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Exploiting a Text

By David Mann
This article summarises a range of ways of exploiting a written text from basic comprehension tasks to more creative ways of getting the most out of it.

Exploiting a Text

Given a written text of some kind, what can we do with it, assuming it is at least within the grasp of our students and not just a dense forest of unfamiliar words?

Pre-reading tasks


We can pre-teach vocabulary in a number of ways:

  1. List the key words and tell them what they mean. (We don’t always have to be fancy)
  2. By a process of guided discovery, have students talk about themselves with questions and prompts skilfully crafted to lead them to need to use the target words and phrases. As the lexical items come up in this guided conversation, list them on the board, preferably in the order they’re going to appear in the text, checking understanding as you go. (Sometimes it’s nice to get fancy)
  3. Choose the lexical items that you don’t expect the students to know and create a matching exercise. Students match the new words and phrases with the definitions. (Students are sometimes their own best teacher)
  4. If you have been focusing on affixation, pick out a collection of words that exemplify various suffixes and prefixes. Give students the root of the word families these items belong to and have them scan the text for the word that is based on this root. (Students who grasp this well can effectively double or triple their passive vocabulary at a stroke)
  5. If the text has a clear relationship with a visual of some kind, students can attempt to label the visual with some of the key items. This could be a picture with words describing the objects in the picture, but could also be a process with labels for the steps, a diagram where the words reveal the connections and relationships between things and so on.
  6. You could provide a list of the opposites of the target words and have students scan the text for the related word.
  7. Have students brainstorm the topic area covered by the text to come up with words related to the topic. If this goes smoothly, wait for the appropriate lag in the brainstorm to add a few more of the target words before moving on the text itself.

Other pre-reading tasks

  1. Speed reading: make sure the text is formatted in relatively narrow columns like a newspaper and ensure it’s not too challenging for the students’ level. Have the students glide their index finger down the centre of the columns at a steady pace and avoid reading anything in detail.  If necessary, set a very strict time limit of mere seconds.  Students turn over the text, or close the book and write a short list of any words they can remember catching a glimpse of – don’t worry about spelling.  Have the students generate questions about the words they think they saw.  They then read the text to find the answer to their own questions. I have seen students gasp in amazement at this exercise.  They sometimes find they had no idea they could grasp the key points of a text so quickly. You can then easily follow up with more traditional comprehension exercises etc.
  2. Ask students to talk to each other about the topic area covered in the text. Another twist is to give them the topic and where the text was published and ask them to guess what the text might say.

Exercises while reading

  1. Have students read the text and answer some comprehension questions. These can be multiple-choice, true/false, open-ended, prompts for reaction or discussion and so on.
  2. Transfer the information in the text to a visual of some kind that represents the information in a diagram, chart, table etc.
  3. The classic gap-fill exercise has a number of variants: we can provide a box of lexical items which the students use to fill the gaps – the process of elimination eases the burden. We can simply leave gaps and see if students can come up with suitable words or phrases. If they can figure out the general meaning of the missing words, it might make it easier to absorb the new, specific lexical items that you’re trying to teach. It can be done in two stages: first ask students to identify the part of speech of the word in the gap, then have them supply a word.
  4. Scanning can be fun.  Just to ring the changes and encourage students to exploit a text rather than be overwhelmed by it, have the students scan a suitable text for specific pieces of information. We all have memories of irrelevant dense texts with pointless comprehension questions that we did at school. It can be refreshing for students to approach a text with a more focused, goal-oriented attitude. And it doesn’t need to just be find-the-opening-time-of-the-museum type exercises. It could be pressing questions such as “Is it true Angelina Jolie prefers Scottish men?” (I’m a Glaswegian). Scanning a longish text just to get the answer to such a question can be very satisfying for students and gives them that sense of empowerment which can help build their confidence. (If you can find a text that actually answers that pressing question, let me know)
  5. Arrange the text into two or more versions to create an information gap where different texts have different information missing. Students work in pairs or groups to share the information and complete their texts.
  6. Present the text as a jigsaw. This depends on the length and complexity. For instance, if it’s a set of instructions, have students put the jumbled instructions in the order that matches a set of visuals.  If you’re focusing on cohesive devices at the paragraph level, have students put paragraphs in a sensible order and link them with the cohesive devices supplied.
  7. Present the text with the ends of some sentences missing where students have a good chance of guessing the overall point the writer is about to make. Students attempt to complete the sentences based on the context. They then compare the professional writer’s original version with their own attempt. This may reveal, in a memorable way, the complexities of relative clauses, verb patterns, non-finite clauses or other ways of linking ideas.
  8. Provide a set of texts that can be categorised in some way. For instance, as a prelude to teaching students how to write paragraphs following certain organisation patterns, provide short paragraphs which exemplify these patterns and have students identify which pattern the paragraph exemplifies.
  9. Reference exercises can be very revealing. Typically, you would do general comprehension exercises to ensure students have understood a text before attempting reference exercises, but it is sometimes interesting to use reference exercises as a starting point to get students exploring a text. So, create a set of questions like “What does it refer to on line 10?” and have students do them as they read. Encourage them not to read sequentially, but to simply figure out the references following the order of the questions. If you pick out the right pronouns and put the questions in the right order, you can create an exciting slow-reveal effect that students may appreciate.
  10. Perhaps not much more than a grammar exercise to practise non-defining relative clauses, but it can be fun to give students a very plain story and a list of sentences with extra information. Students then attempt to spice up the story by interpolating these sentences into the text at the right places. This could be exploited for a range of grammatical or lexical items, such as adding adjectives in the most suitable places, inserting adverbials, adding non-defining relative clauses or non-finite clauses etc.
  11. Arrange for the comprehension questions to lead to a discussion. If the answers to your questions naturally build a grid of related information, students can discuss their reaction, or speculate about the causes etc. A text about the famous Bhutanese notion of Gross National Happiness might include a definition of the concept then some information about the comparative GNH of various countries, one of which is the students’.  The comprehension questions could simply be a pretext to have students fill in a comparative grid which could lead to quite fruitful discussions about, for example, the high GNH of some poor countries and the high level of dissatisfaction in some rich countries.

Post-reading exercises

  1. Key lexical items can be highlighted (bold type or underlined) and students can match the items to their definitions. Sometimes students can cope with a text at a superficial level, answering comprehension questions successfully, but an exercise like this may give students a little quiet time for reflection to absorb new lexical items in a deeper way.
  2. Summarise the text with some kind of challenge: write a headline for the text; write a topic sentence for a given paragraph; summarise the text in one sentence; summarise the text in a fixed number of words (or within a maximum number of words); with a time limit.
  3. The text may act as a model for the kind of writing you want your students to do. Having worked through comprehension and analysis of the grammar, cohesive devices or other language features that are crucial to the text type, then have students write a text using the same pattern, from their own knowledge and experience or from prompts. For instance, your engineering students may need to analyse the cause of a particular technical problem. Provide a text with a range of examples of cause and effect language and then have students write a text using these features to explain the causes of something they’re working on.
  4. The text may lay out the facts of a case and you could have students speculate about what might have happened, what might have caused it or, indeed, who might have done it.  Obviously detective stories spring to mind, or lateral thinking puzzles. Level matters here and you should only attempt this with higher level students who have a good grasp of modal auxiliary verbs.


  1. Often a text exemplifies an area of grammar. A dramatic story may reveal the use of the past perfect to give the readers a flashback. A leaflet on safety may provide good examples of the use of modal auxiliary verbs to express obligation and permission. Crafting a text which exemplifies all the options that you are aiming to teach can provide excellent support for a grid of these options which the students create for themselves based on the examples in the text. For instance, you may want to help the students grasp the differences between must, mustn’t, have to and don’t have to.
  2. References (both anaphoric and cataphoric) in a text can obscure meaning and confuse students. I sometimes think the hardest word in the English language is it. Students also have difficulty handling references, mixing up it and one or making mistakes of agreement where, for instance, the referent is a plural noun but they choose a singular pronoun to refer to it.  After thorough coverage of a text for comprehension, vocabulary and the rest, it can be very helpful for students to go back over a text and analyse more closely the references within the text that help to maintain coherence.

Discourse and coherence

It can be useful to raise students’ awareness of discourse to a slightly more abstract level. Have students analyse a text for given and new information. Sometimes this doesn’t need to go much further than helping them to see the connection between the indefinite article for new information (countable nouns at least) and the definite article for given information, but can go deeper for higher level students. One feature of coherence is a well-maintained balance between given and new information. If you imagine a text which is a constant stream of new information, you will immediately see that it is essentially incoherent because nothing connects with anything else.


I hope this has given you a broader perspective on exploiting texts in the classroom. We can’t be creative all the time, and a list of exercise types like this might help spark ideas for you and help you to ring the changes with your own materials.

Written by David Mann for Tefl.NET November 2013
David Mann has 30 years’ experience in TEFL, both as a teacher (General, ESP and EAP) and a Director of Studies in Spain, Britain and Japan. He has been an ESP and EAP instructor for Nippon Steel & Sumikin Intercom, Inc in Japan for the last 15 years, working with scientists, engineers and business people from major companies and top universities in Japan. He has also delivered successful IT courses on database and web application design through the auspices of the Japanese Association of Overseas Training Scholarships (AOTS) in Yokohama to IT professionals from all over Asia.
© Tefl.NET


  • Serena says:

    A very helpful article, with a lot of interesting suggestions. Thank you very much.

  • Taiseer says:

    This article has helped me a lot as I am now in teacher training and was looking for ideas for my next session. Thanks a lot! Very helpful!!

  • Anita Marshman says:

    I had been looking for an article giving ideas on how to exploit a text when I came across this one. I found it to be very helpful and full of wonderful suggestions that I’ll certainly use.

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