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Editorial NRInglês

A authentic materials to use or not to use?

When we think of a language lesson, quite a common question to be asked is, which coursebook is going to be used? This happens because they seem to be used everywhere, in schools, language institutes and even in private lessons. But what about authentic materials? Can they also be useful when we adopt a coursebook? To answer these questions, we have first to look into what coursebooks provide us with and what we understand by authentic materials.

With the development of corpus linguistics, research about language teaching and new technology, coursebooks have greatly improved the presentation of language and themes, bringing interesting, curious, and relevant topics to contextualize language use. Even so, teachers sometimes feel that coursebooks do not cater for their students’ specific needs, especially when they are used as the only source of input. What should teachers do then? One solution is the use of authentic materials in class, which has been widely discussed since the late 70s.

Many definitions have been given to the term ‘authenticity’ so far. The most widely used definition (and one of the oldest) says that authentic materials are the ones produced out of the teaching context. Gilmore (2007 apud Ahmed, 2017) presents some possible meanings of authenticity that can be found in literature. These range from the input produced by and for L1 speakers to the interactions that happen between learners and teachers in the classroom. Other interesting takes on this matter associate authenticity to the social situation and the culture around the language that is being learned.

This article is based on the definition by Morrow (1977 apud Gilmore, 2007), which states that authentic texts are stretches of real language used for real communication, produced by a real speaker or writer for a real audience and designed to convey a real message. By this definition, pieces of news, ads, magazines, sitcoms, series, movies, etc. can all be considered authentic materials, even if produced by L2 speakers, as far as they are not developed specifically for the English teaching context. Besides that, depending on the adaptations which are made to materials (e.g. changing the headlines of a piece of news), they can be classified into a different type of input, according to the types of authenticity below.

Types of authenticity

When it comes to authenticity, Brown and Menasche (2008 apud Rahimi, 2013) classify materials into different types:

  • Genuine input: this input is created for real-life use, with no visual or text modifications, e.g. a full movie or series episode
  • Altered input: this input is created for real-life use with no meaning changes in the classroom use. It includes changes in pictures, colors or visuals, e.g. tenminute segments of a movie.
  • Adapted input: this input is created for real-life use but adapted in meaning and text levels, e.g. a piece of news with simplified grammar or vocabulary.
  • Simulated input: this input is created for classroom use and simulates the style and format of the genuine, e.g. teacher creates a piece of news with current issues; news and interviews from most coursebooks.
  • Inauthenticity: this input is created for classroom use and it does not resemble genuine or altered materials.

Adapting materials

Not always will genuine input fit into our class’s goals and our students’ needs. In this case, the best choice would be altered or adapted input. They share some of the advantages of authentic materials and help to avoid some of its disadvantages.

When the use of authentic materials became a topic of discussion in English language teaching, it was really difficult to use this kind of input in class. (…) Nowadays, technology helps teachers access and research authentic materials.

When it comes to adapting materials, Darian (2001) discusses 4 types of adaptation:

  • Semantic elements, such as connotation, for example. It can become a problem when adapting materials because students may know only one connotation of the word and might be confused when reading input with a different meaning.
  • Lexical elements. One of the main difficulties of using authentic materials is the use of complex words. When deciding what to adapt or change in a text, an idea is to focus on infrequently used words, arbitrary collocations, idioms and verbs.
  • Syntactic elements. Teachers can make input more intelligible by modifying punctuation, elliptical forms, structural complexity, and structures of modification.
  • Discourse elements. The modification of some discourse elements can make the input easier for students. These include redundancy, emphasis, implicitness, and also adding and subtracting material at a paragraph or whole text level.

When the use of authentic materials became a topic of discussion in English language teaching, it was really difficult to use this kind of input in class. Back then, most schools did not have TVs, printers, scanners, etc. Nowadays, technology helps teachers access and research authentic materials. There are, for example, websites with plenty of activities based on authentic pieces of news, with song lyrics, series episodes, movies extracts, etc. Once students are also much more in contact with this kind of material outside the classroom, it is important to resort to them to get closer to students. Besides access, technology also made it easier for teachers to adapt authentic materials. Depending on students’ needs, different types of adaptation can be made, and this can be an interesting solution to motivate students and get their interest in the lesson while avoiding some of the disadvantages of using authentic materials. Ahmed (2017) and Gilmore (2007) listed some advantages and disadvantages mentioned by different authors throughout years of research into authentic materials, as follows:

Disadvantages

  • Authentic inputs can be linguistically difficult for students of lower levels. Teachers and students usually mention the difficulty imposed by different spoken genres, delivery speed and variety of accents and the content itself (grammar, vocabulary, etc.).
  • Authentic materials may not be grammatically accurate, respect acquisition order or contribute to durable learning.
  • Depending on the teaching context and how tight the schedule is, extra materials may not fit the systematized language syllabus.
  • Design of the materials may take much more preparation time from the teacher and it can be a complex task. Besides that, it may be difficult for teachers to select interesting and accessible materials for beginner students.
  • Copyright issues can also be a concern when adapting materials.

Advantages

  • Authentic materials may encourage students to have a higher tolerance of partial comprehension of input, once they are trained to understand only what they need from the text to do the task.
  • Authentic materials may enhance learners’ inferencing skills, as teachers can create tasks focused on the gist of the text which will demand the comprehension of general meaning and intention of the speaker or writer, for example.
  • Authentic materials are seen by students as more interesting because their focus is on communicating a message rather than highlighting the target language.
  • This kind of material plays an important role on affective factors such as motivation, empathy, and emotional involvement.
  • By using authentic materials, teachers can have a more communicative, contextualized and consciousnessraising approach to learning grammar.
  • Authentic input can be used to focus on top-down processing and, thus, provide learners with a more holistic learning experience where meaning informs the language to be dealt with and not the other way around.
  • Authentic materials bring opportunities for students to be in touch with incidental or improper English and develop strategies to deal with them.
  • Once these inputs can be more related to students’daily routine and interests, understanding them can produce a high sense of achievement.

Using authentic materials in practice

Teachers who have already used authentic materials in class have probably come across at least one of these advantages and disadvantages. The success or failure of these materials depends a lot on careful selection, analysis, and preparation, but it also involves students’ needs and likes, and teachers’ confidence to use them.

After reading about authentic materials, take a moment of reflection on the role of materials in your lessons. When you feel that the coursebook you use in class does not cater for your students’ needs and likes, try to bring some extra authentic materials personalized to your group. It is time-consuming, but the more you do it, the easier and quicker it gets because you will have more practice at it and practice makes perfect, as they say. Also, by doing it you will develop a portfolio with texts and activities that can be adapted to different groups with simple changes, which also contributes to a shorter preparation time. Finally, if you enjoy doing it, this can be the first step towards becoming a freelance materials writer.

REFERENCES

About author

Marina Falcão is a materials writer, editor and reviewer at Troika. She has been in the ELT field for more than 10 years as a teacher, coordinator and content developer. She has developed content for different age ranges and contexts, such as regular schools and language centers. She’s taking an MBA in Coursebook Editing and she has got Cambridge certificates: CPE and CELTA.
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