The Fear Of The Authentic

Slowly through my own growth as a teacher, I’ve become enamored and enchanted by the use of authentic materials in the English language classroom.

When you first begin as a teacher, you don’t see the real world as a material. Rather, you begin your foundation with a textbook and lousy, repetitive cassette tapes (in my case) of Sam and Sally talking about their phony lives and likes/dislikes. But gradually all teachers start trying to bring reality into their lessons, little by little (see this description of using soap operas by Scott Thornbury).

Still, despite the richness and efficacy of authentic materials, there is very little use of authentic text, audio, video or teacher discourse in our field. Why I ask? Research supports its primacy. Gut feeling and the success of millions of language learners learning English on their feet, in the real mire and ambiguity of the street tell us that we should be using the “real world” and authentic materials. So why don’t we teachers? May I say, it might be we are fearful?

Yes, I think there is a deep fear within us teachers and in the ELT “industry” about authentic materials. Here are a few ways this fear I think manifests and causes us to eschew authentic materials.

My students won’t understand it. It’s too difficult and demanding!!!

This is a teacher reflex. Teachers instinctually (and for good reason) fear a lesson where all students are bewildered. We’ve all experienced this in our classrooms. However, the richness of authentic materials should not be avoided for this reason.

Teachers need to learn how to support the materials with contextual aids, scaffolds, delivery techniques etc … so to facilitate the learning. And difficulty, “ambiguity” is precisely the point where learning starts. So we need to challenge students and let them grow their ambiguity tolerance so to increase uptake.

The students prefer and want a book and publishers materials.

I’m not so sure they do. It’s kind of like the issue of the native-speaking teachers. When you look at it closely, students don’t prefer the coursebook or want a native speaking teacher – they just want good, competent, quality teaching. A teacher they trust and believe in. Lessons that count.

But that’s not teaching! You need to instruct. You need structure.

Too often teacher success is limited by a focus on explicit instruction and teaching about language rather than teaching “through language”. We need a more inductive approach when delivering our language lessons. One firm rule I have with any text, audio or visual material is let the students first “have a go”. Allow them to experience the whole thing, in all its complexity. We teachers also need less focus on form and structure and more focus on meaning, negotiated meaning. That’s where authentic materials show their strength – allowing students to figure things out … not spoon feeding them. Let’s move beyond our synthetic syllabuses – learning is messy. Teaching too.

Of course, there is a place for educational materials. Especially at the lower levels. But beyond that, we need to let go and make authentic materials our primary teaching material.

I can’t find any good authentic materials. Besides, it’s so much hard work to use and prepare!!!

Again, I disagree. Now with the internet and growth of digital media, quality authentic materials abound. Just look at commercials for example.

The real problem is that teachers aren’t trained in the use of authentic materials and how to simply, easily use them in their lessons, as sources of learning. Teacher training programs spend hours on how to deliver lessons from worksheets or coursebooks but little time on materials development. Authentic materials need to be used in an open, students focused framework, not mined intensively. Further, teachers need to be provided a strong toolkit of authentic materials and lessons for their teaching “go to” toolkit.

My school has a set curriculum. I can’t use authentic materials except as a supplement and there truly isn’t any time for that.

In this moment of time where the coronavirus health emergency is making many look hard and long at digital language learning materials – we need to take the opportunity to promote authentic materials use. Truly. This all starts with giving teachers more freedom to teach – as I call it. Trust teachers more to develop lessons and move away from the packaged, publisher language trash. Decrease the grammar, vocabulary and focus on form in our curriculums. Less focus on testing and more focus on the electric negotiation of meaning available and so powerfully inherent in authentic materials.

This post is older but here are a list of ideas for harnessing authentic materials and having authentic activities in our classrooms.

Let’s throw off the blanket of fear and bust out of our classroom’s 4 walls. Not just using authentic materials but even making our teaching more authentic. Decrease teaching presence and make the teacher – student encounter more real, authentic.

Right now, I’m teaching for free two working class men in Nicaragua. They come to my house and my first rule to them was no pens, no book, nada! Just be. We don’t have a set “topic” or “subject”. We’ll go where the conversation goes. We’ll watch stuff on the internet and discuss. Very seldom do I deconstruct and “teach”. Every now and then I’ll provide a Spanish translation for a word or expression but usually I just let them deal with the ambiguity and we get on with it, our time together. And that is it, it isn’t a “lesson” per say – it is our time together. A real, authentic, encounter.


Also published on Medium.

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