners’ language levels. Some questions for consideration include:

  • Would this material prove too difficult to adapt for the learners’ language levels? For example, it may take too much time and language analysis to adapt an article from the New York Times to fit the language levels of beginning or intermediate learners.

Learners’ Ages

Perhaps the easiest factor to consider when adapting materials are learners’ ages. Many teachers know what topics interest their learners and are age-appropriate. Here are some questions to ask when considering materials relative to learners’ age levels.

  • Will the material hold an interest for the age group in question regardless of adaptations? For example, it could be a challenge to adapt a political news story to meet the interest level of younger learners. Likewise, adapting a children’s book to use with adult learners could be seen as too basic or even insulting.
  • Can the material be easily adapted to fit the interest and needs of the age group, or would an adaptation require too much research and effort?

SMALLER CONSIDERATIONS

Vocabulary

For all materials used in the language classroom, the Lexile level, or the language level, of the material plays a critical role in whether the material is appropriate for learners. Lexile level is measured by vocabulary, the number of words, and sentence lengths; it indicates what level of learner would best be served by the material. For many beginning and intermediate learners, authentic materials without adaptations may have a Lexile level that is too advanced. There are a number of free online Lexile measurement tools that help teachers find out the language level of a text. Teachers can copy and paste or enter the text of a material into one of these measurement tools to find out the material’s Lexile level. Teachers can then make adaptations to the text to match the level of their students and then use the same tool to assess the revised text. Here is a link to a free online Lexile measurement tool, but there are many more available:

Grammatical Components

As with vocabulary, it is very important to adapt materials in terms of a lesson’s grammatical components or to meet learners’ existing grammatical knowledge. Unlike with vocabulary, however, there are no easy measurement tools for determining the level of the grammatical components in a material. Thus, adapting materials based on grammar levels takes a bit more time. So, what should teachers do in order to adapt for grammatical considerations? Try the following:

  • What grammatical components are learners already familiar with? Identify the grammatical components that learners are familiar with and have studied previously.
  • What are the targeted grammatical structures? identify the grammar to be taught in the lesson. Materials can be adapted to teach new language aspects but can also be adapted to fit learners’ levels while focusing on a different skill.
  • What aspects of this material already have the targeted grammatical structures, and what could be adapted to practice the target grammar? A teacher can change the material to meet either or both of the above aspects. For example, teachers could look at the verb tenses in a material and change them to either reflect learners’ existing knowledge or to practice the verb tense being taught.

Structure and Design

Structure and design can refer to the structure of the language in a material but this factor also refers to the layout and visual elements of the material. Many materials are designed with native English speakers in mind. For example, a material might use different fonts and colors and lay out the text in unfamiliar ways. Teachers may then want to consider adaptations that meet learners’ processing skills and learning styles. For materials such as these, teachers might want consider the following questions: 

  • What types of text layouts are already familiar to learners? Lay out the text in a clear and familiar pattern so that students can easily read or follow along while listening. For example, if students usually read materials formatted in columns of text, then adapting a material to have columns of text can help students to focus on learning the language.
  • Do the font and colors need to be simplified or changed to make it easier for learners to understand the material? Use the simplest and most accessible font styles and colors. Use only one font and choose a font that is easy for students to follow. Use black text on white paper to make the text easy to read.
  • Are there elements that are unfamiliar or distracting that need to be changed or removed? If students do not typically see extra pictures or pop-out boxes while reading, it may be worthwhile to remove these elements to help students focus on the text.

Idiomatic Expressions

The presence of idiomatic expressions in a text can easily change the level of the material. When adapting a resource, it is important to pay attention to colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions in case these language structures need to be altered to fit learners’ abilities. Use some of the following techniques when adapting for these factors.

  • Skim new materials for collocations of words that might be unfamiliar to learners. Teachers may want to note if the collocations should be adapted for a different level of learner.
  • Identify any phrases, idiomatic expressions, or colloquialisms that are not part of the learners’ background knowledge. Change unfamiliar expressions to more learner-friendly phrases unless some of the language in these expressions is part of the target skill.

NEXT STEPS FOR ADAPTING MATERIALS

After considering all of the factors explained here, it is time to decide how to adapt and adjust the material to fit the needs of students.

  • One place to start is to decide what edits should be made. For example, if verb tenses need to be changed to meet the target skill of the lesson, the teacher could then work through the material to edit each verb tense to the target verb tense. Editing can take time and require extra effort but will make the material more effective and appropriate for the learners.
  • Teachers might need to delete language that distracts from the lesson’s target skills or that may present a challenge for learners.
  • Teachers might need to add text to a material. This adaptation often is done when vocabulary in a text needs an explanation or a definition or when learners might need background information on particular themes or topics.

During the next three weeks, revisit Teacher’s Corner to see specific examples of how to adapt texts for learners.

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Adapting Songs for Beginning LearnersExpand

As discussed in last week’s Teacher’s Corner, adapting materials involves carefully analyzing the material to be adapted based a number of factors. In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, teachers can follow along as the song “We Dig Worms” is slightly adapted by adding language and then used to conduct an activity for a beginning group of learners. The song comes from the American English compilation called American Rhythms; the entire compilation can be found on the American English site. The activity presented below adapts the song to meet the stated lesson objectives.

LEVEL

Beginning

LANGUAGE FOCUS

Listening

GOALS

During this activity, students will be able to:

  • Identify previously studied vocabulary words related to animals and plants
  • Define the word “dig” in the context of the song
  • Selectively listen and choose the correct animal or plant when heard while listening to the song

MATERIALS

PREPARATION

  • Make enough copies of the worksheet (Appendix A) for each student.
  • Prepare to have the song play from a set of speakers so students can listen.

PROCEDURE

  1. Write the word “dig” on the board and ask learners if they know its meaning.
    1. Give students a chance to think about the meaning and share what they know.
    2. After some ideas are shared, write the title of the song on the board, “We Dig Worms,” and ask them what this title means.
    3. After a few more ideas are shared, write “We Like Worms” on the board and explain that in American English “to dig” can be used idiomatically to mean “to like.”
  2. Remind students of some vocabulary they have discussed related to animals and plants.
    1. Ask them for some of the words they have learned recently and write them on the board as they call the words out.
  3. Model how they could use the word “dig” to explain what they like: for example, “I dig cats” or “I dig flowers.”
    1. Have students turn to a neighbor and tell the neighbor what animal or plant they dig.
    2. Have some students offer some examples of what they dig before introducing the song activity.
  4. Tell students they are going to listen to the song “We Dig Worms” and listen for what animals and plants the singer digs.
    1. Hand out copies of the worksheet with the adaptations to the song lyrics.
    2. Give students a few minutes to study the lyrics before asking them to work with their neighbor to alternate reading lines aloud.
    3. Circulate to help students with pronunciation of new words.
  5. Bring the students back together and explain that now they will listen to the song and complete the worksheet. As they listen, tell them to circle the plant or animal the singer digs in each verse.
    1. Play the song and have students listen and circle the correct answers as best they can.
  6. At the end of the song, tell them they will listen again.
    1. If students feel confident in their answers, tell them to listen and check their answers the second time.
    2. If students still need to identify answers, tell them that they will have a chance to try their missing answers again.
    3. After listening again, give students a few minutes to consider their answers.
  7. Ask students to return to working with their neighbors. Have students compare answers with their neighbors and change any answers they think might need changing.
  8. Students continue to work with their neighbors while the song is played one more time. During this third time to listen, students can work quietly with partners to check all of their work.
  9. Once the song is finished, ask each pair to read a line with the correct answer. Ask for confirmation from the rest of the class to ensure that all students recognize the correct answer.
    1. If there is time, play the song again and have the students stand up and sing along to practice saying the words they listened for during the lesson.

VARIATIONS

This activity can be adapted to fit a multi-level group of beginners. Some students could receive a copy of the lyrics with a choice of words to listen for while more advanced learners receive a copy of the lyrics with the target vocabulary words not listed. The more advanced learners must write in the words that they hear rather than choose between two words.

APPENDIX A

We Dig Worms
by Zach Ladin (4:53)

Instructions: For each line, choose the correct word from the two options. The first one has been done for you.

Lyrics:

(Hello, everybody! This is a little song I wrote about all the things in this big old world that I really dig. Here’s how it goes…)

I dig worms/worns
You dig worms/worns
We dig worns/worms
Who digs worms/worns
I said, we dig worns/worms
because they’re wild!

(Now, can you dig what I’m talking about?)

I dig pugs/bugs
You dig bugs/pugs
We dig bugs/pugs
Who digs pugs/bugs
I said, we dig bugs/pugs
because they rule!

I dig dish/fish
You dig fish dish
We dig fish/dish
Who digs dish/fish?
I said, we dig dish/fish
because they’re slick!

Refrain
I’ve never met a living thing I didn’t like.
No, nothing bothers me.
In this whole, wide world, I dig
Just about everything I see.

I dig dogs / frogs
You dig frogs / dogs
We dig frogs / dogs
Who digs dogs / frogs?
I said, we dig frogs / dogs
because they’re smooth.

I dig snakes/cakes
You dig cakes/snakes
We dig snakes cakes
Who digs snakes cakes?
I said, we dig cakes snakes
because they’re sssss-super!

I dig herds/birds
You dig herds/birds
We dig herds/birds
Who digs birds/herds?
I said, we dig herds/birds
because they’re fly!

Refrain
(or smell. . .)

I dig skunks/bunks

You dig skunks/bunks

We dig bunks/skunks
Who digs bunks/skunks?
I said, we dig skunks/bunks
because they’re sweet!

I dig cubs/grubs
You dig grubs/cubs
We dig grubs/cubs
Who digs cubs/grubs?
I said, we dig grubscubs
just like those skunks!

I dig pants/plants
You dig plants/pants
We dig plants/pants
Who digs pants/plants?
I said, we dig plants/pants because they’re
great!

I’ve never met a living thing I didn’t like.
No, nothing bothers me.
In this whole, wide world, I dig
Just about everything I see.

I dig mushrooms/brooms
You dig brooms/mushrooms
We dig mushrooms/brooms
Who digs brooms/mushrooms?
I said, we dig mushrooms/brooms
because they’re fun - gi!

I dig lichen/hiking
You dig hiking/lichen
We dig lichen/hiking
Who digs hiking/lichen?
I said, we dig lichen/hiking,
we be liking!

I dig rocks/locks
You dig locks/rocks
We dig locks/rocks
Who digs locks/rocks?
I said, we did rocks/locks
because they rock!

Refrain

I dig otter/water
You dig otter/water
We dig water/otter
Who digs water/otter?
I said, we dig otter/water
because it’s cool!

I dig air/pear
You dig air/pear
We dig pear/air
Who digs pear/air?
I said, we dig pear/air
because it’s fresh!

I dig the fun/sun
You dig the fun/sun
We dig the fun/sun
Who digs the sun/fun?
I said, we dig the sun/fun
because it’s hot!                                                                                      

Refrain

I dig Earth
You dig Earth
We dig Earth
Who digs Earth?
I said, we dig Earth because it’s our home!
(repeated)

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Adapting a Reading for Advanced Learners to Focus on VocabularyExpand

When adapting materials, some teachers might think only about how to make them more accessible for beginners or lower level students; however, materials can also be adapted to be more challenging to meet the needs of more advanced learners. In this Teacher’s Corner activity, teachers learn how an article can be adapted to raise the level of its vocabulary. The reading, “Iditarod: Annual Sled Dog Race,” from the journal English Teaching Forum, focuses on Alaska and the annual 1,000-mile dog race across the state. There are a number of readings in this resource, but the article used for this activity is found on pages 52-53.

LEVEL

Advanced

LANGUAGE FOCUS

Reading
Vacabulary

GOALS

During this activity, students will be able to:

  • Use an article about Alaska to practice using and manipulating new vocabulary
  • Recognize and define new vocabulary words from the Academic Word List (AWL), highlighted in the reading
  • Change highlighted words to appropriate synonyms

Rewrite sentences so that highlighted words must change their form to a different part of speech

MATERIALS

  • Copy of the original reading “Iditarod: Annual Sled Dog Race” (for teacher)
  • Copies of the adapted reading with highlighted AWL vocabulary (see Appendix A)
  • Access to dictionaries and thesauri (print or online)

PREPARATION

  • Read the article (Appendix A) and practice completing this exercise prior to asking students to complete it
  • For each student, make a copy of the article with the AWL vocabulary highlighted (Appendix A)

PROCEDURE

  1. Begin class by putting students into small groups and asking them to share what they know about Alaska. As they discuss, offer some other topics related to the state of Alaska. They can then discuss what they know or guess as to what these topics might mean.
    1. For example, ask them to discuss the climate, geography, people, etc.
    2. As the students discuss the topics, write the name of the article on the board: “Iditarod: Annual Sled Dog Race.”
    3. Draw students’ attention to the title of the article and have them discuss in their groups what they know about this specific Alaskan event.
    4. Bring the class together and have them share what they know and what questions they might have.
  2. Explain to the class that today they are going to use an article about Alaska to work on some new vocabulary words from the Academic Word List (AWL).
    1. If students have not worked with vocabulary from the AWL before, explain that it is a list of the 570 words most commonly used in academia.
  3. First, students are going to read the article with the new AWL vocabulary words highlighted.
    1. Hand out copies of the article (see Appendix A) to each student.
    2. Give students sufficient time to read the article on their own, paying close attention to the vocabulary words that are in bold print.
      1. Encourage students to write a definition and a translation next to the highlighted words if they know what a particular word means.
    3. Once students have had a chance to read the article, have them return to their groups to discuss the highlighted vocabulary. Have students work together to write down definitions and translations of the new words.
    4. After students work for several minutes, hand out dictionaries to learners or tell them they can use computers or their mobile devices to look up the new words.
    5. As they work together to find and define the words, tell students to correct any incorrect definitions they had written down.
  4. Tell students to return to working individually. Have students go through the article again, but this time they replace each AWL word with an appropriate synonym.
    1. If teachers find it necessary to model, elicit synonyms for the first word in the article teams. Write students’ suggestions on the board and then have them choose the word they think is the best fit.
    2. If a highlighted word is repeated in the text, students should try to find different synonyms for each instance of the word.
  5. After students have worked through the article and changed the words to appropriate synonyms, tell students to return to their groups and share the changes they made.
    1. Also encourage them to speak up in their groups if someone’s synonym does not have quite the same meaning or does not work as a substitution.
  6. Bring students back together as a large group and explain that the next changes they are going to make relate to parts of speech of the highlighted words.
    1. Clarify that when a word changes to a different part of speech, the meaning of the word is slightly changed. By understanding these changes in meaning, learners will have a better understanding of the word and all of the words in its family.
    2. Remind students that not all words can change to another part of speech.
    3. Explain that if a word changes its part of speech, it will not work in the same position in the sentence. For example, change the word economics to economical, and the word changes from a noun to an adjective. In English, nouns and adjectives do not sit in the same place in a sentence.
  7. Begin by modeling and working with the students on a single word from the article.
    1. First, write the word transportation on the board and ask students which part of speech it is.
    2. Then, ask students to suggest other parts of speech for the word, e.g., transport, transportable, transportability, transporter.
    3. Have students look at the first sentence in the article using transportation.
    4. Ask students to rewrite the sentence using the word transport instead.
    5. Have volunteers write their new sentences on the board or share them with the class.
  8. Explain that now students will do this for each of the highlighted vocabulary words in the text. Students will alter the text to retain the meaning but use different parts of speech for the new vocabulary words.
    1. Try to have students start this activity in class, but if time is short, return to the activity in the next class or assign it as homework.
    2. Save a few minutes at the end for students to return to groups and share one or two sentences that they have rewritten.

VARIATIONS

This activity can be adapted to fit additional needs of advanced learners in terms of other language skills. Instead of focusing on vocabulary, teachers could adapt the text to focus on a grammar point that has been studied in class. For example, if students are working on writing complex sentences, the teacher could rewrite sentences combining and adding information as a way to model sentence complexity. Then, the activity could be adjusted to practice this particular skill or grammar point.

Another variation is to focus not on language skills when adapting the text but on another element such as content or rhetorical structure. Teachers could focus on a particular genre of writing that would require changing the language used to present information and ideas. For example, teachers working on comparative writing strategies might bring in another topic to incorporate into the article to create a comparison, such as between two traditional dog races.


APPENDIX A

The following article’s highlighted vocabulary words are all listed on the Academic Word List (AWL). In order to identify AWL words, a AWL highlighter was used. The original article was copied and pasted into the tool’s text box, and a version was created where the words from the AWL were highlighted.

Iditarod: Annual Sled Dog Race

By William P. Ancker

Mushing is the sport of racing teams of dogs that pull sleds over snow. It grew from an ancient and practical means of transportation of native people of Alaska: using muscular dogs to carry cargo through harsh winter weather. The largest and most famous sporting event in Alaska is Iditarod, an annual race of teams of sled dogs and their drivers (or "mushers") that takes almost two weeks and covers approximately 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) from Anchorage to Nome. “Mushing" is the act of racing teams of dogs that pull sleds over snow. It grew from an ancient and practical means of transportation of native people of Alaska: using muscular dogs to carry cargo through harsh winter weather. The largest and most famous sporting event in Alaska is Iditarod, an annual race of teams of sled dogs and their drivers (or "mushers") that takes almost two weeks and covers approximately 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) from Anchorage to Nome.

The Iditarod commemorates a historic event from the winter of 1925, when a relay of 20 teams of dogs and mushers was used to deliver urgently needed medicine to Nome. Severe weather conditions made delivery by boat or airplane impossible. That heroic effort of men and their beloved dogs prevented an outbreak of diphtheria in Nome and saved hundreds of lives.

The first Iditarod was held in 1973. The race has grown steadily since then, both in the number of entrants who compete and the number of volunteers who help behind the scenes. Over the years, mushers and their dogs have come from Alaska, 20 other U.S. states, and 14 foreign countries to compete in "the last great race."

The race begins every year on the first Saturday of March in the city of Anchorage, which is on the Gulf of Alaska in the northern Pacific Ocean. It ends in the town of Nome on the coast of the Bering Sea. The middle section of the racecourse, between the villages of Ophir and Kaltag, alternates each year. A northern route is taken on even numbered years and a southern route on odd numbered years. This enables more villages to participate as checkpoints during this test of endurance across very sparsely populated wilderness.

The checkpoints are essential for a race of this length, difficulty, and isolation. Because there are no roads linking every section of the race, airplanes are used to ferry supplies and people before, during, and after the event. In fact, the race has its own "air force" of 23 volunteer pilots who transport dozens of race personnel, such as judges, dog handlers, and veterinarians, and tons of cargo, including dogs taken out of the race due to sickness or injury.

There are important rules in Iditarod to protect the health and safety of the teams of musher and dogs. During the race, the mushers must take several mandatory rest stops. One eight-hour stop occurs in the middle of the race, and another occurs before the last 124-kilometer (77-mile) section of the race into Nome. In addition, at one point during the race whenever each musher decides is best the team must rest for 24 hours. The mushers have to carry certain safety equipment for themselves, such as a warm sleeping bag, a pair of snowshoes, and a small cooker for boiling water.

This safety equipment also includes items for the teams of dogs, which can range between 12 and 16 animals per sled. Two pairs of "booties" for each dog are required to protect the animals' paws from sharp ice and other obstacles on the trail. Most of the sled cargo is dog food. Each musher must also carry a special veterinarian notebook, which is presented to the veterinarian who examines all the dogs on a team at each checkpoint. The rules of Iditarod specifically state, "There will be no cruel or inhumane treatment of dogs." A unique feature of Iditarod, in addition to the extreme climatic conditions and unusual mode of racing vehicle, is that women and men mushers compete together. In fact, in the 30 years of this grueling race, a woman has won five times. In 1985, Libby Riddles was the first woman to win. Clearly, winning Iditarod takes months of planning and training. Perhaps an indication of the tremendous dedication is that 20 editions have been won by only five mushers.

Iditarod has an education component, too. Every year, a Teacher on the Trail is selected among numerous applicants to observe the race firsthand and prepare lessons based on the race for elementary students. The selected teacher follows the trail where the teams race, sleeps in a sleeping bag at checkpoints, travels on Iditarod Air Force planes, and is present for the finish in Nome. Every day during the race, the teacher uses a laptop computer to post news reports, photos, and lesson plans to the official race Web site for classroom use around the world. There are other responsibilities, too. The Teacher on the Trail must also attend and report on the Junior Iditarod, a short sled dog race for teenage mushers held beforehand, and may be called upon to serve as an official spokesperson for Iditarod and make many public appearances at schools in Alaska and other states

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