Methodological approaches used in the course

Authentic materials

Markéta Kovaříková

This article reviews the issues, experience and final outcomes of an ongoing discussion on the topic of authenticity and the development in the use of authentic materials in a three-year content-based course of collaborative learning within the IMPACT project. After an introductory description of what authenticity and authentic materials are, the paper continues with an overview of the reasons for and the purpose of the use of authentic materials as well as the aspects of the use of these materials and their types. The article concludes by illustrating the background of the course concerning different views of material choice and design and offering a number of practical tips to be used when planning a course of a similar nature in tertiary education.

The Role of Authenticity and Authentic Materials in Content-Based Courses

The following article describes the importance of authenticity and the role which authentic materials played in the content-based and science-oriented collaborative course within the IMPACT project. The introduction gives a brief overview of what makes materials authentic and what authenticity means to language teachers and students. It proceeds to review the strategies and criteria for choosing and using materials. This is based both on our experience and is supported by publications written by ELT experts. Finally, it reports on the outcomes of putting the use of authentic materials in practice throughout the three runs of the course.

Nowadays, the notion of authenticity has become a popular term in ELT, and it is widely promoted in the literature as a key to success when teaching English on any level and to any target group. However, it is important to understand that authenticity and the role of authentic materials (AM) may differ, taking into account the nature and the different goals of courses. For instance, CLIL (content and language integrated learning) courses do not see foreign language learning as the object of study. On the contrary, the content-based and collaborative courses, such as the one described here, aim particularly at foreign language development and learners’ learning process where the subject and its content serve as the common ground and source of motivation.

Although, as can be seen in the following anonymous comment on the online article Throw away the course book and adapt authentic materials, the use of authentic materials might has its opponents: “Authentic materials are great... BUT.... it can be hours of work to adapt them, and when you consider sometimes 2 to 3 hours of work for every hour spent in the classroom, they become less appealing to prepare, although this, of course depends on your teaching schedule.”, language teachers include them in ELT courses and syllabus design.

In simple terms, the use of AM needs to be learnt if one wishes to take into account the learners’ specific needs, develop learners’ communicative competence, and scaffold and enhance learners’ learning processes.

The existing definitions of authenticity and authentic materials are controversial. As can be seen in most papers dealing with these issues in ELT literature, their meaning and usefulness vary considerably and range from non-critical: “Authentic texts can be motivating because they are proof that the language is used for real-life purposes by real people.” (Nuttall 1996), to critical: “As soon as texts, whatever their original purpose, are brought into classrooms for pedagogic purposes they have, arguably, lost authenticity.” (Wallace 1992)

This course merged several of the definitions of authenticity into one that, apart from the authenticity of text, also implies the authenticity of language, interaction, situation, task, output and other. It stems from the claim that authentic texts have been defined as “…real-life texts, not written for pedagogic purposes.” (Wallace 1992) They are therefore written for genuine communicative purposes and contain “real” language. These are “…materials that have been produced to fulfil some social purpose in the language community.” (Peacock 1997). In contrast non-authentic texts are tailored for language learning purposes, and so their language is artificial and does not obey the norms of patterns of normal usage, concentrating on something that has to be taught. This is referred to as "skewed input" and has not been demonstrated to improve students in the target language feature. All of these definitions were incorporated in and reflected on our course policy based on the content-driven approach and collaboration leading towards an authentic outcome, namely a scientific conference.

Fortunately, the understanding of the term authenticity and its perception by students need not be a determining factor for a successful language learning process. Based on research done by Richard Pinner (2013) in an international CLIL on one hundred and three respondents, many students express confusion about the term "authenticity". When asked about the factors that contribute most to authenticity, almost half of the students replied content and precisely half answered language, materials, and task.

What contributes to autenticity? (n = 103)

Graph

This means that as long as most of the previously mentioned aspects of authenticity – namely content, text, language, interaction, situation, task, output – remain intact, language awareness as well as gradual language and language skills development are ensured.

The use of authentic materials itself implies two contradictory approaches. Firstly, AM represent real language exposure to the up-to-date information that students work with in their field. They are likely to contain topics of interest which can in turn be expected to be as motivating. Secondly, AM come in a wide variety of text types which affords many opportunities for teaching. Thirdly, they are ideal for practising micro-skills, which in. reading, for example involves scanning and skimming. There are however some negative aspects that go hand in hand with the choice and adaptation of AM by teachers and their use by students. Choosing and adapting AM is time consuming and requires special preparation. Once the texts are adapted, they lose their authenticity; furthermore many can soon become out-of-date. The materials can be too difficult to understand, may contain too many structures within one text and also vocabulary which might not be relevant to all. As a solution, some experts suggest adjusting the text, some the task, some suggest setting the language level slightly above students’ knowledge to challenge the students, some slightly below to secure the positive progress, some suggest the challenge and support in both text and task need to be balanced in order to promote effective learning. There is no one size fits all approach and the teacher is ultimately left to make their own decisions based on the theories of language, language acquisition and approaches to teaching that they have arrived at through experience.

In spite of this, AM were worth using in our collaborative learning content-based course, as the negatives were essentially outweighed by the positives. What seemed to be an initial disadvantage of the use of AM to some of the teachers in the course, was soon seen as a motivating force and challenge for them as well as a benefit for the students as it induced a more creative approach to teaching. Though the SWOT analysis done after the first run of the course revealed some drawbacks connected with using AM, such as the high amount and excessive length of texts used, difficulty of tasks, lack of disciplinary balance, time management issues leading to problems with deadlines, when doing the feedback on the last run of the course, the students appreciated the use of AM. Exposing the students to real language, giving authentic content-based information, and relating more closely to students’ needs had a positive effect on their motivation and promoted their learning progress.

The ways in which authentic materials were used in our course, i.e. supplying students with meaningful and real world tasks, emphasizing problem solving, encouraging team work, and involving knowledge development, supported the main concept of the course from the very start. In addition to this, the integration of language and skills practice was designed to prepare the students for and guiding them towards the final output, namely the student conference, as noted above.

Working with students’ motivation, be it intrinsic and extrinsic or individual and group or course-specific and teacher-specific, deciding on which and how to promote and influence, does play a major role in second language acquisition. While success in language learning can be promoted by factors over which teachers have little control, such as the students’ initial self-confidence and determination or the duration and intensity of exposure to the target language limited by the timetable, there are some such as working environment, positive class atmosphere and choice of stimulating materials which are fully under teachers’ control.

The final issue to be addressed is what materials to use and how to choose them. In general, we adopted a policy based on the tips Jeremy Harmer (2007) proposes to English language teachers in general. This means opting for materials that integrate skills and activate schemata, starting with short texts and later heading towards long ones, employing firstly top-down (content-oriented) and secondly bottom-up (language-oriented) approach, using materials based on real-life types of texts, i.e. samples preparing students for topics which they are likely to encounter during their career, studies and work, and letting students decide on, use and present materials of their own choice.

Experimenting with various AMs eventually brought us to a consensus, and a bank of various materials was created. They are represented in the table below:

Graph

When designing a course syllabus and deciding on the course book to use, teachers are trained to apply a set of criteria to analyse and evaluate the material critically. A similar procedure needs to be performed when choosing authentic materials. What proved to be effective in our work were the following important factors in choosing authentic materials - suitability of content, exploitability, readability, variety, and presentation - and the set of questions to be used as a check list, all created by Nuttall (1996).

Suitability of Content
Does the text interest the student?
Is it relevant to the student’s needs?
Does it represent the type of material that the student will use outside of the classroom?
Exploitability
Can the text be exploited for teaching purposes?
For what purpose should the text be exploited?
What skills/strategies can be developed by exploiting the text?

Readability
Is the text too easy/difficult for the student?
Is it structurally too demanding/complex?
How much new vocabulary does it contain? Is it relevant?
Presentation
Does it “look” authentic?
Is it “attractive”?
Does it grab the student’s attention?
Does it make them want to read more?

Once we got accustomed to this process of AM choice, we decided to create our own set of essential rules which are important to bear in mind when sharing a course with subject teachers:

Authentic materials need to be used

  • through regular exposure
  • both in-class and for homework
  • as a model – promoting subject-based language
  • in science/research – as a source of information and data
  • in language – as a source and a model of correct vocabulary, grammar, style, formality

This brings us back to the initial design of the course. One of the reasons for resorting mostly to AM was the specificity of our topic. Although the topic of cyanobacteria is a worldwide problem, linking this issue to a regional water reservoir resulted in a lack of materials written in English. This proved to be both advantageous and disadvantageous. On the one hand, as the topic-specific materials were non-existent, there were no materials to be readily taken and used, which offered us both a wide space for tailoring the course to our specific needs and an absolute autonomy in the choice of materials. On the other hand, the variety of AM available was too vast and, at the same time, required remarkable alterations and adapting. What was most important, however, was that the ideas and aims of using these materials of language teachers differed from those of the subject-experts to a great extent.

Designing a course with a wide range of conflicting expectations soon became impossible to juggle. Over the course of three years our expectations changed. We had to abandon the idea of shifting the responsibility of the choice of AM completely to our students and/or subject teachers. We learned that the main condition for making a collaborative learning course successful is mutual agreement and collaboration between the language and subject teachers. By setting our language teaching aim first, informing and/or involving our subject colleagues, and consequently checking that the aim is achieved brought us to the point where just listening to and showing respect for each other’s expertise was the key to success.

To conclude, the success of using authentic materials depends to a great extent on how meaningful and challenging the materials are, how well both language and subject teachers can design and present the task, and how well the materials are exploited in the class with respect to the output. It is crucial to correctly decide on an appropriate text length, its language level, difficulty of vocabulary, timing, feedback and other important factors. Bearing in mind the practicality and feasibility of using authentic materials and preparing and setting tasks with motivating factors in mind ultimately determines the quality of the collaborative teaching and collaborative learning process.

Sources

  • Dörnyei, Zoltán. Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP. 2001.
  • Nuttall, C. Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Heinemann. 1996.
  • Peacock, M. The Effect of Authentic Materials on the Motivation of EFL Learners in English.
  • Language Teaching Journal 51. 1997.
  • Pinner, Richard. Authenticity and CLIL: Examining Authenticity from an International CLIL Perspective. International CLIL Research Journal, Vol 2 (1) 2013, pp. 44-54.
  • Lynch, Larry. Throw away the course book and adapt authentic materials.2007. http://www.eslbase.com/articles/authentic-materials-2
  • Wallace, C. Reading. Oxford, O.U.P. 1992.


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