The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Using authentic materials in the efl classroom

Question:

Submitted by Laura Haug, Czech Republic

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

Dr Richards Responds:

English language textbooks are a source of activities for teaching English. As such they provide information about English and examples of how English is used. They also contain real-world information: the texts and other materials they make use of intentionally or unintentionally present information about countries, cultures, people, life styles, beliefs and values. Two important issues textbooks raise thus have to do with the authenticity of language they contain, and the representations of content that they provide.

Authenticity of language: there has been a great deal of discussion and debate in language teaching over the issue of the kind of language that is presented in textbooks and the role of constructed versus authentic language examples.

Traditionally the writers of textbooks generally employed their own intuitions about language use as the basis for writing dialogs, developing scripts for listening texts, and creating reading passages. This was often justified on the grounds that using authentic texts taken from real life would expose learners to language that was unnecessarily complex and would not allow the writer to provide a specific language focus to texts that are designed to support instruction. The result has sometimes been the charge that textbooks that contain unnatural or “artificial” language, such as we see in the following dialog that introduced different forms of the verb sing:

A: When did you learn to sing?

B: Well I started singing when I was ten years old, and I’ve been singing everyday since then.

A: I wish I could sing like you. I’ve never really sung well.

B: Don’t worry. If you start singing today, you’ll be able to sing in no time.

A: Thank you. But isn’t singing very hard?

B: I don’t think so. After you learn to sing, you’ll be a great singer.

Proponents of the use of authentic language in textbooks also suggest that the linguistic information and grammar contained in textbooks is often based on author intuition and may not reflect the findings of research into how the language is really used.

From the 1980s there has thus been a movement towards the use of authentic language in textbooks drawing on information derived from discourse and corpus analysis of authentic speech.

No textbook writer or publisher of course would advocate the use of using texts or language models that provide incorrect or inaccurate information about how English is used. The goal is to use texts and discourse samples that show how language is used and that also enable learners to use authentic cognitive, interactional and communicative processes when carrying out activities. A dialog in a textbook or prepared by a teacher for example may have been written by the textbook author or teacher, but may have been constructed to reflect features of authentic conversational interaction. It these features, rather than the text itself that form the focus of classroom activities.

In choosing texts for use in reading and listening textbooks, sometimes texts taken from real world sources may suit the writer’s needs. At other times however it may not be possible to find texts that are at the right length, at the right level of difficulty, reflect the reading or listening skills that are being addressed and are on a topic relevant to the unit. In this case the writer may adapt or create a text but make sure that it requires the use of the processes the text is intended to practice, such as listening to make inferences or reading to identify causes and effects. What is important here then is authenticity of process rather than authenticity of text.

Classroom discipline

Question:

submitted by Douglas MacQueen, Cambodia

What advice can you give about classroom discipline?

Dr Richards Responds:

Nobody can learn effectively in a class that is rowdy, where students come and go as they please, where the teacher sometimes arrives late, where students pay little attention to what the teacher is trying to say or do, use their cell phones or send text messages during the lesson or insist on using their mother tongue in class as much as possible rather than making any attempt to use English among themselves. A well-behaved class respects an understanding of the spoken and unspoken rules that govern the norms of acceptable classroom behavior. These “rules” may differ with students from different cultural backgrounds, so it is important that the teacher and students agree on what the rules for acceptable behavior are early in a course. Experts recommend that norms for acceptable classroom behavior need to be established early on with a new group of students and suggest that in order for the teacher to be able to exercise his or her authority in the classroom it is important to be consistent, to be fair, and to avoid direct confrontation. In this way an atmosphere of mutual trust can be established and maintained. When a disruptive form of behavior does occur (such as when a student continues to speak to another student while the teacher is talking), experienced teachers often respond in a humorous way (e.g. with a humorous gesture) rather than by expressing anger. In some classes there may be one or two students whose behavior is sometimes disruptive. An overenthusiastic student may dominate questions or answers, a student may not co-operate during group work, or there may be a student who distracts those around him or her.  Group pressure is the best response in these situations. If norms of acceptable behavior have been agreed upon, the teacher can  gesture to another student to remind the disruptive person of appropriate classroom behavior.

Dornyei  in his excellent book on motivation gives the following example of a set of class rules.

For the students:

  • Let’s not be late for class.
  • Always write your homework.
  • Once a term you can “pass”, i.e. say that you have not prepared.
  • In small group work only the L2 can be used.
  • If you miss a class, make up for it and ask for the homework.

For the teacher

  • The class should finish on time.
  • Homework and tests should be marked within a week.
  • Always give advance notice of a test

For everybody

  • Let’s try and listen to each other.
  • Let’s help each other.
  • Let’s respect each other’s ideas and values.
  • It’s OK to make mistakes; they are learning points.
  • Let’s not make fun of each other’s weaknesses.
  • We must avoid hurting each other, verbally or physically.

Motivating students

Question:

submitted by Jessy Hernandez, State University, Mexico

I have been working with law students in Mexico who think English is difficult, boring and unnecessary to learn. I haven’t found a good way to  motivate them. Can you give me a tip, please?

Dr Richards Responds:

There are no simple tips to address this kind of situation. If there were you would no doubt have managed to sort it out by yourself. However I recommend an excellent book on motivation in the language classroom: