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Building with authentic materials

The use of authentic materials in language classes has been around for a while. As someone who learned English before YouTube was a thing, I have probably seen more excerpts of Friends episodes in class than on TV. The abundance of available sources has meant that it is even easier now to simply select a short video or an article and use them in class. However, even though students seemed to enjoy it when I used a conversation between two sitcom characters instead of the recordings from textbooks, I found authentic materials troublesome to incorporate in my classes. The process of finding the videos or texts took a while, and then I still needed to work on activities from scratch. Then I would face the same problem that occurs when one designs their own tasks, namely, I could not be sure it would be the most adequate activity for my students. How exactly can we use them in a way that benefits our students the most? Is it worth the trouble?

A good starting point may be to determine what exactly it means when we say a material is authentic. Tomlinson states that it is “a text not written or spoken for language teaching purposes” (1998); Harmer defines them as “materials which are designed for native speakers; they are real texts; designed not for language students, but for the speakers of the language” (1991). Authentic materials in English, therefore, are texts (written or oral) that we could find outside of a classroom, texts we would read for pleasure or information but, fundamentally, not to learn English from, at least originally.

With this definition in mind, why would we use authentic materials? Given that we have so many graded resources, fully adapted to our purposes with varying levels of proficiency, is it really relevant to add ungraded texts to the mix? In short, yes. The benefits of authentic materials are manifold.

For starters, authentic material provides students with meaningful, relevant content. If we are dealing with a newspaper article, for example, you may select a still ongoing story that students might be following closely. With all that is being written and discussed about covid-19, for example, there are bound to be authentic articles or videos that are usable in class and which contain information that is absolutely new to learners. This adds another layer to the reading or listening process – not only is it a practice moment, there is also something else to be obtained from the text, information that may interest our students.

These kinds of materials also provide students with cultural information which may be harder to come by. I would venture a guess that a lot of learners who are also fans of Friends have a better knowledge of customs and traditions in the USA than the ones who stick to textbooks – even the ones that also focus on culture. Sitcoms, of course, provide a rich vein that we as teachers can explore; even if we do not explain a single thing about Thanksgiving, I can think of episodes from at least six different shows that can provide a decently accurate picture of the holiday. Non-verbal information is also extremely relevant – we can explore the difference between public displays of affection in the USA or in England, compared to our countries.

Authentic materials are also a source of motivation for students. Allow me to give an admittedly very personal example, but one that I believe nonetheless many learners can relate to. I still consider myself a Turkish student, even though I have not studied in earnest in a while (I am a bad student). Every time I pick up a string of Turkish words in a movie, or in a football video on the internet, I beam with pride. It is possible to extrapolate that being able to understand a short Turkish video without resorting to another language would provide me with an even greater sense of achievement. This is what students can experience when they decode authentic materials. Being able to understand a graded text is somewhat to be expected – you are supposed to be able to read at A2 level if you are an A2 student. Being able to understand a “real” text, however, can be a much more meaningful experience.

All this makes authentic materials a fantastic tool, since they allow students to test their comprehension skills in real situations (as opposed to merely “realistic” situations). It is definitely profitable for learners to read, say, reviews of made up books, in order to practice identifying the main idea (e.g., did the reviewer like the book or not?), learning new ways of expressing opinions (e.g., I strongly recommend it because…), or whatever the teacher’s agenda is. If we can make learners do the same thing while also being able to choose an actual book to read afterwards, then the activity provides another layer of relevance for our students.

What’s more, learners benefit from activities with authentic materials at all levels. We might consider it easier to use authentic materials with students at intermediate levels and up – they do have more listening and reading experience in English, after all, have more vocabulary and are more comfortable with English being spoken at a faster pace. However, as we have discussed, authentic materials have multiple benefits – why not use them with beginners? If we make beginners more motivated, if we help them become more confident, this can have long-lasting effects. In order to do so, we need to grade the task rather than the text.

What we usually do with graded texts is to make the language a little easier, perhaps because it is spoken more slowly (in audios and videos) or with simpler vocabulary and grammar (which includes written texts). When using authentic material, what we can do instead is grade the task, i.e., we ask students to identify different information depending on their level of proficiency. If I present an elementary student with a newspaper article, even though the majority of the information might be impenetrable for him or her, they will probably be able to identify keywords and where specific information is.

When we are building with authentic materials, then, we can provide students with extra motivation, valuable knowledge, and a break from materials that feel artificial.

It might be time-consuming to find suitable videos and texts that we can include in our classes, but the payoff is huge. More recently, when new tools were developed that allowed this process to be even faster and more efficient, I have started using authentic materials more frequently, and the impact has been extremely positive. Hope you enjoy using them as well!

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