Not long ago, a (non ESL) teacher/friend noticed the term ‘graded material’ in an article and asked me: ‘ What? Are ESL teachers expected to grade (mark) their material as well as their students?’
Graded material, as any ESL teacher knows, is material arranged in order of difficulty – progressing from the simple to the more complex. Carefully graded materials are important in most areas of teaching, and in language teaching, they are essential.
What is the criterion for determining difficulty?
Forty years ago, difficulty was determined solely by word level: There were official wordlists for beginners all through to advanced learners. Structural levels of difficulty were largely ignored, and you could find sentences in basic level textbooks/readers such as: ‘And he was never heard from again’ (because the lexical item again appears on the basic level wordlist). Just imagine having to teach/learn English that way!
About thirty years ago, the emphasis shifted. Structural level became the criterion for determining difficulty and materials were graded accordingly.
In the vanguard was the popular Longman’s series of structurally graded readers. Editors and publishers in the field began to implement the then-called ‘structural approach’ in earnest and carefully correlating it with the official wordlists, to produce most of the material that has been on the market since then. And what a wonderful change that was!
When a pendulum swings, it sometimes goes to the other extreme. A whole generation of strict adherence to exclusively structural/lexical guidelines has also produced a tendency towards some very stilted dialogue and some culturally limited materials. More and more, those who are aware of this phenomenon are seeing a third criterion applied alongside past grading criteria: Frequency. Frequency is measured by how often an item comes up in ‘real language’ – irrespective of its lexical or structural difficulty.
My advice to ESL teachers in the field: Don’t wait thirty years for the frequency yardstick to be fully realized. Go with your instincts:
A. If you are teaching in elementary school in Arabia, for example, you know that the idea of a pet dog is foreign to your students (dogs are used to help shepherds) whereas the concept of a pet goat is very familiar. Follow the guideline ‘Frequency as an added criterion for grading’, and teach the word goat very early on – substituting it for dog, or adding it to dog when that word comes up in your graded textbooks.
B. If you are teaching adult conversation, and especially if you’re a native speaker of English, you know that the greeting ‘How’ve you been?’ is a high frequency item. Yet it doesn’t appear along with the expressions ‘How are you? etc. in course books because of structural grading. Teach ‘How’ve you been?’ together with the other greetings – preferably for active use, but at least for aural comprehension purposes.
In other words, use your common sense regarding frequency. If your language instincts are good, and you’re still in ESL thirty years from now, you will be seeing your adaptations appearing in published material.