11 May Why you should use authentic texts
By James Jenkin
What’s an authentic text?
As Thornbury (2006) summarises:
A classroom text is authentic if it was originally written for a non-classroom audience. A newspaper article or a pop song are thus considered authentic (p. 21).
The list of available authentic texts is, literally, endless. They can be written or spoken texts. We tend to think of authentic texts as magazine or newspaper articles. In fact, written texts could include food packaging, road signs, recipes, clothing labels, maps and home delivery menus. Listening texts could include recorded information on the phone, train announcements, TV advertisements, YouTube videos, commentary on the radio, or secret recordings of your friends talking at dinner (Just be careful, socially and legally!).
Why use authentic texts?
The main advantage is they can be exceptionally motivating. Students sometimes describe the gap between the classroom and the street as a gulf. Using authentic materials in class helps students feel they understand the real world, and are active members of the English-speaking community. And in fact, they are! After class your learners will need to deal with real texts, so you’re giving them essential tools for living and learning autonomously.
Authentic materials are also engaging. Real things tend to be more interesting than textbook simulations. And you can choose a wide range of texts, which are current (no more articles about Michael Jackson!), and which are tailored to your students’ interests.
Aren’t authentic texts too hard?
This is the first question teachers ask. How can beginners deal with ungraded language?
First, we need to choose the right texts. We’re probably not going to give beginners extracts from university textbooks.
However, the most important principle is to ‘grade the task, not the text’. We can choose any text we think will engage our students, then control the difficulty of the tasks they do with it.
For example, even for a beginner-level class it’s possible to design useful and achievable reading activities with a newspaper. We can first have students identify and navigate the sections. Students then focus on one section, such as the weather, from which they can extract all the key information.
The one note of caution with the ‘grading the task’ principle is we can’t patronize students by giving them a complex text, then getting them to do something babyish with it. That’s demotivating.
What should students do with an authentic text?
The key is to design authentic tasks. We’re exposing students to examples of real English. It makes sense to have students use these texts for the same reasons, and in the same way, as people in the real world.
Imagine you want students to read a menu. Why do people read a menu? To decide what to eat. Not to answer comprehension questions!
Therefore, to use the menu in class, we can set up an authentic context (planning a class lunch), give students an authentic reason to read (decide together what they should order), and incorporate real-life constraints, such as people’s food preferences and the class budget.
Using this one authentic text leads to a wide variety of activities involving authentic and meaningful use of language. Students need to ask each other about the food they like. They can roleplay ordering the food in the restaurant. They can email or ring the restaurant with a list of queries. And, if possible, the class can actually go to the restaurant to order this meal.
You may wish to incorporate conventional staging (such as pre-teaching vocabulary, reading for gist and detail) to guide students to a thorough understanding of the text. However, there’s also an opportunity for students to work out meaning from context and approach the text in their own individual way, applying strategies they’ve previously learned, just as they do when they’re on their own outside the classroom.
Are there any disadvantages?
Yes. Authentic texts chosen by a teacher are obviously not designed as part of the program. It takes time and thought to match new materials to course outcomes.
It also takes work to get the materials physically together, and design effective and engaging tasks.
It means using authentic texts may only make up a small part of your classroom teaching. But there are clever and time-effective ways of incorporating them: for example, replacing a non-authentic reading or listening text in the course book with an equivalent authentic text, along with tasks practicing similar skills.
One final suggestion
Exploit the interest value of authentic materials! Show students the real thing. (Never retype a text.) Let students handle an original written text, or show a photo of where an authentic spoken interaction took place. Let them know they’re doing something real.
Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT: A Dictionary of Terms and Concepts Used in English Language Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan.
James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.
Image source: shutterstock.com/Milles Studio