Saturday, October 10, 2009

Authentic Materials for Student Engagement

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

Why Authentic Materials?

What’s the big deal, anyway? And why should we make an effort to incorporate them in our classes?

Obviously, comprehension of authentic materials is our ultimate goal in English teaching. No matter who, where, or at which level we teach, all our students eventually need and want to move from the shelter of the ESL/EFL text book to the real world of English, be it in college classes, scholarly or professional research, social communities, international business, Herald-Tribune, or Harry Potter.

That’s the “it’s good for you” reason to use authentic materials. But there’s also a “you’ll like it” reason, and it’s this reason that motivates me to use authentic materials:

I never fail to notice a particularly engaged look in my students’ eyes when we delve into authentic materials. They “hit” the activity with gusto.

I can only surmise the reasons–

  • First, it is a change from the regular textbook routine.
  • Second, they recognize the challenge and take pride in it.
  • Third, they know the ability to handle authentic materials is the true test of their months or years of language learning. If they can comprehend and manipulate these items, they know they are that much closer to their goal.

It took me a while to realize I didn’t have to wait until students were advanced to use authentic materials in my classes. With careful selection and planning, I now use authentic materials at all levels. Here’s a sampling of authentic materials for all levels:

Lower Levels

  • Visually rich materials like maps of all kinds (city, campus, building layout, special routes), government agency brochures like preparing for a hurricane, administering CPR, baby-proofing a home, and brochures for travel and attractions. I find a lot of material at AAA, the library, and social services offices.
  • Textual items students commonly encounter in the community, especially forms from places like the post office and bank, medical history forms from doctors’ offices, and job applications.
  • The local newspaper, especially classified and employment ads, movie and TV listings, and photos and captions.
  • Media such as songs and selected scenes from movies, TV sitcoms/dramas, and documentaries, selected interactive maps and graphs found on news sites like NPR.

Intermediate and Higher Levels

  • Magazine and news articles (For my intermediates, I particularly like Reader’s Digest, the local news section of the paper, and USA Today.)
  • Short stories and selected novels, (every time you pick up something to read for yourself, take a look at through the eyes of your students).
  • Online media like “Do-It-Yourself” or “How To” videos from or , awesome radio stories from This American Life or Science Friday, both available at NPR , and for those who teach ESP, profession-related sites like the BBC medical radio program Case Notes and the large video library on all business, sales, technology, and management related issues at . There are also short instructional and demonstration movies on YouTube and sites with movie trailers.

It’s Not So Much What as How

The key to using authentic materials successfully is to not feel obligated to use them in the manner intended. For example, let’s say in a college-prep ESL course you were introducing students to authentic college texts. You don’t have to actually read pages from a nursing or economics text. Instead, create a treasure hunt that teaches students how to use the table of contents, glossary, and index, and in which they discover the end of chapter study guides and how the author uses side bars to explain new vocabulary.

Or let’s say you are watching a DIY video on how to paint a ceiling. A low level class might be introduced to some vocabulary then asked to raise their hands when they hear the word mentioned in the video. An intermediate level course may have to arrange slips of paper into the correct steps they see on the video, while a higher level course may take notes and orally reformulate their own DIY demonstration.

In one very low level class, we used a brochure that demonstrated visually and with spare text the steps to administer CPR. Students worked in pairs, each pair assigned a step revealed only to that pair. Students practiced mimicking the action of their step and learning how to say (1 or 2 short statements only) what they were doing. Then the whole class got up and had to organize themselves in correct order only by mimicking their steps and saying their sentences. It was a challenge for sure, but the students were deeply involved in the task and in getting each other to repeat their step. I, too, was engrossed by watching how they worked it out.

Bottom Line

Authentic Materials are not easy or “no-prep” teaching tools, but the challenge to the student and the student’s level of engagement are well worth the effort. Start looking at everything you encounter during your day with the view of “How could I use this in class?” and don’t forget to be open-minded about creative uses for what you find!


Comment from naleeni das
December 8, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Hi! I’m a huge fan of authentic materials! Most of my experience has been with newspapers and news items from online sources. But these I had used with only teen learners.

Currently, I’m using stories in the form of fairy tales, poems and nursery songs for my 7 – 9 yr old EFL young learners. Do you think stories – whether we tell em or read aloud from a text, could pass for authentic? I mean it’s not in their text bk; so does it pass for an authentic material?

Comment from naleeni das
December 8, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Crumbs! Didn’t realise this article is over 2 yrs old? Sorry folks!

Comment from Juan Acosta Salas
June 12, 2015 at 9:30 am

Oh, very good, I teach Medical English in the Medical University of Havana, Cuba, and I use TV medical dramas as authentic materials in my classes. I appreciate any contribution to my research on the use of authentic audiovisual materials for Medical English teaching. That´s why I´m very happy for discovering this blog.

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