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”

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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.

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

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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.

Creating a social asynchronous webinar


Image courtesy of Mark Sebastian

By now, most people have likely at least heard of the term webinar if not taken part in one. I have had the privilege to have given one and also to have taken part in some. For those who maybe have only have heard of the term before but aren’t sure what they are about, here is a quick overview. A webinar is a short seminar hosted live on the internet where people can watch it streaming anywhere in the world if there is at least half-decent internet access. Also, participants can usually ask questions and participate in polls through the text chat functions. Some webinars even allow for live audio and video based questions, but only when there is a moderator in place that can help things run smoothly. Here is my chart comparing face-to-face seminars to webinars:








One location Anywhere with internet access Webinar – Saves time and money not having to travel


One time zone Multiple time zones Face-to-face – Easier to schedule for one time zone.


Local or must travel Can be anywhere Webinar – Greater access to a selection of speakers


Local or must travel Can be anywhere Webinar – Broader audience


Room and speaker costs Internet access and speaker costs Webinar – Location fees can drive up the price


Ask questions on the spot and discuss afterward Can send text and sometimes audio questions and discussion during
and after
Face-to-face – Both can make use of technology to engage the audience during and after the seminar, but talking to someone in person can be a slight advantage


Pretty much set as far as structure goes Somewhat more flexible on changing the structure Webinar – Even though both can make changes ‘on the fly’ to meet the needs of those participating, neither are that flexible


Can be recorded and posted for comments and discussion Can be recorded and posted for comments and discussion Webinar – No major difference other than the questions are usually typed up and displayed on the screen during the recording making it easier to see them in the video afterward


Needs to be planned well in advance Can be set up on a very quickly Webinar – Clear winner here.


Depends on where you sit in the room Depends on your computer setup Webinar – While technology can be finicky at times, the option of making it as loud or as quiet as you want makes this the clear winner.

For the most part, webinars win out in regards to the advantages, but upon reviewing the chart, you can see there are still some things that could be improved. For me, the biggest disadvantage to both webinars and seminars is the schedule. For both of these, if you want to be a participant in the session, you need to be there when the session is happening. That is fine if you have the time, but I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to take part in a webinar or seminar, but I had a class or meeting or something else on that made it impossible to participate. Yes, I can also watch the seminar later on, but it isn’t the same as being there. There is a reason we like to be at a seminar when it happens. While not exactly the same, it is similar to a live drama production. People attend live productions in the theatre not for the precision of the execution since that is more possible through the ability to retake a scene as in filming, but the value is in being a part of the production and the energy the comes from those in attendance and the actors on stage. This is the same for the live seminar or webinar.

Once you take all of those advantages, disadvantages, and ideas and put them into a pot, what comes out? That is what I’ve been thinking about for some time now and here is what I have come up with. It is still a work in progress and is open to suggestions and changes, so feel free to chime in.

I want to do an asynchronous webinar that adapts to the what the audience needs and possibly even includes the audience as part of the webinar. To make this happen, it will require the use of various pieces of the technology puzzle.

The first piece is something to host the video and allow for in-video comments and discussion. This would make use of short recorded pieces spread out over a period of time to allow others to watch when they can (the asynchronous part). For this, I have chosen VideoANT from the University of Minnesota. It takes hosted video and wraps it with a tool where anyone can pause the video at any section and add a comment which shows up as a list beside the video. Click on those comments and the video starts playing where the comment was added. People can even reply to those comments to add to the discussion. This is a free tool that requires minimal registration to view and comment, although even the registration has a workaround to avoid giving away personal information. More on that later.

The next piece of the puzzle is the video host. For this, I am going to use YouTube to host my video since VideoANT works best with that. It would be possible to have others share their videos through other means, but for now, simplicity rules here.

The last piece of the puzzle is a discussion board and host for all things related to the webinar. It should be a place anyone could add to without needing to register. For this, I ended up going with a WordPress blog since I can set the comments to anyone and this allows for people to share thoughts and ideas with nested comments. Also, it keep all of the material in one place. There may be better tools out there to do this, but for accessibility reasons, I think this will work.

Here is a video I recorded talking about this same thing, but showing how VideoANT could be used. Go to the link, enter in your email address, or a fake one if you like, and press play to watch the video. If you want to add a comment while watching, click on the ‘Add an Annotation’ and the video will pause and you can add a text comment.


Watch and comment

Thanks for your time. I welcome all comments, suggestions, and criticisms.

VideoANT: Online video annotation and commenting

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About a year ago, I stumbled upon VideoANT and was interested in its use in the language classroom. VideoANT is a University of Minnesota project that allows users to annotate videos with long comments and can share those annotations with other people. At the time, I struggled to get it to work correctly and was turned off by the heavy use of Flash. Today, that all changed. I just received an email from VideoANT stating that they have changed their platform and tool completely on the back of HTML5 making it mobile and multi-platform friendly. I have just finished playing with it and I am excited to put it into use in my classroom. Here is how it works:


  1. Go to VideoANT and click on ‘Launch VideoANT’ (you could also link directly to the secondary site, but the main site gives you an overview of the tool and what it can do).
  2. You can start immediately by pasting in a YouTube URL without registering and clicking on ‘Load Video’, but if you would like to archive your projects, it is recommended that you register. You can use your Facebook or Twitter account along with an email address.
  3. You can change the title of the video if you want, otherwise, click on ‘Start Annotating!’
  4. Your video will appear in a window on the left with a timeline along the top and an ‘Add an Annotation’ button on the bottom. To begin, press play beside the timeline or on the video.
  5. When you get to a point where you would like to make an annotation, click on the ‘Add an Annotation’ button and the video will pause with a ‘New Annotation’ box appearing on the right. Type in the subject or title of this annotation, add a annotation, and then click on ‘Save Annotation’ to create that annotation at that time marker or click on ‘Cancel’ to leave.
  6. The video will start up again from where it paused. Continue to add annotations and they will continue to appear on the right-hand side. To skip ahead in the video, click anywhere on the timeline to move the video forward or back.
  7. You may edit or delete any annotation by clicking on the dropdown arrow on the right of the comment.
  8. You can move to the spot of the video where the annotation belongs by click on the annotation itself. The video will automatically move to that spot.
  9. To share your video with the annotations, just copy the URL from the top of the browser and share it with the people you wish to join into the conversation. Anyone who has the link can watch, annotate, and comment on previously made annotations.

Here is a screencast on how to use VideoANT:

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Note, you do not need to enter an email address or register to annotate or comment. Anyone with the link can simply go to the page and start editing it. Be careful with whom you share this URL. Don’t post it on a public forum or social media page if you want to keep others from seeing or making comments.

This is a wonderful tool for students to view and make comments on YouTube videos without registering. Teachers can have students view videos and add their thoughts. Students can share videos with their classmates on a project. Teachers can make a mini lesson out of it by providing more information alongside the video. The videos with comments can even be embedded in websites or places like Edmodo.

As a language teacher and teacher trainer, I can see a lot of uses for this. What do you have to add? Share your thoughts in the comment section or send me a Tweet at @nathanghall. Thank you for visiting!

Annotate PDFs using Skim for Mac

When I was doing my MA TESOL, I had a number of journal articles to read and I needed a tool that would allow me to bookmark pages, make notes, and draw out quotes and ideas. I found a fabulous tool called Skim that is an open source program for Mac. I decided to record a simple screencast on how to use the basic functions, especially for pulling out quotes and marking pages.

WikiSummarizer: Create a summary of a Wikipedia article automatically


I was working with my students today on an online research project and, as per usual, a number of students headed straight to Wikipedia as their main source of information. We followed that up with a small discussion on primary and secondary sources, but it got me thinking about an online tool that I had come across a while back. Wikisummarizer takes Wikipedia articles and uses a formula to analyze an article for key words and phrases and then creates a short summary of the article automatically. There are some really interesting functions related to this site including a visualizer that allows you to piece together your own summary from the sections it displays in the tree. Here is how it works:


  1. Go to WikiSummarizer and start typing the subject of an article you would like to summarize. As you type, suggestions are added and you can then choose the one you would like and click on ‘Summarize’.
  2. Your subject will show up in a tree with many branches. Beside the name of each branch is a ‘+’ symbol. Click on this to see that section. You will also notice the keyword in bold.
  3. In the top-right corner of the tree is the ‘Export to’ buttons including RTF files. Click on this to get a file that can be edited with just about any word processor.

How to use this in the language classroom: Have the students locate a subject that they could summarize and then have them download the RTF file of the summary. Have them compare the summary to the main article (located in a bold link just below the keyword search) and see what is missing or should have been included in the summary. This could give them a framework for them to write their own summary. I have found most of the summaries to be missing pieces or including things that are irrelevant. You could even have the students work on the same topic and you also provide a summary sample at the end for them to compare to their writing.

How do you see this being used? Could this be a useful tool in the language classroom? Please add your thoughts and comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact form on this website. Thank you.

6 Ways to create charts online without registration

Lately, I have been working on our school’s EAP program and I am having students work with data in articles as well as create them on their own. I choose to use sites that don’t require students to give away any information such as name and email. Here are 6 sites that you can use registration-free:

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  • ChartGo: Create a bar, line, pie, or area graph in 2D or 3D. Options also include dimensions and orientation. Enter your data and you are then given a URL to edit and one to share. You can also embed the chart on your website or blog. Simple, yet nice looking results.

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  • Chartle: This site has the most options available including bar, pie, line, scatter plots, Venn diagrams, radar charts, organizational charts, tables, timelines, motion charts, gauges, and maps. Options for dimensions, data type, and either 2D or 3D shapes. Charts are hosted in the gallery or can be embedded on your website or blog.

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  • Piecolor: Create a piechart you can download. Very simple to use and can be in 2D or 3D. No hosting or embedding available.

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  • This is a mathematical chart creator. Type in your formulas and the charts is created automatically. Beautiful results that can be downloaded. No host or embed functions available.

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  • Hohli: Create bar, line, and pie charts along with Venn diagrams, scatter plots and radar charts. Choose your chart size, colour, and add your data. The chart is hosted as an image, you can also download or embed to your website or blog.

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  • Kids’ Zone: Make a bar, line, area, pie or XY graph. Choose your shading and colour, add your data, labels, and fonts, and then download or email yourself the link.

How do you use charts in the classroom? What tools do you use? Leave a comment below, send me a tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact form on this site. Thanks!