Exploiting authentic texts in the English language classroom

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Exploiting authentic texts in the English language classroom

I love reading. I read a lot, both for my personal and professional development and just for the pleasure of reading. One of the side effects of being an English Language teacher who reads, however, is that I often encounter something I find so inspiring, moving, or thought-provoking, that I want to share it; and I want to share it with my students. But of course, the type of content I read outside the classroom is rarely designed for learners of English. The material I read, is ‘authentic’.

Unlike a tailored text, such as those found in many course books, an authentic text has not been produced for the purpose of language learning, but instead has been ‘created to fulfil some social purposes in the language community in which it was produced’ (Nunan 1989:54). Examples range from newspaper or magazines articles, literature or song lyrics, to instruction manuals, brochures, or web pages. When we speak of texts, however, this isn’t limited to reading material, but also includes listening texts: TV advertisements; films and short films; news items; weather forecasts; announcements, radio programmes and podcasts; interviews and songs. Perhaps the most apparent difference between authentic texts and those produced for learners, is that in authentic texts the language isn’t graded to suit learner level. I would argue that learner exposure to more advanced ‘native-speaker-like’ language can only be a good thing: after all, this is what learners encounter in the real-world.  But authentic texts have more qualities to offer than just more advanced language. So, what do they offer that tailored texts don’t?

As well as using graded language, course book texts are largely written in order to draw learners’ attention to a specific language point: a grammatical form or collection of lexical items, and are extremely effective tools for focused learning.  In contrast, authentic texts may be considered more ‘natural’, in that they contain a variety of forms and lexical items. This not only helps learners observe how language items work in harmony, but also helps prepare them for more real-world communication. In both authentic reading and authentic listening texts, learners are exposed to unregulated native speaker language, and so are more likely to encounter language not found in course books. 

Similarly, tailored texts are frequently written to match the topic of a unit, and while such topics have become more varied in recent years, the range is still unavoidably limited. My local stationers, however, stocks a vast array of magazines and journals - from bird watching or wildlife photography, to graphic design or watercolour painting; from motorcycle maintenance or practical electronics, to railway modelling or furniture and cabinet making; from current affairs to history. The list goes on. The range is endless, and as such offers a far wider variety of subjects than those encountered in typical teaching materials. I once taught a B2 Upper Intermediate class of mixed nationality students using copies of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars. With another B2 group I did the same with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and with a C1 Advanced group we read George Orwell’s 1984. In all three cases, not only did the groups find the subject and story engaging, but the books offered such a range of language that the class were incredibly motivated, both to explore the content and to learn new language they encountered. The wider variety of subjects in authentic texts allows not only for more varied language forms, but also more subject specific lexis. For learners with specific passions and interests, reading such material can be more motivating and engaging, and can help to promote deeper cultural awareness and develop critical thinking skills.

The combination of these qualities makes for a more real-world reading experience: beyond the classroom learners encounter such an enormous variety of reading and listening material. All very well for upper intermediate and advanced level learners, but what of lower levels, for whom such a range of language at native-speaker-like level can be challenging and demotivating? It’s too simplistic to suggest that all learners at lower levels have similar needs, but there are obvious candidates for useful types of text - most students will at some point need to understand a menu in English, or read a brochure of some description - and course books provide these. But no learner is the same: each will have different passions and interests, and their learning needs will differ wildly. So, there is a strong case for opening up the world of text beyond that of course books - and in doing so, focus on teaching the student, not the lesson. This is where authentic texts come in useful even at lower levels, but to avoid the risk of overwhelming the student, such texts need to be short: short articles or short films, short stories or poems, or a section of a podcast, for example, and this involves extra preparation for the teacher. 

Using authentic texts also poses the question of whether or not the teacher should pre-teach language the learners will encounter. While doing so makes it easier for learners to access the text, drawbacks are that it doesn’t reflect real world contexts or help develop coping strategies, and adapting or simplifying a text risks losing its authenticity. Some guidelines are to remember that learners don’t need to understand everything; to grade the task, not the text; and to shorten, rather than edit texts. Considerations to keep in mind are what level the text might be used for, and how much scaffolding might be required by the teacher.


In my classes, I frequently ask learners to find and bring to the classroom texts that interest them.  In lesson and syllabus planning we begin with identifying learner needs, and this determines the content - the ‘what’ that we will then teach. Only then do we start to consider the ‘how’ - the methods, approaches and activity types we will use. The risk with authentic texts is that we lose control over the ‘what’: the language focus is incidental. But if we - or indeed our learners - are bringing to the classroom material that interests us in some way, then the likelihood is that the language will be relevant.  If we want to be able to talk about the topic, we’ll need the language to do so.

So how can we make use of authentic texts in the classroom? Here are a number of activities that can be adapted to suit any text type.  For the purposes of this article, I focus on reading texts, but most of these activities can also be used with listening texts. 


Before reading:

Three questions

Show learners the title of the text, a subtitle where there is one, and any accompanying photographs or illustrations. Ask them what the they think the text is about, and to make a mind map of what they already know about the topic. Next, ask the class to work in pairs or small groups to write three questions they would like answered in the text. After reading, students can then discuss whether they found the answers to their questions in the text, and if so, where.

In-between

As an alternative pre-reading activity, show learners the first and last one or two sentences of the text. Ask them what they think the text is about, and to brainstorm ideas about what they might find in-between. After reading, students can then discuss similarities and differences between their predictions and the actual text. 


While reading

The way in which to approach the actual reading of a text depends very much on the individuals in the group. Options are to have students read individually or to have students read aloud in pairs or small groups. Having students read individually is more akin to real-world reading contexts and usually my preferred option. I remind learners that at this stage they don’t need to understand everything, and encourage them not to worry about any difficult language, but to just try and get a feel for what the text is about. Usually I have dictionaries in the classroom - and learners often have access to online dictionaries on their phones - but I try to deter them from stopping reading to look something up, and explain that there’ll be time later in the lesson to focus on language. 


Post-reading

I’ve grouped the questions and activities here into three sections: content, organisation & style, and language focus. I’ve provided a comprehensive list of questions, but it’s important not to explore a text ‘to death’ - be selective and choose the questions and activities that you think will generate most discussion and be most useful for your class, and that are appropriate for the text you have chosen. Discussion questions can be presented on the whiteboard, by reading them aloud and allowing time for students to discuss, or written on individual cards or post-it notes around the room or that you can rotate from group to group. Alternatively, you can give each group two or three different questions from the same section and regroup the class to share their original questions and responses. 

Post reading: Content

  • What is the main topic of the text?
  • What did you find interesting / surprising / funny / hard to believe / confusing?
  • What is there in the text that you want to know more about?
  • What might be the most controversial ideas in the text? What are your views on the topic?
  • Draw a picture of what you imagine each character looks like, with notes on what you know about them.
  • How do you imagine each character feels? Why? Do their feelings change during the text?
  • Who wrote the text and who did they write it for? How do you know?
  • Look at the picture/s that accompany the text. What do they add? What other type of picture might the writer have chosen instead? How would a different picture change your experience of reading the text?

Post reading: Text Organisation & Style

  • How would you describe the register of the text? Is it formal, semi-formal, or informal? What words or phrases in the text tell you this? Why do you think the writer has chosen this register?
  • What three adjectives would you use to describe the text? Why?
  • How many paragraphs are there in the text? What is the purpose of each paragraph? Underline the most important sentence/word in each paragraph.
  • Why do you think the writer has organised the paragraphs in this way? How would the experience of reading be different if the text were organised differently, i.e. if something you learnt towards the end of the text was moved to the beginning?

Post reading: Language focus

  • What words are there in the text that you found confusing or didn’t understand? Discuss them with a partner; look them up in a dictionary; discuss them with your teacher.How important are they?
  • What language do you notice that is specific to the topic or subject of the text?
  • Choose a word or phrase from the text that you don’t often use but would like to. What appeals to you about it? What other contexts might you use it in?
  • Underline all the adjectives in the text. What synonyms do you know for these adjectives? Why has the writer chosen these words? How might the meaning change if the writer had used different adjectives?
  • Underline all the verbs in the text. Look at the verb tense and aspect in each case. Why has the writer chosen these forms? Are any other forms possible? How might other forms change the meaning?
  • How might the language in the text be different if it were written: for a child? As a set of instructions for something? As a complaint? As a dialogue?

The activities and discussion questions suggested here are designed to encourage learners to think critically, to engage in the content, and to explore the language offered by the text.  The activities themselves demonstrate the value of reading and listening to authentic texts both in and outside the classroom: as we explore the content, the potential for learning becomes evident.  But there’s another element to using authentic texts, and thus stepping outside of the realm of the syllabus, that’s also engaging and motivating for learners.  By bringing something ‘else’ into the classroom, and inviting students to do likewise, the teacher is demonstrating respect.  It acknowledges individual interests, and shows that you see them as people, not just students.  This feeling in itself is empowering for learners, as well as demonstrating that the world is theirs for discovering and learning. 


REFERENCES

Nunan, D. (1989) Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.


About the author

Jade Blue is an English language teacher, trainer and materials writer, who teaches and delivers training workshops and seminars in Europe and Japan.  Her primary research interests focus on learner-generated visuals in ELT and learner autonomy.  She has presented at IATEFL and as a Keynote speaker at The Image Conference.  Jade writes her own reflective ELT blog, has been published in Voices and English Teaching Professional, and has contributed to a Routledge publication on Reflective Practice in ELT. 

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