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August 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Authenticity in Materials Development for Language Learning, (eds)Alan Maley & Brian Tomlinson

Cambridge Scholars 2017
263pp £61.99

This book contains write-ups of fourteen papers presented at a Materials Development Association Conference held at Liverpool University in 2016.  It is notoriously difficult to achieve coherence in this kind of publication, but the editors have gone some way towards this by ‘bookending’ the papers with a preface and introduction at the beginning and a conclusion at the end.  In his preface, Brian Tomlinson states:

“The chapters in this book have been written so that they are of potential value to teachers, to materials developers and to researchers.  They are written to be academically rigorous but at the same time to be accessible to newcomers to the field and to experienced experts alike.” (preface)

As a reviewer, I was grateful for this claim as it gave me some working criteria to base my comments on, but first a few initial comments.  In his introduction, Tomlinson offers a useful overview of the different dimensions of authenticity, referring in the first instance to the well-rehearsed discussions of text and task authenticity before moving on to the less explored areas of curriculum authenticity, learner and teacher authenticity, context authenticity and theoretical authenticity.  These notions are all represented to a greater or lesser degree in the chapters that follow, and the pointers given to individual chapters are useful to any reader who wants to dip into the book to go deeper.  Indeed, it is worth considering how readers might approach this book and others like it.  It is very much the sort of publication that ought to find its way on to the shelves of a university library, but it is less likely to be bought by individuals (look at the price!) and read from cover to cover.   I had to read it that way, and I found that the repeated literature reviews around the scope and limits of the concept of authenticity became increasingly repetitive and tedious as chapter followed chapter.  In his conclusion, Alan Maley mercifully refrains from prolonging this discussion still further and instead stresses the need to remember that teaching and learning is an interpersonal encounter in which authentic and genuine behaviour on both sides is ultimately more important than any materials.  He points to the consequences for teacher educators:

“…… we need to refocus attention on helping trainee teachers to become the kind of facilitative persons who are able to create a positive, human rapport with their learners.” (p.261)

and for teachers and learners:

“The other prong would aim to identify meaningful activities which offer learners the opportunity to be themselves.  This implies going back to the kinds of uses of language they would carry out naturally in their mother tongue.” (ibid.)

These are sentiments that should resonate with devoted readers of HLT!

Two more general observations.  Firstly, participation in conferences such as the one that spawned this collection is very often restricted, for funding reasons, to university academics or postgraduate students.  A glance at the list of contributors and their provenance shows this to be the case in this instance too.  Chalk face school teachers, who would really benefit from presenting their ideas about materials development were not obviously represented among the writers, presumably because they were not able to attend the event.  This imbalance is in evidence in the papers, several of which are clearly derived from doctoral or other postgraduate research studies.  Secondly, and importantly, this collection draws on experience in many different contexts and parts of the world, from South Africa to Vietnam and from Pakistan to Portugal.  In a field often dominated by native speaker voices and opinions, it is refreshing to see such a wide range of nationalities among the contributors, and it is to the editors’ credit that they have given them this opportunity to be ‘heard’.

Now, back to those criteria, and a look at some of the chapters in the book.  There are many contributions which should be of interest to researchers in the field of materials design.  Bouzira’s work on curriculum authenticity (Chapter 3) takes up a theme from the introduction and, in doing so, breaks new ground.  She offers five criteria by which the authenticity of a language curriculum can be judged: relevance, scope, feasibility, coherence and proximity and applies these to the Business English curriculum at the University of Manouba in Tunisia.  These criteria could be usefully used by curriculum designers in other subject areas, and indeed she pleads for EFL/ESL to come closer to curricula and research in mainstream education.  Chapters 5, 6 and 7, based on research in Iran, Oman and Iran (again) respectively will all be read with interest by fellow researchers, Chapter 5 for its focus on teacher authenticity in relation to emerging and unpredictable classroom needs; Chapter 6 for its discussion of ways of evaluating the potential value of authentic materials and its conclusions about the value of localisation in materials; Chapter 7 for its use of criteria drawn from Philosophy-Based Language Teaching and the notion of Communities of Inquiry (Shahini and Riazi 2011) to evaluate textbooks.  However, none of these chapters is an easy read, and teacher-readers are unlikely to be charmed by the detailed literature reviews and the very extensive list of references accompanying them.  If this is how academic rigour plays out in practice, the gap between the primary interests of practising teachers and researchers is likely to remain as wide as ever.

Teachers and materials writers alike will probably welcome some of the more down-to-earth chapters which are more rooted in the realities of the classroom.  In Chapter 8, for example, Martinho draws on Portuguese language textbooks to make a convincing case for the use of semi-authentic and semi-scripted spoken inputs as a stepping stone towards fully authentic material.  Chapter 10 includes a piece of small-scale inquiry into perceptions of authenticity among 9 teacher-lecturers at the University of Limpopo in South Africa, and makes recommendations for more training in materials writing.  Chapter 11 discusses the importance of authenticity in relation to workplace requirements for graduates at the University Of Information Technology in Vietnam and makes helpful suggestions for collaboration between IT lecturers and English teachers towards achieving this type of authenticity.  Chapter 14, which is refreshingly readable, centres on the use of videos of doctor-patient interviews and offers carefully staged sample tasks to illustrate the author’s points.

Now a look at other chapters that may be of interest to most readers. Chapter 1 makes a convincing case for a broad view of text in the digital age, backed up by a plea for task authenticity and sample activities which draw on some ways in which digital media are used in real life.   In Chapter 3, Aftab looks at authentic texts as ‘rich and creative linguistic storehouses’, a view which is echoed by Maley in his conclusion, and looks at the practicalities of making use of these resources in school classrooms in Pakistan.  Saraceni, writing about Global Englishes in relation to materials development in Chapter 4, gives herself an extremely ambitious canvas to paint her ideas on and, in attempting to make a case for exposing learners to different varieties of English seems to run the risk of superficiality rather than depth both in her discussion and in the tasks she recommends.  In particular, she overlooks the fact that many teachers and learners of English worldwide need a standard model of English as a basis for teaching and learning, not least because there are many non-native teachers who struggle with their own levels of proficiency and who would be confused by having to teach from non-standard samples of English.  There is a whole book to be written on the issues that Saraceni broaches all too briefly in this paper.  The notion of working with soap-opera conversations, as offered by Jones in Chapter 9, will be attractive to many teachers as the genre seems to be common on small screens in many countries.  My attention as a reader wilted as I made my way through the theoretical discussion, the research questions and the data-based findings, though there is clearly value in identifying common linguistic features in scripted soap opera conversations to see how they measure up against authentic, unscripted language in similar situations.  The practical suggestions for materials development are relatively limited, however, and the focus on language in the research questions seems to have led to a lack of any consideration of the degree to which soap operas such as East Enders are so deeply rooted in a particular culture and speech community (here urban working class in inner London) as to make them almost unusable in EFL classroom settings.

The cultural dimension in authenticity is more in evidence in Chapter 12, where Yi Yong makes a case for using a learner-selected novel as a way of empowering learners and promoting authentic learner engagement and whole-person learning, and also in Chapter 13, which looks at using authentic materials to teach about culture, through questionnaire findings from 14 native-speaker teachers of English at a language school in Liverpool.  In this latter case, the writer provides a potted summary of her data findings but otherwise offers little of substance in her conclusions.

Writing this review made me very conscious of the difficulties faced by editors in turning conference proceedings such as these into a readable and useful collection of ideas.  Three recommendations emerge for me:

  1. A strong editorial hand is needed to eliminate repetition, such as the multiple definitions and discussions of the concept of authenticity that are found in this volume.  Brian Tomlinson set out the parameters very clearly in the Introduction, and very few of the discussions that follow in the individual chapters add much to that. 
  2. Contributors could be asked to see their chapters as, at most, digests of their research findings with more emphasis on practical outcomes.  This would avoid adherence to the standard paradigm of Research Questions > Literature Review > Research Methodology > Presentation of Data and Findings > Practical Implications/Sample Materials, which I eventually found demotivating as a reader.   Editors could also put a cap on the number of literature references allowed in each chapter.
  3. Some good ideas start out in the classroom and are initially derived from intuition.  The nearest to an example of this is in Yi Yong’s intuitively-based appeal to her learners as described in Chapter 12.  This would lead to a chapter structure which starts out from what happens in practice and leads to a study based on classroom based inquiry rather than one which starts out from a theoretical foundation.  However, I do appreciate that putting this into practice would depend on being able to attract classroom teachers to present at conferences such as the one which was the genesis of this volume, and then getting them to put their ideas into writing for wider public scrutiny.

These personal recommendations aside, this volume offers a wide range of perspectives on authenticity in the language classroom and it will certainly inform future research into its implications for materials development.  I hope that careful reading of the introduction will suffice to help potential readers to identify the chapters that interest them and that this review might also help them in their decision-making.

Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

  • Authenticity in Materials Development for Language Learning, (eds)Alan Maley & Brian Tomlinson
    reviewed by Rod Bolitho, UK

  • Short Book Reviews
    Hanna Kryszewska, Poland

  • A Select Review of Some Popular ELT Coursebooks
    Robin Usher, Saudi Arabia

  • Talking Images: Idioms by Lucy Holmes and Sharlene Matharu

  • Best Practices for Blended Learning by Pete Sharma and Barney Barrett, Pavilion Publishing

  • The Working Class. Poverty, Education and Alternative Voices, edited by Ian Gilbert, Independent Thinking Press