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Authentic materials in the classroom: the advantages

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In the first part of a series on authenticity, our regular contributor and Unlock author Lewis Lansford asks teachers to consider the advantages of using authentic materials in the ELT classroom.

I asked a dozen teaching colleagues (identified below by their initials) for reflections on the advantages and disadvantages of using authentic materials in the classroom. From their comments – many of which were generously long and thoughtful – three main ideas emerged:

  1. We need to define the term ‘authentic’ and also include in the discussion the ideas of ‘adapted’ and ‘semi-authentic’ materials.
  2. Authentic materials offer great advantage over materials written for the purpose of language learning.
  3. There are also many disadvantages to using them.

In this post, I’ll discuss what we mean by ‘authentic materials’ and look at some of the advantages they offer in the classroom. My next post will explore disadvantages and how to address them, including a discussion of semi-authentic materials.

What do we mean by ‘authentic’?

DM (whose work focuses on test preparation): ‘First, we need to define terms. What are “authentic materials”? For me, “authentic materials” are reading texts that were written by native speakers and published in contexts designed specifically for native-speaker consumption, with no thought given to non-native accessibility. The topics, language, syntax, structure, etc., are all pitched at a target audience of native speakers and offered through media intended primarily for native speakers.’

Other teachers widened the definition to include videos, television programmes, and any other sources of language – or anything that might stimulate language use. DS, who teaches aviation English, says ‘I bring in tools and nuts and bolts and different gauge wire and bits and pieces.’

MS was asked by his school to use ‘a new authentic material coursebook based on real interviews. It turned out that they were real interviews, but they had been re-recorded by actors as the real thing was too hard to understand… they weren’t actually authentic interviews in the book’.

CW articulated what most of the teachers expressed: ‘For me, authentic materials are, in principle, materials which have not been adapted in any way. If they are still in principle the same but maybe have been shortened or one or two words changed, then I would say they were only semi-authentic.’
I’ll discuss the use of ‘semi-authentic’ materials in a later post.

Why we like authentic materials

DM: ‘The advantage of authentic materials is that they give higher-level students exposure to unregulated native-speaker language – the language as it is actually used by native speakers communicating with other native speakers.’

AH: ‘I see authentic materials as key in receptive skills and learning conventions – “authentic listening” to speakers, ideally on video, in particular. But I don’t necessarily see authentic materials as a model for productive skills.

“Authentic” materials – a contract or an email – are often a starting point for my advanced students/clients and myself to discuss how to communicate most effectively. They’ll stumble over a phrase or expression and want to discuss the meaning [and] related intentions and connotations. The authenticity of the materials makes them authoritative.’

DS: ‘There is a certain enthusiasm when a less-than-university-educated aircraft maintenance engineer holds in his hands a tool which he uses every day, and tries to explain exactly how he uses it. He can manipulate it and (to a certain extent) demonstrate it while explaining. The others in the class (all grease under the fingernail types) are equally eager, and often there is a feeding frenzy of new language.’

To sum up the advantages, my teaching colleagues feel that authentic materials:

  • Help prepare learners for the ‘real’ world of communication;
  • Guide learners toward the language they need for their particular context;
  • Motivate learners to communicate, because they help make communication ‘real’. 

Read the other posts in this series: the disadvantages of using authentic materials and the role of authenticity in published materials.

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