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12 things I know about Unfamiliar Texts

Updated: Jun 27

The close reading of unfamiliar texts is my favourite part of English teaching. Here are 12 things I think it's important to remember.

Unfamiliar Texts - 12 tips for teachers


Unfamiliar Texts

David Schaumann is right:  students can, and should, write a lot about a little. Students can write a lot about one small example from a text.  To prove this to seniors I ask them to become FITRACERS, thinking of an idea for as many of the ‘letters’ as they can.  FITRACERS?

  • Feel

  • Infer

  • Tone

  • Relate (link) it to something else (another text, an historical event, a current trend, a human behaviour...)

  • Ask a question about it

  • Connect with another example from the text

  • Experience - consider the 5 senses

  • Reason – why you might agree/disagree for example

  • Sync – back to the question.

When once they stared at me blankly when I asked for meanings and effects behind an example from the test, they’re quite shocked about what a bit of structured thinking can produce!  Hallelujah!


A simpler acronym is FETU.  This works brilliantly for New Zealand teachers because the similarly pronounced te reo Māori word, whetū means star, so you can have a bit of fun with “Fetu to be a whetū!”   Students think about what an example from their text makes them:

  • Feel

  • Experience (the 5 senses)

  • Think of/about

  • Understand


I would not expect students to discussing something for every letter of either of these acronyms, simply use them as tool to think of one or two ideas.

Unfamiliar Texts



Find examples, not techniques. Synonyms for ‘aspects’ students must discuss include ‘stuff you notice’ or 'stuff you notice that answers the question' (Oxford would be so impressed).  Some of this stuff – these examples - just happen to have a name, like ‘metaphor’, ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘minor sentence’.    Students get hung up discussing texts because they think they must find something they can label.  This puts a spanner in the works when they can’t find any examples of the few techniques that they know the names of.


Instead, encourage student to find examples of things that show the writer is angry, that help us understand how the writer feels about their treasured possession, that illustrate the relationship between two people...whatever the question is asking!  If those examples happen to be ‘nameable’ then the student can do that, but really, we’re looking to see if they can find examples of how the writer does this, that and the other.  It’s not a ‘name the technique’ test. 



Grouped glossaries, not alphabetised ones.  When I first began teaching, I sat with an enormous list and put everything into categories.  Figurative language all together.  Sound devices all together.  Sentence structures all together.  Parts of speech.  Vocabulary.  ‘Misc’.  All in groups.  Take that alphabetised list and either put it into groups yourself or, if they’re up to it, have students do it.  Now, when you ask students to look for “figurative language” they’ll know, or they can at least look at their new grouped glossary to see that covers metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification...  Gold.

On a sidenote, students get muddled when we swap between calling these things features, devices and techniques.  Put a reminder on your wall to tell them these mean the same thing!



The only reason most of us know our times tables is through rote learning.  Students have to suck it up and rote learn those language and structural devices.  I suggest the fun ‘cheat’ tests I talked about here!  Also brilliant are good old flashcards that students can test themselves and each other with.  Perfect activity for a relief day if you collect your cereal boxes in advance. Kahoot! and short answer activities help familiarise, but it can be a fluke when things stick.  Nothing compares to the efficiency of rote learning.



One thing that students are great at is memorising acronyms like PELTEXE to help them structure their writing about a text.  Bless them though, they’re so hung up on, and proud to be using that acronym, they forget to answer the question. Then it doesn’t matter how much thinking and ‘purposing’ they do:  they can’t pass.  Begin your work on unfamiliar texts by focusing on answering the question.  For example, you could get them to list down their page three ways the writer shows that the fish is beautiful, the cat hates the dog, the man is disappointed...


Getting controversial now but hear me out:  I don’t like the way we encourage students to begin their discussion by identifying purpose and idea.  It’s not logical when, to work this out, a reader must analyse the language and structure of the text first.  Our teacher brains load the stylistic features on autopilot, processing meanings and effects inherently.  Some students can do that.  Many students cannot.  Beginning with purpose doesn’t honour a logical reading sequence. 


Instead, let students’ understanding of purpose and idea(s) form organically as they discuss specific examples they’ve picked out from the text.  Their ‘deductions’ should fall from their descriptions of the meanings and effects of those examples.  In this way, their writing as a whole is peppered with purpose’ in a more natural manner.  The writing makes more sense because the thinking has occurred in a logical sequence.



Watch out also for students cutting corners in a mad scramble to mention purpose!  They sometimes:

  • Mention an example/feature then bolt straight to it serving the purpose of showing how much the man loves the mountains.  The end.  It doesn’t make sense because they haven’t how the meaning and effects serve that purpose.

  • Talk about how examples/features work together by saying how “these two features serve the purpose of persuading us that New Zealand is a great place to visit” ... and then end there.  They haven’t talked about how those two aspects work together to give extra meaning to the writer’s ideas and have a more powerful effect on the audience.


Political again:  Unfamiliar texts is a writing test. We're asking students to prove their understanding of content (meaning) and stylistic features (language and structure) in a dumb way.  Students can only prove what they understand if they can write well.  This is akin to the good old PAT reading test is, in my view, a memory test.  The skills needed to show the knowledge trump the knowledge itself. To test understanding of ‘incoming’ texts (reading, listening, viewing) the best way to do this is through short answer questions, otherwise, as I said, it’s more a writing test. 

This makes teaching unfamiliar texts is complex because we’re pitching back and forth between teaching reading skills and writing skills.  If you want to test students’ abilities to read closely, ask the short answer questions following that good old on, between and beyond the lines format.  If you think otherwise, then why is it that, as a teacher with brilliant reading ability, you then had to learn how to write an answer for unfamiliar texts?  Because it was about writing ability, right?  Yup.



Every text is an unfamiliar text.

  1. Take an excerpt from your novel, your short story, a feature article - whatever you're using at the time.

  2. Find a key idea then write a question based on that key idea. Eg:

    1. Key idea: that the man's mana (charisma, standing) is a reflection of his maunga (mountain) and is awa (river).

    2. Question for your students: Find examples that show us how the man's mana is a reflection of his maunga and his awa.

  3. Have students 'treasure hunt' to find examples - words, phrases - that illustrate this by annotating. Annotating - digging, marking the spot with an 'x'.

  4. Choose two techniques that seem to work well together. (Yes, do the 'working together thing first.)

  5. Unpack those two examples - meaning and effect.

  6. Discuss how they work together.

  7. Do this several times until students have a good idea of the purpose, then move on from there.



You write too. Students need to see the thinking, questioning, OMGing as the pennies drop, the writing, deleting, writing again. They need to understand it's thinking on paper (or the keyboard now). Write your answer on the whiteboard or big screen while they work too. Who cares if they copy bits of yours? That's how we learn!

Unfamiliar texts


Actively teach students how to annotate. Do it often. If every text now has the possibility of becoming an unfamiliar text, you should get plenty of opportunity! For more, click to the Annotation blog post opposite. Pick up our free teachers' annotation cheat sheet by logging in to the website to access Team FREEBIES or click here.



Make it a race. Rip the plaster off quickly! If you give students half a period, they'll spend half a period staring at the wall, doodling, and flicking rubber bands. It's too long. It's boring. If you break the task into 2, 5 or 10-minute lots, making great show of a timer going off, there's an air of excitement about it, and painful tasks are completed quickly. Students overcook if they think too hard. They overthink, second-guess themselves and try to write like an academic. Then you get writing that lacks originality and is often non-sensical.

May the force be with you all. Hehe.

Unfamiliar Texts

Unfamiliar Texts

Unfamiliar texts

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