Using Authentic Materials in the Classroom

Vivian Cook 
Other writings

MET, 9, 14, 1981

One of the words that has been creeping into English teaching in the past few years is 'authentic'. It has a kind of magic ring to it: who after all would want to be inauthentic? It sounds as if any committed teacher must try to be authentic, and that the students' develop≠ment in their new language is bound to be handicapped if it does not give them authentic experiences. But is authenticity really such a magic word? Should teachers feel guilty about being inauthentic? 

What are authentic materials? 

The important thing to start with is to narrow down the meaning of 'authentic materials'. Yes, it is obviously a worthwhile thing for the students to have meaningful experiences in the classroom, to make language learning an educational process of self development and discovery as well as the learning of a language tool. But this has little or nothing to do with authentic materials. For using authentic materials simply means using examples of language produced by native speakers for some real purpose of their own rather than using language produced and designed solely for the classroom. Anybody who takes into the classroom a newspaper article, an advertise≠ment, a pop song, a strip cartoon, or even a bus ticket, is using authentic materials. Teachers have always introduced such realia into their classrooms, and always will. The question really is whether it is helpful to their students.

To illustrate what authentic materials for teaching English might look like, let's look at some samples. The fair way of doing it, I thought, was to jot down all the pieces of English that happened to catch my eye during one particular day, October 8th, when I was travelling to a meeting in Oxford. First of all, over breakfast, I had time to look at nothing more than the headlines in the daily paper.

1.     Monetary slowdown lifts hope on MMR

       High Court Move on Rampton Brutality

       £200,000 Yankee not so dandy for tote

Then I drove to the station to catch my train. On the way I noticed the following signs:

2. Parking spaces to let

  Urban Clearway ends

At the station, I consulted the timetable, and I bought myself a day return ticket;

3.

Going across London, I noticed some advertisements and graffiti that read: 

4. Be a girl and wear a skirt

5. The exworld champion suit

In the railway compartment I saw beneath the window:

          6. 

THIS CONTROLS CENTRAL HEATING UNDER THE SEATS ON THIS SIDE OF THE COMPARTMENT

I caught a taxi in Oxford with the following notice inside it: 

          7.

This taxicab is licensed to proceed

at not over walking pace along

Cornmarket Street.

BY ORDER OF LOCAL AUTHORITY

Finally, coming home by car in the evening, I stopped at a garage where the petrol pump said 

        8.

PAY HERE

Insert money to value

of petrol

You have 3 minutes to

start delivery from

first coin or note

INSERT QUEEN'S HEAD FIRST

as shown, one note at a time

None of these extracts are faked, all of them are quite genuine as far as the limitations of my memory and notebook go. Yet I think they must strike a non-native speaker or a student with horror. None of them remotely resembles the English found in the classroom; even when the English itself is comprehensible, it is quite unclear what the message is actually about. Why is this?

One reason is the density of cultural and situational references. Take the notice in the taxi-cab (no. 7). In fact, I had to ask the driver what it meant, and received the answer that Cornmarket Street is essentially a pedestrian street, and taxis and buses are only allowed along it provided they go slowly; only local knowledge of Oxford makes it meaningful. Or take the notice on the petrol pump (no. 8). If you have the information that it is on an automatic pump, and that an English pound note has the Queen's head on it in a certain position, then you can see what it means. Without this information, the instructions are meaningless. Or no. 1, the headline '£200,000 Yankee not so dandy for Tote'. If you know the song 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', if you know that the Tote is the government sponsored betting scheme, and if you know that a yankee is a certain kind of accumulator bet, then you can begin to see what the headline is about. All of these demand very precise information about certain aspects of English life.

What is more, they reflect life very much on October 8th 1980. A few days earlier, or a few days later, they would have been meaningless. For instance, the advertisement 'The world champion suit' which had been altered by a graffiti writer to 'The ex-world champion suit' was on a poster which showed an English world champion boxer wearing a suit; the 'ex' had been added because a few days before he had gone down to an ignominious defeat. No. 1, the newspaper headline 'High Court Move on Rampton Brutality', referred to an investigation into the troubles at a mental hospital called Rampton; this investigation is at a totally different stage at the moment of writing and will probably be quite forgotten by the time you read this. The point, then, is that much authentic writing is essentially ephemeral; it is highly relevant to the moment when it is written, but perishes a moment after. Nothing is so stale as yesterday's news. 

Why should we use authentic materials?

By now,(you may have been quite put off; if these are authentic materials, why should you use them and 'how can they fit into your classroom? Let us first look at some of the reasons for using them. Perhaps the most important is the students' motivation and interest. One of the powerful reasons for learning a new language is to get closer to its speakers, to understand them better and take part in their lives, in other words the integrative motivation. Authentic materials utilise this motivation very strongly by their ordinariness and flavour of everday life; they seem exotic and exciting, the very stuff of strange foreign life. For students who have this motivation, authentic materials are a highly effective way of bringing the target culture closer; this is as near to participation as they will get without actually living in the country. The content of the materials may not matter very much; it may not even worry them whether they understand it or not, provided it keeps their interest in the foreign culture alive.

Authentic materials are even more relevant for students who have the aim of going to the country itself. If they are to function in the foreign society they will have to get accustomed to all the trivial reading items that they will encounter every day. So if the students actually need to be able to communicate and interact socially in the target language environment, authentic materials seem an essential preparation for their task. Being able to cope with an English train timetable, to tell if they have the right ticket, to know which notices are important and addressed to them and which are not, all these are vital to their communicative purpose.

But what about students who are not integratively motivated and who are highly unlikely to visit the target culture? Why should we use authentic materials with them? Here it seems to me there is a more subtle reason of a rather different kind. All language syllabuses are defective representations of the target language; English has changed since the course was written or the grammatical description itself was inadequate. Also, we do not know enough about learning to be able to say that students would learn it 100% accurately even if the syllabus itself were 100% accurate. In other words, there may be gaps in the best of teaching programmes because there is still so much we do not know about English or about language learning. The only way we can make sure that we are giving the students all they need to know is by giving them authentic materials. These will automatically include any important structure or vocabulary we have ignored. If our authentic materials are representative and do not include the structures then, by definition, they are not important to native speakers. So it seems to me that spoken or written texts by native speakers are a vital way of plugging the gaps.

How to select authentic materials

The first criterion to me is that they are motivating or that the exercises that can be done with them are motivating. Roadsigns such as 'End of urban clearway' may say nothing to non-drivers, and even to drivers may yield little that can be done in the classroom. The same with petrol pump signs or the notices in railway trains. But something like the train timetable or the ticket presents things that are relevant to the students' knowledge of the foreign culture or to their functional needs when visiting it; they may also be used for various types of simulation activities and information processing activities in the classroom. Newspaper headlines, and the articles beneath them, also may give more general interest; graffiti may give an insight into a more popular side of life.

The second linked criterion is that they are not too ephemeral. If they are already of historical interest, there seems little point in using them. Either the teacher has to use things which are as up-to-date as possible or which have a timeless quality about them. It is still possible to discuss the Minimum Lending Rate (MLR), while it is no longer possible to discuss the Rampton brutality except as a thing of the past.

Thirdly, they have to be organised in some way. There is nothing worse than entirely disconnected bits of authentic language that are not linked to other aspects of the teaching. The obvious way to make this link is through themes; most of the examples I've quoted could be linked by the theme 'Travelling' because that was what I happened to be doing on October 8th. But they can be organised around many other themes, whether functional, such as 'shopping', 'banking', 'getting a job', 'eating out', or general discussion, 'is transport degenerating?', should smoking be banned in public places?', or in some other way. The authentic materials are not the point of the course, but a way of achieving that point. Fourthly, they have to be selected in terms of their language and content. This may seem like a contradiction: anything a native speaker says is by definition authentic, so how can we possibly censor it? But there are many things a native speaker says that I do not want in my classroom. Sometimes this is a question of language; letters to the local newspaper in England are often written by people who are unaccustomed to writing but are highly moved by some local issue; their language tends to be rather strange, often veering towards unnecessary pompousness, hypercorrectness, or even ungrammaticality. I do not feel that my students should see this kind of English unless they have to.

Sometimes, however, it may be the actual content of what is said that is objectionable. I deliberately included in my examples the graffiti 'Be a woman and wear a skirt', but would you use it in your classroom? Some people are sexist, racist, or have other types of prejudice, but I feel that as an educational experience the classroom has to exclude their opinions, authentic as they are. Of course a teacher can always introduce an example simply to disagree with it, but in general I think one does have to consider with authentic materials whether the actual content is acceptable educationally or linguistically, as one would do for any other type of material.

How can one teach authentic materials?

One important issue in teaching authentic materials is whether the activities one uses are natural or not. By natural, I mean those that the native speakers themselves use for dealing with the materials. For instance, it is perfectly natural to look at a train timetable to discover the next train to London, or the fastest train to London, or the one that has a buffet car; though the activity in the classroom is unnatural to the extent that the students do not really want this information here and now, it is a possible way of using the timetable that they may need at some time in the future out≠side the classroom.

As in this instance, one important type of natural activity is using the information in the text for some reason; many kinds of information processing exercise can be devised for the classroom that use some natural activity. For example, the railway ticket could be used in an exercise where the students were told that they had asked for a first class monthly return to Oxford: have they been given the right ticket?

Shading across from natural to unnatural activities come various types of comprehension exercise. Students may be given headlines such as no. 1, and asked to try to explain what they mean. Obviously, they are unlikely to be totally right, but the teacher can accept anything that conveys the grammatical and lexical spirit of the headline, which often has a kind of structure that in itself poses problems for students. So the teacher can exploit the grammatical and lexical richness of the authentic materials by various comprehension and discussion techniques.

A third type of exercise that I am keen on depends upon another advantage of authentic materials that has not yet been touched on: their range of styles. Often in language teaching we adopt a single model of English which has little or no variation according to the person who is being addressed, the topic that is being talked about, the circumstances in which the language is being used, and all the other factors in stylistic variation. Students eventually need to be able to adjust their language in these subtle ways that the native speaker uses. Thus I feel that one valuable kind of exercise, unnatural as it may be, is to get the students to become aware of style by directing their attention to it. Take number 8, the instructions on the petrol pump; they are told where these instructions occurred and informed that the kind of English used is typical of that found in public instructions; then they are given tasks such as 'Now pretend you have to tell a friend how to work the petrol pump' or 'A character in a short story gets petrol from an automatic pump; how would the writer describe this?' They are changing one style into, another. Finally one may ask the student to transfer this knowledge to production; to write an equivalent passage to the one they have seen; write down some headlines you might see in tomorrow's newspapers; write some instructions for working a coffee machine. Myself, I feel that this kind of exercise is optional: many of the types of authentic text that one uses are not used by the majority of native speakers productively; I have never myself written a newspaper headline or designed a railway ticket. So it seems to me that one has to be very cautious with many types of authentic material in expecting the student to do more than understand the material, use it for information, and recognise what kind of language style is involved.

Conclusion

This article has tried to explore some of the implications of using authentic materials in the classroom. The conclusion is that authentic materials are indeed a valuable part of the teacher's stock in trade, and can do some things that other materials are not capable of. However, inevitably they have to be used in small doses, must be carefully selected and controlled, and need well-thought out teaching exercises to be fully exploited.

Reference note

Many of the ideas have come from listening to and reading Alan Davies and Henry Widdowson, and from working with Brian Abbs and Mary Underwood. Some of these ideas are available in books and articles such as:

A. Davies, 'Textbook situations and idealised language', Work in Progress, Department of Linguistics (Edinburgh), 11, 1978.

H. Widdowson, Teaching Language as Communication, OUP, 1978.

B. Abbs, VJ. Cook & M. Underwood, Authentic English for Reading 1, OUP, 1980.