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.