TeachingEnglish
      Using authentic materials

      Using authentic materials is one of the mainstays of an imaginative and motivating higher level course, but rarely features at levels lower than intermediate.

      There are several reasons for this, primarily a kind of fear that students will panic when faced with language that is largely unfamiliar, and a feeling that to prevent this the language should be edited to the students' level. This is an unnecessary fear, as using authentic materials can be rewarding and stimulating for both teacher and students.

      • Sources
      • Aren't authentic materials too difficult?
      • An example
      • The question of levels
      • Dealing with unknown language
      • Conclusion


      Sources
      When people first think of authentic materials they usually assume that we are talking about newspaper and magazine articles. However, the term can also encompass such things as songs, web pages, radio & TV broadcasts, films, leaflets, flyers, posters, indeed anything written in the target language and used unedited in the classroom.

      The materials used, will of course, depend on the 'usual' factors:

      • topic
      • target language area
      • skills
      • students' needs and interests


      It's no good trying to get your students fascinated by a text on the latest art movie if they are all fans of action films. You might as well save your time and energy and just use the text book!

      Aren't authentic materials too difficult?
      Yes they are, but that's the point! Your text, written or recorded, is likely to be too hard, even, in some cases, for advanced students. The trick, regardless of the text used, is not to edit and grade the text, but to grade the task according to your students' abilities. This is for three reasons: most importantly, it reflects the kind of situation your students may face in an English-speaking environment, it saves you time and energy (more of an added bonus than a reason) and lastly it encourages and motivates your students when they can 'conquer' a real text.

      An example
      The same text could be used in a variety of different ways. Let us take a tourist information leaflet. This kind of authentic material has the added advantage that it can be easily and swiftly ordered for free and in multiple copies from tourist boards and agencies. This also removes issues of copyright, which is a common problem of using authentic materials and should be checked depending on your particular situation. (Some countries allow a small number of copies to be made for educational purposes, but this can vary.)

      • With a little pre-teaching a low level class can use the leaflet to find out key information, 'What is the telephone number for..?' or 'When is..?' and so on.
      • At higher levels the same text could be used together with similar or related texts to form part of a research project (in this case, web sites, posters and similar leaflets spring to mind).


      The question of levels
      Naturally certain texts will lend themselves more easily to certain levels.

      At lower levels some possibilities include leaflets, timetables, menus, short headline type reports, audio and video advertising, or short news broadcasts. The task should be simple and relatively undemanding, and it is important to pre-teach key vocabulary so as to prevent panic.

      At more intermediate levels this list could be expanded to include longer articles, four or five minute TV or radio news reports, a higher quantity of shorter items, or even whole TV programmes, if your copyright agreements allow it. Again pre-teaching is important, although your students should be able to deal with unknown vocabulary to some extent.

      At higher levels it's a case of anything goes. At an advanced level students should have some tactics for dealing with new vocabulary without panicking, but it's still useful to have a few quick definitions to hand for some of the trickier stuff!

      Dealing with unknown language
      As can be seen, a key skill here is dealing with unknown language, in particular vocabulary. It is hard to cover this topic here, as there are several methods, although one which seems immediately appropriate is the skill of ignoring it, if they can complete the task without it!

      Especially with lower levels, it needs to be emphasised that students do not have to understand everything. I've found that students don't often believe you until you go through a few tasks with them. Teaching them this skill, and developing their confidence at coping with the unknown is an important element in their development as independent learners.

      Conclusion
      As can be seen, using authentic materials is a relatively easy and convenient way of improving not only your students' general skills, but also their confidence in a real situation. This is only a brief introduction to the ideas involved, but some of these ideas could easily be expanded to form part of a motivating and effective course.

      If you have any suggestions or tips for using authentic materials in the class you would like to share on this site, contact us.

      Sam Shepherd, Teacher, New Zealand

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