Adapting texts for use in the English language classroom


The other day, Jen Artan was asking me about finding authentic reading material for my class that wasn’t too difficult. The comment was from a blog post I had written about Frequency Level Checker and so I thought it might be a good time to go through my steps in adapting material for my classroom. I know there is a lot of debate about adapting authentic material for the language classroom, but I feel there is a balance here that needs to be maintained between giving texts that are too difficult for students and needing students to be exposed to authentic language in use. I don’t believe that adapting a text has to take away from the authenticity and will make it better for students.

Step one: Copying the text

There are a few options here. If you already have the text in a document, there’s nothing more to do than just select the text and copy it. If you are copying from a website or a paper document, there are few more steps involved.

One of the problems of copying from webpages is the extra text you often end up getting due to a number of factors. To reduce, or even eliminate this, you can use one of the following bookmarklets (each page has instructions on how to install and use the bookmarklet with your browser):

Read Now from Readability: This bookmarklet converts the page you are on into a clean, readable page from which you can easily copy the text. Also works well when you have a page that is hard to read due to too many ads, small text, and other distractions. One of my favourite bookmarklets.

Text Only from Textise: This boomarklet converts the page you are on into a text only page. Unfortunetly, it also leaves all of the image tags and other extraneous bits. The nice thing is that it is plain text, so the formatting is completely stripped away which works well for some difficult pages.

Print Friendly from PrintFriendly and PDF: This bookmarklet makes the page you are on into a printable page and leaves you some formatting options as well. One nice thing is the option to remove the images from the page. You can also click on objects and lines on the page to delete them, allowing you to remove image captions and other header and footer data. You can also make the page into a PDF for printing.

Instapaper Text from Instapaper: This bookmarklet is similar to Read Now.

If your text is on a piece of paper somewhere or on a webpage or PDF that is locked, you can always convert the text into an image and then use OCR to convert to text. Here are some options for converting text:

Office Lens from Microsoft: This is a free mobile app for iOS, Android, and Microsoft Mobile devices. This is my favourite app on my phone. I use it for “scanning” all sorts of things from documents to business cards to rewards and membership cards that take up too much space in my wallet. Once the image is taken, Office Lens automatically crops and adjusts the image for clarity. You can then have the image automatically uploaded to OneNote which will take the image and run OCR to find text which can then be searched and / or copied. This is now my go-to app for documenting things.

OnlineOCR: This is a registration-free online app that converts images into a text file. It can also convert to a formatted Word document, but that doesn’t always works as well. The text is amazingly accurate, even more so than what I’ve found with Adobe Acrobat.

Google Drive: You can upload an image to your Drive account and convert the image to text by opening the image with Google Docs. In the new file, you will find the image at the top with the text down below. It works pretty well, but I find I have to strip away a lot of formatting first.

Step two: Highlighting difficult words

Once you have your text ready, go to Frequency Level Checker and check your text there for vocabulary level. Here are some general tips on usage:

  • Set Level 1 as black and then make all of the other options as red (ie. Level 2, Level 3, Outside Levels, and Symbols). This way you can get a quick visual of how many of the words are outside of the main 1000 words we use in General English. If your text is a sea of red, then it may be a good sign that the text is quite high. Even for a higher level class, a text with a lot of words above the first level may make it too difficult to read fluently.
  • Take a screenshot of the page or keep the page open for reference later on.
  • This is only a guide. Keep in mind that a particular word or phrase may appear multiple times throughout the text making the text look denser than it is.

Step three: Adapting the text

For words or phrases that are outside of the lexical range of my students, there are four options available to me: define, delete, simplify, or leave alone:

  • Define: If I feel the word is important for the student to know (eg. an important word for the story, or a word I think would be important for them to learn at this point), I can create a glossary of sorts for the story. This glossary should not be long, maybe in the 5-7 word range for a news article. I tend to just put the glossary in the story and will highlight the word (eg. make it bold). I may do something before the student starts reading as a pre-reading exercise, but I don’t find it makes much of a difference and often takes up more time than necessary.
  • Delete: This is a bit trickier since it often means re-writing a section of the story. Often times, I will take out a sentence that has some difficult phrasing if it doesn’t really add much to the story.
  • Simplify: This is what I primarily do to the difficult sections. I find easier ways to say something in order to make the story more readable. I know that there are some who say this takes away from the authentic reading experience, but that would only happen if I end up re-writing a large part of the text. I am only advocating for modifying a small percentage of the document in order to gain some fluency for students. If a text is 85% within the reading ability of my students and I can modify 10%, that makes it much more readable for the students.
  • Leave alone: There is a lot of debate over the ability of students to define words from context. I think there is a balance here and I often look for places where I can leave difficult words in a text knowing that students can make good predictions on meaning based on context and situation. This requires me to take time to think about the word in that context and whether or not there are enough clues to make an inference. Done well, this can be a really positive thing for students.


Here is an article I found in a local free newspaper. The article happens to also be online, so I don’t have to scan it in. “Toronto scientist sharing research in real-time”

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 2.21.58 PM

Since there is a lot of images, ads, and other things on the page, I used the Readability bookmarklet to strip all of the extra parts away.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 2.21.19 PM

I then took the text and ran it through Frequency Level Checker, highlighting only the words that weren’t part of Level 1.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 2.24.03 PM

Glossary words:

  • Publish
  • Research
  • Lab
  • Data
  • Online
  • Blog
  • Academic

I chose these words since I’m teaching an EAP course and we are looking at the validity of online research. I would then go and either create definitions or link to the online definitions. I tend to not just use definitions when introducing new vocabulary since it takes the word out of the environment in which it is used. Collocations, variations in form and definition, and so on are all things that affect the meaning of a word and need to be taken into consideration. In this situation, some of the words appear in various forms (eg. research, researcher, researching) and alongside other words (eg. academic research, academic science).

Deleted words / text:

  • Breaking scientific ground
  • Lay language
  • Access
  • Real time
  • Inspire
  • Take note
  • Avoid duplication
  • Huntington Protein
  • Cognitive
  • Physical decline
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Glory
  • Create collaboration
  • Speed up
  • Openness
  • The norm
  • Sustain
  • Tied
  • Incremental breakthroughs
  • Obviously
  • Scooping
  • Super competitive
  • Out-compete

Many of these words were not that important to learn at this point, so I simply took them out. Some of these words could be quite useful to learn, but maybe at a different time. The goal here is fluency and some increase in vocabulary. Having too many new words and phrases takes away from the reason for the reading in the first place.

Learned from context:

  • Biomedical
  • Risk
  • Goal
  • Community

I felt that these words were important enough to leave in, but not really necessary to define. In most situations, if the student is unable to figure out the meaning from context or from using logic to piece it together (eg. Biomedical), then it doesn’t hurt the story. In these circumstances, if these words were simply taken out, the story still makes sense. I’m also making a guess that words like goal will already be known from another situation (eg. sports) and can be easily applied to this situation. This builds on their scaffolding.

The end result:

As researcher Rachel Harding works away in her Toronto lab, she’s doing something that hasn’t normally been done before.

She’s publishing her lab notes and data online along with blogging about her work in a simple way at She’s believed to be the first biomedical researcher to blog about her work as she is working on it rather than waiting for experiments to be completed or their results published.

When other researchers see what’s she’s doing, they can choose to build on it, use it to help their own work or simply make sure they are not doing the same thing as her.

“One of the biggest problems in the way academic science is done is everyone is kind of sitting in their own corner, not really talking too much to each and not sharing with everything,”

“Everything is being duplicated, and it’s the person who gets to the one point where they can publish first who becomes famous.”

The movement toward open access to scientific data movement is meant to help scientists and researchers around the world work together to make discoveries more quickly. But, this isn’t normal in the world of academic research. That’s because the money that’s needed for the work often goes to making big discoveries instead of the smaller pieces those discoveries are built upon, Harding said.

“The biggest risk about being open from the beginning is someone can come in, see what you’ve done, leave out all the experiments that didn’t work—which is going to happen—and they can reach the end goal more quickly than you” Harding said.

“But the goal here is that it isn’t a fight and we work as a community”

Text adapted from original news article written by Jessica Smith Cross

Sentence complexity, paragraph and sentence length, and text length remain about the same. There is plenty for the student to deal with here without adding too much to their plate. This whole process took a bit of time on my part, but in the end, it was much easier than trying to locate something that was perfect. I also have the flexibility of using texts that fit my students’ needs in content and language.