In recent years there has been a growing academic interest in the use of authentic materials for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
There has been a shift from narrow instructionally based models of teaching, exemplified by textbook exercises, multiple choice answers, and one-to-one grammar translation, Swaffer (1985), to current broader models embracing the use of authentic materials. These tend to be learner-centred, focused on cognitive comprehension development, and are forging a new path in language learning.
The following discussion will address the current knowledge and theory which underpins teaching second language (L2) learners with authentic materials.
An analysis of a selection of current teaching techniques and activities using authentic materials will include the use of: 1) Newspapers 2) Literature and 3) Music. Finally, I will address the implications of using these authentic materials in current L2 teaching and learning practise.
The ‘authenticity’ of materials used by teachers in foreign language classrooms is pertinent to note, considering that language, culture, and communication, are cited as key aspects in the development of language skills, Lawrence (1999).
ESL teachers and educationalists are discovering the rich diversity of what Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999) refer to as ‘relia’; a synthesis of ‘real’ and ‘media’. This term addresses the use of current articles in newspapers and magazines. Johnson (1998) notes that many ESL students, even after years of English study, have not read an authentic English newspaper, or learnt in a context which promotes it.
Brown (1994) observes that to modify an authentic text is to strip it of its essential humour and wit, and that this process can make the text more difficult for L2 learners to understand. This exemplifies Tyson & Seung-Bong’s (1999) point that the use of authentic news material in the ESL classroom is beneficial. It also addresses the cultural skills referred to by Lawrence (1999). Johnson (1998) further offers the view that reading passages of text are often treated by teachers and students as a decoding exercise, consisting of translating each word and sentence. After this exercise, there is either reading or a content test.
In their paper on the effective use of current news articles in L2 learning classes, Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999) discuss the purposes of using them in the ESL context. Whilst the authors recognise that there are textbooks available illustrating real or simplified news material providing convenient texts at all levels, their main contention is that authentic current news articles offer richer language learning opportunities.
Firstly, they recommend that articles are selected on the basis of the teacher’s knowledge of their students’ levels of language ability, and therefore are more stimulating, appropriate, and current, than those that are published in textbooks. By the time a textbook is published, the content can be out of date. The use of current news articles can, they propose, encourage students to read, converse, and write on topics that they currently read and discuss in their native language. Comparisons can be drawn which lead to discussions of opinions. Also cultural immersion is facilitated, since students are exposed to the ideas, values, and beliefs which are part of English language and culture.
Secondly, they suggest that authentic news articles can be used in composition lessons. The articles may be used as a model for a variety of different writing genres. For example, assignments on writing letters, stating opinions, and reporting facts, may be used to promote effective L2 learning, Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999).
Dubin & Bycina, (1991) suggest that reading, discussing, and comprehending authentic English news articles improve students’ motivation and confidence for furthering their reading activities outside the classroom. Reading skills are enhanced, and skills for selecting appropriate article material from local sources can encourage independent reading in their own time.
Jameson (1998) mentions that learning with authentic materials acts as an important preliminary task for preparing ESL students for their later careers. News and magazine texts that exemplified in books are often over-simplified, and offer minimal scope for students to engage in material that is relevant to their own interests or subject areas.
Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999), report that knowledge of students’ L2 proficiency is essential for effective integration of authentic news material into English language lessons. However, the currency of the topic for their age group, and the teacher’s interest, is also highly relevant for capturing the students’ interest. Another strategy suggested, is allowing individuals or groups to select some of the material.
The variety of authentic textual genres available for use by teachers, such as those in newspapers, magazine articles, advertisements, advice columns, editorial letters, cartoons, and charts and graphs, is proposed as effective in providing stimulating learning materials for L2 students, Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999). In addition, obtaining these from a broad range of sources is suggested as desirable. Teachers may widen their own textual repertoire and create new reading routines when they use their own authentic texts in English classes. This is because they tend to refer to different publications to search for articles their students might find interesting, Sokolik (1998).
Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999), continue to advise that ‘student publications’ are an effective source in L2 classes, since the level and relevancy of the material is appropriately pitched for their age group. In addition, students are motivated by reading the work of their peers in their own publications, and further, this material can be used as examples in composition writing classes, and for conversational practise. They advise that teachers maintain a file of relevant articles that are either cut out or copied whilst reading. These should be ones that the teacher finds interesting and that are appropriate for the students’ level of English. This is a useful resource for students when selecting subjects for presentations or writing projects.
Additionally, the authors suggest that the ‘readability’ of the article should be considered when selecting appropriate materials. They propose not choosing pieces which are too long or too complex for the students, and to avoid pieces with difficult vocabulary like idioms or slang. The articles should be pitched at an optimal level which challenges the students’ language learning without demotivating them. The purpose of the reading should be considered. If the lesson objective is to introduce ‘idioms’, this would be better done in a brief article. In addressing more challenging texts students should be exposed to these “in small doses”, Sokolik (p.15) (1998).
Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999), point out the advantages of using authentic current English news articles in foreign same nationality classes written by L1 writers or foreign residents. Similarly, English based same nationality groups may benefit from reading English articles written by a L1 writer. These have proved to be more effective than those written by and for English native speakers. A further point offered by the authors, is to choose articles which are no longer than an A4 page. This is more important than the total words within the text.
The authors suggest that developing a collection of current authentic news articles is not as time consuming for teachers as it appears. Little preparation is required on the part of the teacher, as the articles are often self explanatory.
Different types of articles can be used. For example, advice columns can stimulate writing letters, and articles that contain tables of textual or numerical data may be used as they stand for information-gap activities. Simple “psychology” magazine quizzes can be used as the basis for competitions, where groups discuss the questions and then compare the answers. The advantage is that they promote cultural, communicative, and language learning skills. Editorials and opinion pages can be given to advanced students as a preparation for debates or class discussions, and students can extract questions from the text for conversational topics.
Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999), describe three examples of techniques and supporting activities which they have developed for their Korean University ESL classes. However, teachers can adapt the ideas to suit their own situation and the L2 ability level of their students.
The first example is the use of an ‘advice column’ letter as the stimulus for composition writing with a class of 1st year students. The selected letter was written by a woman who was requesting advice about her friend who telephoned frequently and talked too much. The letter concluded with a request for help in dealing with the problem without offending her friend’s feelings.
Student pairs are given a copy of the letter with a vocabulary matching exercise to assist them with language comprehension. Expressions are underlined in the text and listed in numbered order underneath, together with their definitions listed randomly. Pairs read the short letter for ten minutes and complete the matching task, this is checked and the content briefly discussed as a whole class. Students are then assigned to small groups to write an answer to the letter. Finally, representatives from each group read their letters to the class, generating further class discussion.
The second example is a class discussion based on a ‘magazine quiz’. Small groups are given a copy of true-false statements from a magazine quiz on human nature which they discuss and answer. When the pairs have completed the task, each of the answers and explanations are read out and difficult vocabulary addressed. This task is effective for motivating the class, since students enjoy keeping scores to discover the best “psychologists”. Incorrect answers stimulate further class discussion, and copies of answers are supplied to students to read after the lesson.
The third example is a course based on current ‘newspaper articles’. During the first half term, topics and articles are selected and other materials prepared for 2-3 week units based on current topics in local English language newspapers. Examples of the type of topics are ‘educational reform’, ‘sexual discrimination’, and ‘economic issues’. In the second half of the term, pairs or groups select topics and prepare materials, and are responsible for “teaching” a two-hour lesson. Work throughout the term consists of discussions, debates, and communicative activities. The majority of reading is done outside class, where it is used to activate students’ interest and background understanding. Teacher preparation is minimal, with occasional writing of discussion questions or listing agree-disagree statements.
For example, a 3 week unit on ‘sexual discrimination’ involves students reading two articles from a local English newspaper. Students read statements connected to the topic and indicate whether they ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’. The class is split into a male group and a female group, and their task is to compare and discuss their responses and try and predict those of the opposite group. Finally, a whole class discussion focuses on the students’ responses to the statements.
As well as reading assignments and class discussions, further work in the term includes ‘writing an English curriculum vitae and cover letter’, ‘writing a newspaper article’, and ‘writing a speech’, along with a weekly short response to a reading assignment. Assignments are submitted, with tapes of their speeches, as portfolios at the end of the term, Tyson & Seung-Bong (1999).
The success of these techniques and activities appear to be dependent on the careful selection of authentic texts from newspapers and magazines which are appropriate for the students’ age group and level of English language. The use of current authentic texts improves topic relevance, motivates students’ interest, and develops skills in dealing with real materials and tasks. Authentic current materials may be used not just for reading practice, but for a range of speaking and writing activities and projects.
In turning to the use of English Literature as a source of authentic material in the ESL classroom, Gordon (2003) highlights some teaching techniques and activities which aim to stimulate effective, authentic, and personally meaningful responses.
Her proposal is that ESL learners’ writing activities are improved by helping students to establish personal connections with the text. Students are encouraged to make links between the literary text and their own daily lives. She offers three personal connection activities.
The first is, ‘engagement with a character’. The teacher uses a book currently being read in class, and chooses a character from it that the students would most like to meet. The students then write a description of an imaginary encounter with the character.
The second is, ‘engagement with an object’. The teacher selects a strange or magical object described in the book, for example a magic carpet. The students then write a description of what they would do if they owned the object. This activity is particularly effective with younger ESL learners as students are motivated to write stories with titles such as “My Magic Carpet Ride” or “A Magic Pot in My Kitchen.”
The third activity is, ‘engagement with a problem’. The teacher stops reading the book at a pivotal point, for example, where the author introduces an unresolved problem or conflict. For example in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, the teacher stops reading when the main character has to make a crucial decision, or in the children’s story of ‘The Three Little Pigs’, before the pigs have decided how to build their houses. The teacher invites students to suggest their own solutions to the situation. Students may do this by giving advice to a character in trouble. Examples that students have written are “My Letter to Othello”, or expressing their opinions to a character “My Letter to Cinderella’s Stepmother”, Gordon (2003).
The author proposes that students’ writing which is stimulated by authentic English literature is more successful, if it avoids the usual writing genres such as essays, but focuses more on linking them to real situations and experiences. For example, young learners may write letters to friends and relatives or make diary entries. Older learners may write newspaper articles, book or film reviews, or letters to their landlord. Authenticating the activity by providing real resources such as pictures, photographs, stationery, or forms, further enhances language, cultural, and communicative learning skills. Teacher or student created pictures that link literature with students’ real lives can likewise be successful.
Gordon (2003) advises the use of ‘scaffolds’ or structures that guide the development of detail and individual voice in the student’s writing. Boyle & Peregoy (1990) refer to their success in improving ESL learners’ literacy skills.
Two effective scaffolding methods are suggested by Gordon (2003). 1) ‘Enhanced lead-ins’, where students are invited to create collaboratively a lead-in or story starter. The teacher prompts a captivating first paragraph to set the tone, for example, “The other day I opened a lemonade bottle, and guess what happened? A genie came out!” 2) The ‘event-detail weave’ scaffold is designed by the teacher and students to encourage the continuity of students’ writing. A ‘brainstorming’ activity highlights key points for their stories, which they expand upon with their own details. The teacher supports them to express personal viewpoints in their writing.
The author concludes that personal connection responses to literature based activities are effective when expressed in authentic genres, enhanced by real resources and pictorial materials, and assisted by the scaffolding technique.
Lastly, Abbott (2002) examines the ways in which authentic English music can be used effectively to promote ESL learning. She points out that music has long been used throughout history to aid learning, and that the cultural agendas within song lyrics, make it an ideal learning medium in the L2 classroom. Music offers students an opportunity to listen, speak, read, and write. The guidelines suggested for selecting appropriate music are: 1) the level of difficulty of the song and the lyrics, 2) the age and proficiency level of the learners, 3) the kind of ESL lesson the lyrics suggest, 4) the pace and sequence of the lesson, 5) the musical interests and talents of the students and the teacher, and 6) the availability of resources, Abbott (2002).
The author proposes ‘pre-listening activities’, ‘listening activities’, and ‘post-listening’ activities, for structuring ESL lessons, providing motivation, introducing vocabulary, and giving background information. The teacher plays the introduction to a song, and asks students if they recognise the piece or artist. The students predict the title, words, or theme. Alternatively, they complete a cloze exercise, and compare their guesses to the real lyrics after listening. The cloze exercise reinforces grammar, for example, all prepositions or adjectives can be blanked out of a copy of the lyrics, and then students guess them prior to listening, Abbott (2002).
She recommends listening activities including, self-correcting lyrics, unscrambling jumbled lyrics, taking dictation or completing sentences, responding to true-false questions, or paraphrasing verses. Post-listening exercises can focus on role plays, problem solving, games, or discussions, to develop fluency. Tasks in small groups or as a whole class may include students writing questions which they would like to pose to the artist. Students can role play in pairs, where one is the artist and the other the interviewer. A following discussion can address the cultural or historical points about the song. Homework can be creative writing on the song content, Abbott (2002).
Abbott (2002) continues to stress how listening to authentic English music in ESL contexts can facilitate connection with the written lyrics. Listening to memorable tunes, she argues, whilst the teacher points to the words on the board, encourages sound/s-letter connections. Example activities with adult ESL learners, she reports, are ‘word bingo’, and ‘re-ordering activities’. In the first, lyric vocabulary is placed in a bingo grid, and key words are marked off as they hear them in the song. The first person to check all the words correctly wins. In the second, words from a song are listed out of order. Students listen to the song and number them in the right order. A variation, with two copies of a short song, verse, or jingle, is cutting the lyrics into strips, splitting the class into two groups, and handing them out. The winning group is the first to correctly reorder them.
In conclusion, authentic newspaper, literature, and music materials, can significantly improve the quality of L2 learning skills in ESL contexts. The advantages are that they increase motivation, and offer richer language learning opportunities with current real texts. They expose learners to English culture, provide scope for students to make connections with their own lives, and promote students reading, writing, listening, and communicative skills. Textbook language learning materials may be appropriate in some contexts, and as reinforcement, but may offer a sterile experience of learning English. By effectively structuring stimulating lessons with authentic materials, ESL teachers can offer their students a meaningful linguistic experience. Any perceived disadvantages about increased resource preparation, outweigh the language learning benefits. Furthermore, ESL teachers have the freedom to adapt authentic materials to fit the language level and age group of their classes.
In recent years there has been a growing academic interest in the use of authentic materials for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).