It’s a very long time since I wrote one of these (nearly 3 years to be exact)! On Wednesday 14th January 2015 I took part in my first ELTchat for about a year, and since my topic was chosen, it’s only fair that I did the summary too 🙂
If you’ve never come across ELTchat before, it’s a weekly hour-long conversation which takes place on Twitter (almost) every Wednesday, alternating between 12pm and 9pm UK time. At the end of the chat, one lucky person takes the transcript and summarises the discussion. All of the summaries are then added to the amazing summaries index, which goes back to October 2010. These are the people who took part in this chat (no underscores, so check the transcript for their proper Twitter handles!)
What are authentic materials?
There were many aspects to the definition of authentic materials. There’s a bit of repetition, but you can pick and choose the parts that make up the best definition for you:
- Anything written for any purpose other than language instruction;
- Not designed for linguistic purposes (no input flood/specific language point);
- Anything from the real world;
- Might have been designed with non-natives in mind (just not for language teaching);
- Can be audio or visual;
- Need to contain some text (either written or spoken);
- Provided by the students (? – perhaps more real/relevant to them);
- Could be material for other school subjects, e.g. history.
Examples of authentic materials
This list is by no means exhaustive, but is designed to inspire you!
- Text messages
- Facebook statuses
- DVD cases
- Logic puzzles
- Leaflets/pamphlets, maybe collected during a walk with your students
- The Internet (yep, all of it)
- Signs (ELTpics/Map of Linguistic Urban Landscape are good sources)
- Voice mails (you can find apps to download them, such as this paid one)
- Reviews (e.g. from TripAdvisor or Rotten Tomatoes)
- Children’s books (although you should consider the language carefully, as well as whether the content is suitable for adult classes)
- And if that’s not enough for you, try this list from Michael Griffin.
Things to consider when choosing authentic materials
- The function/purpose of the text, not just the language included in it.
- Is it interesting/motivational for your students?
- What will they learn from it?
- What do the learners need to be able to produce themselves? Can you find real examples of it?
- Can the learners provide them for you?
- With ESP (English for Specific Purposes) materials, do you need to know the jargon/terminology, or can your learners explain it to you?
- Will the students’ knowledge of the content make it easier for them to access the text?
- They don’t have to be perfect. Materials with mistakes can be just as useful for students as ‘perfect’ ones, particularly if they’re documents that the students may encounter, e.g. in-company documentation.
- It’s not a magic bullet – the text and tasks still need to have relevant content and be at an appropriate level.
Ways of using authentic materials
- Exploit language to develop vocabulary, raise awareness of grammatical patterns/collocations/connected speech etc.
- Encourage students to personalise chunks of language taken from the text.
- Correct the mistakes/improve the text.
- Analyse the text structure and/or style (text/genre analysis).
- Develop skills in the same way as you would with non-authentic materials (e.g. coursebook texts).
- To promote discussion about the content of the text.
- As warmers for writing lessons (videos from BBC Breaking were particularly recommended)
- Top-down: start from the context and move towards the language.
- Bottom-up: start from the language and move towards the wider topic.
- For enjoyment! Extensive reading/listening practice.
You can even use authentic materials with exam classes: Laura Plotnek uses real news with her IELTS classes. Podcasts are also an excellent resource for IELTS students, as are articles from magazines like BBC Focus magazine.
Show examples, then let students create their own.
Match pictures of food to items on the menu.
‘In a restaurant’ role play.
Focus on the connections between the messages and the development of the conversation.
After working with the examples, students post their own reviews on the websites.
Choose the most suitable candidate for a job.
Write a story based on the characters whose CVs you have.
Email your students with a problem you have. Get them to reply, then screenshot/print the replies and work on the language in them. They’re responding to a real text you’ve written. [Note from Sandy: I did something similar by asking friends on Twitter/facebook to tell my pre-intermediate students their problems so they could solve them – SS loved it!]
Points of debate
Should you pre-teach vocabulary?
It may be easier for students to access the text if you do, and some ‘blocking vocabulary’ (things which are vital to understanding the text) may be important so that students have an idea what’s going on in the text and don’t get too depressed.
If you don’t pre-teach, it reflects real-life conditions more and may help them to develop coping strategies. Giving students the chance to look up vocabulary might be more useful to them than pre-teaching it, as would priming them for the content/ideas in the text rather than specific vocabulary (activating schemata – alerting the students to prior knowledge they may have of the topic).
Consider your aim: are you using it primarily for the content, or as training in how to approach authentic materials?
Should you choose materials to fit your aims or just things which take your fancy?
One idea was that it’s important for the teacher to be interested in the materials, otherwise it might be difficult to put together a ‘super duper’ lesson! Although our training is there to help us make boring stuff more exciting 😉
We need to consider what materials students need to access outside class and base our choices on this.
Should you adapt or simplify the materials?
Adapting or simplifying the text removes the authenticity of the language. It is also time consuming. Managing to understand a text without knowing all the words is a vital skill which students need to develop. You can train students to use paralinguistic features, such as images or layout, to help them understand the text. Being able to understand unadapted materials can be very motivating for students.
On the other hand, simplifying the text can help students to access it in the first place, and you can build up to exposure to the original once they are familiar with the content. This could help beginner/elementary students in particular. If students become frustrated with the material because it’s too difficult, they may just stop trying to understand it. Audacity is a useful tool for slowing down audio through changing the tempo.
You could also choose ‘usable excerpts’ from a text, rather than using all of it. Examples might be a short section of a longer video, or a couple of paragraphs from a longer article.
Is authenticity important in the tasks too?
i.e. Should the texts be used in a way which is faithful to real life?
Authentic tasks can be more motivating for the students, perhaps because the purpose of the tasks is clearer to them. However, they may require extra tasks (scaffolding) before you get to the authentic tasks though to ensure students are prepared sufficiently. There is also the argument that language work is a necessary part of what we do in the classroom in order to aid learning. On the other hand, authentic texts sometimes have a ‘magic’ of their own and help to motivate the students without language work.
Using materials like menus in atypical ways could add an interesting twist for students. Examples of tasks include using the menu to practise reading prices, rather than just for ordering food, or an information gap with different information blanked out for each student. The intended use of the text in real life doesn’t need to be paramount.
Can you use authentic materials with lower-level learners?
Yes! Grade the task, not the text. Give them achievable targets, for example, identifying the names of the main characters in a short story could train learners to notice the use of capital letters for names. Another activity could be reading a DVD case to find the length of the film and whether the actors have won any awards.
Support can also be provided in the form of pictures, pre-teaching vocabulary and/or a summary of the text beforehand. With audio materials, you can repeat it as many times as necessary. Pausing helps learners to assimilate the text, and you can discuss what SS have heard and what they think will come next.
Bear in mind, though, that sometimes the text is just too difficult for the students. Widdowson suggests that authentic materials may be too challenging for lower-level students, but those living in English-speaking environments have to deal with them, so as teachers we need to help them.
Is it worth it?
The general consensus was that when used correctly students really enjoy authentic materials, even if they don’t understand it all. You’re exposing learners to real patterns of language which they can use. Those teaching in English-speaking environments thought it was particularly important to use authentic materials with their students as this is what they encounter as soon as they leave class.
Links and further reading
Pinterest or wikis were suggested as ways to collate authentic materials.
Robert O’Neill discusses the use of authentic materials in the final section of Dogmas and Delusions in current EFL methodology.
Shona Whyte discusses authenticity in the FL classroom.
A selection of lessons based on authentic materials, organised by level.
Marjorie Rosenberg wrote regular ‘Jargon Busters‘ for Cambridge. They started with vocabulary, then an article, and ended with discussion questions.
Speakout books use BBC videos and has video podcasts. Life uses National Geographic ones.
CEFR profilers or vocabulary profilers like the Oxford Text Checker can be useful to identify potentially difficult words and to decide whether to use a text.