Working with ELT Materials
Part six – authentic materials
In our previous articles, we have been looking at materials specially designed for language teaching. We’re now going to consider the use of authentic materials in the language classroom.
The nature of authenticity
According to Nunan (1988: 99) authentic materials are “those which have been designed for purposes other than to teach language”. In other words, they are texts – written or spoken – whose purpose is to communicate meaning in a specific social context. This is significant because by providing opportunities for learners to interact with real materials and communicate with others about those materials, we establish a fertile environment for learning and enhance learner motivation. It’s also likely that the language used in these materials will be more natural than the examples we see in coursebooks, which often seem rather artificial.
Types of materials
Authentic material is any material that was not designed for language learners, so the range of things that you can use is virtually endless. Short written texts such as a ticket, a note or a postcard can make intriguing introductory activities, while more advanced classes can explore longer texts such as newspapers, magazines and short stories. Of course, the type of text will be selected according to the interests of the students. A celebrity gossip magazine is just as good as a serious journal article for authentic language input. For a lesson on the theme of travel, you can use brochures, guidebooks and timetables, and also shorter texts such as menus, bills and even road signs. Adult learners may work with texts from their own professional context, such as reports, statistics and diagrams. And very young learners can enjoy materials created for English children, such as cartoons, nursery rhymes and songs.
Authenticity and difficulty
The main argument against the use of authentic materials is that they may be too difficult for learners to understand, particularly at lower levels. The difficulty of a text is a combination of various factors. Top-down factors include the familiarity of the topic and the context, and the cognitive complexity. If we give our learners a text about a topic that they are already familiar with and interested in, it will be much easier than a topic that’s completely new to them. Of course, short texts are generally easier than long ones, provided the density of information is not too great, and the organization of the text can also be an important factor. Visual support in the form of pictures or diagrams that illustrate the text can make it much more accessible, as can the layout and organization of the text itself. On the other hand, long complex sentences, unfamiliar grammar and obscure vocabulary will make it much more difficult.
There are two approaches to overcoming this difficulty. The first is to ensure that the items selected are of approximately the right linguistic level for the learners. This will restrict your choice of material, but avoid the need to simplify it, which would destroy the authenticity. The other approach is to grade the task; even with difficult texts, tasks can be devised that are not too challenging linguistically.
The most effective way to source useful authentic materials for your lessons is to build up a bank of materials, adding to it whenever you find something that might be useful. For example, reading a crime report in a newspaper, you might notice that it contains lots of examples of past tenses in the passive voice, so you file the article away for future use. However, you will often want to find some material relating to a specific topic and you will need to search for it, either using a search engine or by browsing through some likely websites. This becomes much easier once you have developed your familiarity with the available resources and identified a few favourite websites.
In the wired world, it’s very easy to find materials - including text, audio and video - for every purpose. And especially if you are using an interactive whiteboard, it’s just as easy to project any authentic materials you select for use as it is to project the courseware. The use of technology in the classroom is an enormous topic, which we’re going to address in our next series of articles.
© Peter Beech 2013