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Authentic Materials: An Overview

 

by Alejandro G. Martinez, M.A., Mexico City


There are many references to authentic material in the ELT literature.  Books and journals contain thorough explanations of why it should or should not be included in lessons, and how it is to be used or best exploited. But those authors who support the use of authentic material have in common one idea: "exposure".  In other words, the benefit students get from being exposed to the language in authentic materials.

The definition of authentic materials used in this paper is taken from Peacock (1997): materials that have been produced to fulfill some social purpose in the language community.

Widdowson's (1990) differentiation of the terms  "authentic" and "genuine material" has been a seminal one in the field so I should like to mention it here: Authentic would be material designed for native speakers of English used in the classroom in a way similar to the one it was designed for.  For example, a radio news report brought into the class so students discuss the report on pollution in the city where learners live.

Most of the time, though, this material is used in a genuine way, in other words, not in the way it was intended, but in a somewhat artificial way. For example, a news article where the paragraphs are cut up and jumbled so students have to put them back together in the correct order.

Another view is the difference between artificial and authentic materials (see Shortall, 2001).

 

Advantages

Using authentic material in the classroom, even when not done in an authentic situation, and provided it is appropriately exploited, is significant for many reasons, amongst which are:

 

Disadvantages

The disadvantages mentioned by several writers are:

There are many headlines, adverts, signs, and so on that can require good knowledge of the cultural background. Instances of this abound in the media, such as headlines that many times use abbreviations (P.O.W., M.I.A., G.O.P. and so on).

 

Sources of Authentic Materials 

In today's globalized world, examples abound, but the most commonly used perhaps are: newspapers, TV programs, menus, magazines, the internet, movies, songs, brochures, comics, literature (novels, poems and short stories), and so forth.

I would like to look at some authentic materials in a bit more detail and then move on to a variety of sample tasks .

Literature 

The reason for using literature in the class has been stated by Pound: "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree." (Ezra Pound, How to Read, Part II.).  Of course, the focus should be on teaching language, not literature.  In other words, the idea should be using literary texts as one kind among other texts. With that in mind, the tasks should aim at meaning and not form, especially literary form or stylistics.

Computer Software 

Software that has been specially designed for English instruction has received some criticism particularly from teachers who back up a humanistic approach to language teaching. They state they see no reason why exercises that can be done with a textbook should be carried out with a computer.  This idea stems from software such as Gapkit, Grammar mastery II and others that are really computer-guided drills. This position is quite understandable. However, together with Tense Buster,  and others that drills are not all computers have to offer to EFL teaching.

General software can be used in class, be it in a genuine or in an authentic way. An example is Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? by Broderbond, which gives students opportunities to interact not only with the computer but with other students as well. There are other examples of adventure games where learners need to discover clues and unravel mysteries. These games usually involve a good amount of reading and with the use of multimedia they involve a good range of sounds, speakers of different ages and accents, and excellent images. Students can play in pairs or threes and discuss what to do next, so that the interaction that takes place is also a part of the learning process. Another advantage these games have is that they promote computer literacy, a badly needed skill in the modern world.

The Internet 

With the advent of the World Wide Web, teachers have at their disposal large amounts of texts, visual stimuli, newspapers, magazines, live radio and T.V., video clips and much more. There are endless lists of useful materials for the language classroom. I should like to focus mainly on newspapers and radio stations. As with other media, there is no point in asking students to just go to the web and read some text or other.  There needs to be a task, preferably one in which meaning is central and has some connection to the real world.  Treasure hunts and other information searching activities are probably the most useful. More and more sites have interactive sections. For example: http://www.bbc.co.uk/communicate/ which contains message boards and where students can chat with native speakers.

Other useful websites are:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian/

http://www.nytimes.com  

http://www.google.com

Task 

The task, or what students are supposed to do with the given material, is what often makes all the difference. There is material that can be used for beginners, intermediate or advanced students, provided the task that comes with it is suitable.  This task should relate to the student's own life as much as possible, as proposed by Clarke (1989).

Sample Tasks

WANT ADS

A series of 4-5 want ads can be used with adults in the following way: beginners are asked to say which of the jobs they could qualify for, intermediate students can write an application letter or write a C.V., and advanced students may discuss who in the class could qualify for the job and why, re-write the ads or role-play job interviews.

TREASURE HUNT

Students get a news or magazine article and a sheet of paper with a series of questions so that they look for certain items: dates, events, people involved, etc.

MENUS

I have found menus to have great potential as authentic material. Students willingly get involved in a role-play where one is a waiter/tress and 2-3 students are the customers, provided they have been supplied with the necessary functions and structures to carry out such task, i.e. sentences such as:

        "What would you like?", "I'll have...", "Anything else?", and so on

ADS IN MAGAZINES

Guessing the product.  In this task, the teacher cuts out advertisements from magazines, hides the products being advertised and shows them to learners one by one to see if they can guess what product is being advertised. To practice specific vocabulary, the teacher gives learners three or four options per ad.

A second example involving magazine advertisements is the following:  Students are set in groups of 3-4 and get some 4 adverts. They are to imagine they are working for an advertising agency and compare the ads taking into account the texts and the photographs. Students are to decide which is the best and which is the worst. Then they re-design the worst ad, including the text. Ads with short texts are used with basic students, whereas those containing more complex texts are for intermediate or advanced students.

THE AGONY COLUMN

Four or five letters to the agony column are cut in half and pasted onto cards. Students work in pairs or groups of three and match the beginnings with the corresponding endings of the letters, and they match the corresponding answer to each letter.

TRAVEL BROCHURES

An example of how to use travel brochures is the following:

Students sit in groups of 4-5. They are given travel brochures of interesting places. They are to design a "phoney" brochure of an invented place. In it they include a mixture of characteristics of that place. e.g. spaghetti is the typical food, you can visit a theme park, drink vodka, etc.

FURTHER READING:

Clarke, D. (1990), Communicative theory and its influence on materials production. Language Teaching 25/1, pp73-86

Lund, S. (1992), Giving Your Courses a Dose of Reality.  ELT Forum 3 pp.10-15

Richards, J.(1983), Listening Comprehension: Approach, Design, Procedure.  TESOL Quarterly 17/2 pp. 219-239

Sanderson, P. (1999), Using Newspapers in the Classroom.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Shortall, T. (2001), Distinctions and Dichotomies: Artificial and Authentic.  English Teaching Professional,  21, pp35

Ur, P. (1984), Teaching Listening Comprehension.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Widdowson, H. (1990),  Aspects of Language Teaching.  Oxford: Oxford University Press


 

ŠAlejandro Martinez 2002. All rights reserved.