Many teachers like to use authentic materials in class, and they can obviously be a wonderful source of language. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to offer some thoughts and tips on how you might go about selecting and exploiting these materials, to maximise their benefit to students.
Nunan (1988) defines authentic materials as those ‘which have been produced for purposes other than to teach language’, so that might mean emails, blogs, statistics, timetables, advertisements, instructions, labels, menus etc as well as articles from newspapers and magazines.
Relevance and interest
Have you ever done any research into the literacy practices of your students? In other words, what they actually read (and write) in their daily lives, in their first language as well as in English. Ask students to keep a note of everything they read, including cereal packets etc, for a couple of days. You may be surprised, and it will probably give you some new ideas of where to look for material.
Similarly, the more you can find out about the kinds of topics your students are interested in, the more successful your texts are likely to be. Obviously, if the students are preparing for an exam, you will also need materials and topics which reflect the exam they are taking.
This is a HUGE area, but I think there are three main points:
- Being careful about materials which may offend political, social or religious mores. If you know the context you are teaching in, this should be fairly easy to avoid. Or, if you are confident about your class, you may be able to touch on subjects which published material would have to avoid. I once taught a fabulous class about dangerous sports, which was fabulous not because of anything I did, but because one of the students suddenly started telling us all about the time he played Russian Roulette. Everyone was, unsurprisingly, fascinated and completely involved in communicating with one another.
- Being careful about materials which your students simply can’t relate to. This is a criticism aimed, not unfairly, at a lot of published ELT materials. ESOL learners in Birmingham are unlikely to want to read about skiing holidays, for example. However, just because something is outside the students’ experience, does not necessarily mean that it is uninteresting. It’s a judgement call.
- Consider visual literacy as well. The way the text is laid out may cause confusion. This is particularly an issue for students with low levels of literacy in their first language, but can also cause problems if the norms aren’t transferable.
For example, look at this leaflet:
The bullet points in the top right hand corner are used to give reasons why you should join- but this is only implied through the visual convention and might well not be obvious to a student.
The speech marks on the left indicate that what is inside them is a quote- but you need to know what the speech marks mean.
The asterisk in the bottom left-hand corner indicates some ‘small print’ information (in itself another convention!)
Students need to know a lot about the conventions of this type of text to be able to make sense of it. Other examples would be speech bubbles which always go from left to right, italics to indicate direct speech and bold or capitals to indicate that something is particularly important.
Linguistic and cognitive demands of the text
To a certain extent, the question isn’t so much about how difficult the text is, but about what you expect learners to do with it (the task). However, realistically, if a text is syntactically very complex and contains a great deal of unknown vocabulary, it is unlikely to be very motivating!
As teachers, we generally have a good sense of the ‘level’ of a text. However, if you aren’t sure, you could try running it through a programme which will assess the difficulty of the vocabulary, such as the Oxford 3000 profiler. According to this tool, if 100% of the words in your text are in the Oxford 3000, it is at a low intermediate level, if 90-95%, it’s upper intermediate and 70-90%, it’s advanced. This obviously won’t help with assessing the complexity of the syntax though, or other factors such as the level of background knowledge or maturity required.
Another factor is how clearly the text is organised. This can be a real headache with newspaper texts, which often have very short paragraphs, not necessarily linked clearly to the surrounding text. I remember an activity in the first edition of Headway Intermediate where the students had to order the paragraphs of a newspaper article. It was virtually impossible, because the links weren’t clear enough- and because the students weren’t made aware that the first paragraph of a newspaper article usually sums up the whole story.
It is also worth thinking about whether you want to use the text as a model for writing and, if so, whether, for example, a newspaper article is a type of discourse that students might actually want or need to write in real life (unless they are budding journalists of course)
- Length (if it’s too long, you could edit it, but would need to be very careful about removing some of the features which make the text authentic or making it difficult to follow the links which make it cohesive)
- Font size and style (may be too small or difficult for learners not yet familiar with different ways of reproducing the Roman alphabet)
In my next post, I’ll look at some ideas for exploiting texts once you’ve found them. If you want to get the next post automatically, just hit the ’Follow blog via email’ button on the right.