Authentic Materials and the Classroom

This post was written as part of my application for the DELTA course at IH Barcelona.

What are the pros and cons of using authentic materials in class?

Scott Thornbury has written extensively on the importance of authenticity in the EFL/ESL classroom. He and others in his school of thought argue that, the classroom, generally speaking, may act as too sterile an environment to facilitate the kind of spontaneity one would actually encounter in the real world.  To counter this, teachers should make the classroom as close to “real-life” as possible. This is achieved through the use of realia, simulacra, and in this case authentic texts. I believe this to be true, but whereas using constructed, modified or graded texts don’t allow for creativity or affordances for learning outside of the text, authentic texts must be chosen and used discriminately and appropriately in relation to the level and needs of the learner(s). Here, I will attempt to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of using authentic texts in the classroom.

As stated earlier, contemporary discourse in ELT tends to favour the use of authentic texts. There are many reasons for this.  One reason is that it is naturally embedded in a context. Whether it is a menu or bus timetable, these texts are readily accessible to the teacher and relatable for the learner. And because the text is not synthetic, it allows for affordances for learning that would otherwise not be possible when using artificially constructed or graded texts. For example, recently I did a lesson on Cajun food with a group of elementary learners. After introducing them to 4 specific dishes and eliciting surrounding vocabulary (soup, rice, spicy, etc.), I told them we were going to New Orleans and I brought up a menu on the interactive whiteboard for a Cajun restaurant to look at before we left. It was a rather dense menu, full of text, no pictures. I asked them to find the 4 dishes, I had introduced to them earlier, on the menu. Then I asked them to choose 2-3 dishes they would like to have. Next, I had a student come up, and with the help of his classmates, take a red pen over all of the foods they couldn’t eat because of their religion (I teach in Saudi Arabia so pork and fish without scales are forbidden). After this, I informed them that I had a vegetarian friend joining us, so they needed to highlight all of the things our new friend could eat (being a Cajun restaurant, there weren’t that many options, sadly). In all, we managed to practice and develop multiple subskills (scanning/skimming/decoding/etc.). The kind of activities we were able to would have taken a considerable amount of time to do on my own. Further, I would be too conscious of target language and the limitations of my students to produce something as comparable or organic. There was an aspect of discovery learning on my side as I noticed things I hadn’t previously considered when I had selected the text. The main strength of using authentic texts, then, is the affordances for learning they offer. The spontaneity texts like these can generate creates more opportunities to exploit emergent language and pushes the students to develop their skills with something visceral.

Of course, no aid is perfect.  Authentic texts have their disadvantages. One important thing to consider when planning any lesson is the appropriacy of your tools. Often, we come across authentic texts we think would make for a good lesson purely by happenstance. This is either from our own personal reading, or on recommendation from a colleague. When we find a text we think might make for interesting class/lesson, there are a lot of things we must consider before we employ them. Usually the language presented is too colloquial or technical, or is culturally irrelevant or inappropriate. Adapting a wild text takes considerable time and creativity. When using textbooks or teacher-made material, however, we have the benefit that the texts are always level appropriate and there is a definite focus on the target language. We have the advantage that the material in front of us was created and reviewed with the learner in mind. Many of the textbooks on the market today have a range of pre-planned activities that pair more or less seamlessly with their materials.  In short, ‘inauthentic’ texts are easier. That being said, though they may seem to sacrifice quality for the sake efficiency and convenience (if we consider ‘an authentic experience’ to be tantamount to quality), I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are somehow wholly inferior to authentic texts. They are often times polished and fit for purpose and can be adapted if need be. They also free the teacher to focus on crafting other activities for free/communicative practice.

In summary, the use of authentic texts, while ideal, isn’t always necessary. Realia can be an amazing tool, offering that elusive organic experience most of us strive for in ELT. Textbooks afford us a readily accessible wealth of information and activity. However, they are just that: tools. Is it the sign of a good craftsman that he or she have many tools at his or her disposal? Or that he/she be able to make the most of the tools he/she has? When it comes to classroom aids, whether they are organic, authentic, or prefabricated, its performance often has more to do with the wielder than with the material itself.