In this article Adrian Tennant focuses on short texts such as messages, notes, instructions and notices. Although these kinds of text are read and written on a regular basis, they are often neglected despite being extremely common in everyday life.
Writing is often a neglected skill in the classroom and when it does take place it almost always seems to focus on long texts such as letters and essays. This is extremely unfortunate for a number of reasons.
Firstly, during their lives, students will be required to write a lot and yet their writing often doesn’t truly reflect their language ability.
Secondly, writing helps consolidate other aspects of learning such as grammar and vocabulary. When students are writing they often have more time than they would if they were speaking and this gives them the opportunity to think about the language they use and learn from the choices they make.
A third issue I want to raise here is the type of texts we ask students to write. As previously mentioned, these are often quite long and this in itself is a problem as the texts students are more likely to need to write are short texts such as messages, notes and instructions. The features of these texts differ radically from long texts and yet students seem to be expected to be able to produce short texts with almost no teaching having taken place.
One of the most important things to emphasize is that writing texts of any kind requires an understanding of how such texts operate and what they look like. The key to this is exposure to the text types – in other words, opportunities to read such texts. The writing of any text cannot come in isolation – writing and reading are intertwined and the best writers are people who read a lot. Therefore, before expecting our students to start writing texts – whether they are short or long – we need to give them lots of examples. Let them read the texts, notice their features and think about the context and the message.
What is different about short texts?
To begin with it’s important to state it is just that – they are short! And, because of this there are a number of implications. Firstly, the use of ellipsis (i.e. leaving out words as they are unnecessary for comprehension of the text/message). This requires an understanding of the context and a shared understanding (or at least the expectation of such) between the writer and reader. Secondly, the register used in short texts tends not to be very formal – this doesn’t mean they are informal but simply that there is usually some kind of relationship between the writer and reader already, so a degree of informality is normal. Finally, short texts cut to the chase – the message is key and words are not wasted. This means that messages can appear to be almost rude in nature simply because of their brevity. All of these things are reflected in the language used in short texts.
What kind of language is used?
In short texts, grammar words – such as pronouns, articles, conjunctions and prepositions – are often omitted. This can be quite challenging for both the student and the teacher, especially if we’ve spent quite a lot of time teaching students how to use such words! It almost feels as if short texts are ungrammatical when, in fact, this is not the case. Although the words are not written, the reader will automatically reinsert them if necessary. Take a look at the example note below:
Gone to dentist’s
Ask students the following questions to test that they understand the nature of the message:
Q.Who has gone?
A. the writer
Q.Why doesn’t the note say ‘the dentist’s’?
A. because there is an assumption that the reader knows which dentist the writer is referring to
Q.Why is there an apostrophe?
A. because it’s the dental surgery that the person is visiting in order to see the dentist
Q.Why have they gone to the dentist’s? What are they going to do there?
A. There is no explanation, however the reason in this case is fairly obvious.
The next thing students need to try and understand is the reason for the note. It’s been written not just to tell the reader where the person has gone but why they aren’t at the location where the note has been left. In other words, it’s been left for someone to read who would be surprised not to see the person who wrote the note. So there is an underlying message, which could be something like Don’t worry! or You’ll have to get your own dinner.
Another feature that we often find in short texts such as notes and instructions is the use of the passive. There are two main reasons for this: the first is that what both the writer and reader are interested in is the action not the person doing the action (which is often known anyway); and, secondly, the passive is more neutral and almost helps soften the tone that a short text has, e.g. Please make sure the rubbish is taken out. However, even when the passive isn’t used, the ‘agent’ or person being asked to do something is often left out (usually because the expectation is that it is the reader who is going to carry out any action that is required). For example:
Turn the lights off before leaving.
Please feed the dog!
Leave outdoor shoes here.
Most of the examples of short texts we’ve looked at so far have been notes and messages, although some could be interpreted as instructions as well (for example, Leave outdoor shoes here). But what about other types of instructions such as directions or those left to tell someone how to do something? Here are two examples:
Go through the village and take the second turning on the right. Our house is the third on the left opposite the big tree.
Switch on at the wall. The red light should start flashing. When the light stops flashing, press the button.
Although these texts are longer than the other examples, many of the same features are evident. The ‘agent’ or person carrying out the action isn’t mentioned. As with many of the other short texts, these start with a verb, but they do include articles and prepositions. One feature that is very evident from these texts is how short the sentences are and how the language is kept fairly simple.
Some practical ideas
What’s the context?
- Show your students a number of short texts (see the examples in the boxes below).
- Put the students in pairs and ask them to discuss the following: Where would you see such a notice or message?
- Give the students time to discuss each one, monitor and help where necessary and then check as a class.
|Please leave post with no. 42
|Get well soon. Hope you like grapes!
|Fragile! This way up!
|Sorry, had to go out. Dinner’s in the fridge.
Back soon – a notice on a shop or office door or stuck to a computer screen at someone’s desk.
Please leave post with no. 42 – A note left for the postman (possibly on the front door). The use of with is interesting here as it refers to the person/people living at number 42 rather than the house itself.
Get well soon. Hope you like grapes! – a note either attached to a bunch of grapes or in an accompanying card sent to someone either in hospital or at home recuperating after being ill or having an operation.
Fragile! This way up! – a note attached to a parcel or a case, either sent through the post or being taken as luggage on a plane.
Sorry, had to go out. Dinner’s in the fridge. – A note from a parent/partner to a son/daughter/partner. Probably left on the kitchen table or somewhere they know it will be seen and read.
Cross it out!
This is a fun activity that can be done with absolutely any level and pretty much any age of student. The main aim of the activity is to get students to focus on the core message and understand that often it is grammar words (words like articles, prepositions and pronouns) that can be left out.
- Give students the following instructions: Look at the message. It contains 26 words. Can you cross out 17 words so that there are only nine in the message? Remember, the meaning still needs to be clear! You might want to change the order of the words as well.
Paul phoned and wanted to speak to you, but you weren’t at your desk. Can you call him back? He says it’s urgent.
URGENT – Paul phoned. Please call him back.
- You can also try to reverse it by giving students a short text and asking them to put back the words that have been removed (the only problem with this is that there are often lots of possibilities).
Gapped text / Reorder text
Students need to be exposed to as many different types of texts as possible. They also need the chance to develop an understanding of how the texts work – like teaching any aspect of the language, you need to do it step-by-step so students know how things are done. So, before asking students to write their own short texts they need models. It is also more helpful if students complete exercises around these models and not simply read them. Here are two simple ideas using the same short text.
1. Complete the text with the words in the boxes.
(1) _____ the machine on – the on/off switch is on the right-hand side. The light should start flashing. When it stops flashing, (2) _____ the flap at the top and (3) _____ the capsule in – the silver part facing towards you. (4) _____ the flap, (5) _____ a cup on the tray. (6) _____ that the water level is above minimum. (7) _____ the button next to the light. (8) _____ your coffee!
2. Put the sentences in the correct order.
a. Check that the water level is above minimum.
b. Close the flap, put a cup on the tray.
c. Enjoy your coffee!
d. Press the button next to the light.
e. Switch the machine on – the on/off switch is on the right-hand side.
f. The light should start flashing.
g. When it stops flashing, open the flap at the top and drop the capsule in – the silver part facing towards you.
The earlier teachers start to incorporate the reading and writing of short texts in their lesson, the better. Students need to be equipped with the skills required to deal with what is an important area of language. This doesn’t mean we need to use technical terms (e.g. they certainly don’t need us to talk about ellipses); often what we are actually asking them to do is quite straight forward, i.e. cross out any words that aren’t necessary for the core message, keep things clear, think about the context and what the reader needs to know.
I’ve often found lessons where part of the focus has been on short texts lots of fun and extremely useful in getting students to think about grammar and vocabulary in terms of communication.
I’ll just leave you with one short message: Try it!