Using Authentic Materials in Classrooms: Advantages and Challenges
Al-Mahanad Al-Badi is an EAP Instructor at Al-Musanna College of Technology. He has experience/training in teaching EAP and general English in various educational institutes in Oman, Thailand, United States and the United Kingdom. Al-Badi has a BA in English Language and Literature from Sultan Qaboos University, Oman and an MA in TESOL from SIT Graduate Institute, VT, United States. He has attained the CELTA from IH Chiang Mai, Thailand and DELTA Module 2 from IH London, United Kingdom. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thornbury (2006) defines authentic materials to be any resources that are not originally made for classroom teaching. Authentic materials could be a bus timetable, or a menu of a restaurant or a picture of me playing football as a lead-in for a topic about leisure-time activities. Such materials can be used as a listening/reading context to practice various language skills and/or acquire knowledge of language systems such as grammar and lexical items.
The prominence of utilizing authentic materials coincides with the advent of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). After the recent emergence of the stronger versions of CLT such as the Content-Based Instructions (CBI) and Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT), (Larsen-Freeman and Anderson, 2011) there has been more emphasis on using authentic tasks. While opponents may believe that authentic materials mean contexts that are too challenging for lower level language learners, advocates believe that these contexts are accessible if the tasks are graded at the appropriate level. For instance, if a medication bottle is used for an elementary level student, the task of reading for specific details would be about the number of tablets or the expiration date, whereas finding the side effects would be more suitable for an intermediate level. Although authentic materials can be more motivating and prepare students for real life situations, finding these materials can be challenging and time consuming.
Creating meaningful and engaging contexts
Using authentic materials can expose students to language beyond the classroom and prepare students for real life situations. Unlike classroom text books, authentic materials could be more connected to students’ lives. For instance, if I am teaching a heterogenous group of international students, I could choose a recent news article from The Guardian about difficulties that international students face when adapting to life in a new country. This theme and context are relevant to them; thus, it is likely that students are more engaged with the content. Since such contexts are personally meaningful, students are likely to engage in productive activities by writing and speaking about their own experiences. With such an article about adapting to new life, for instance, students can be involved in a meaningful information-gap productive activity in the post-teaching stage of the lesson to discuss the type of culture-shock they have experienced.
Secondly, with authentic materials, instructors can anticipate situations that students might face and the contextual language pertaining them. For example, if I am teaching immigrant adult learners resettling in the United States, I can use a bottle of medication as a context. Increasing learners’ engagement does not only come through authentic contexts, but also authentic tasks. A problem-based role-play task of a student wanting to return an item back to the customer services of a shopping mall using the right receipt out of four others by reading for details task is an example of an authentic task. Such problem-based tasks can maximize the learners’ engagement in the class because this information is needed as an essential life-coping skill.
In a four-hour experiment of an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) listening and speaking class at a college in Oman, I tried to use a range of authentic materials to increase learners’ engagement in a theme relevant to finding an ideal educational system I felt this experiment was particularly meaningful for my students because they were in their last stage of their preparatory program before they enroll in a college that is grade and performance oriented. Many students, thereby, were facing some anxiety because their summative grades decide if they are going to start their degrees. The class began with a discussion of what they think about the college educational system in Oman followed by a BBC short video about education in Finland, which seems to offer a more relaxed learning atmosphere that is driven by learning rather than grade performance. Students, then, listen and reflect on what they think of the Finnish educational system. In the second step, students watched the movie of “Race to Nowhere”, a documentary that criticizes the stress that the American educational school system places on students. Students, then, reflected on the movie and compared their experience at the college in Oman with the United States highlighting both the advantages and disadvantages.
On the following day, students read two articles that criticize the movie, then we had a classroom debate where students had to evaluate the educational systems of Oman, United States and Finland and advocate for an ideal educational system collaboratively. Through authentic materials, I was able to engage the students in these contexts and develop their critical thinking, which is inseparable EAP aspect. One of the indirect objectives that I was able to achieve is showing compassion and understanding to my students who expressed their views based on their tense experience in their program.
Raising cultural awareness
Using authentic materials may expose students to the culture associated with the target language and increase their knowledge of the world (Beresova, 2015). The internet is a powerful tool that can be a source of easy access to real images, a news article from the BBC, or even a YouTube video related to a theme of a lesson. These kinds of materials can improve the students’ cultural awareness, connect better them with the world, enrich their classroom discussions and prepares them to become global citizens.
Time constrains could hinder many teachers from such an investment. Using authentic materials can consume more time compared to using classroom textbooks. Even if the context is easily found in the internet, it takes time to make and grade the tasks. To prepare for one lesson, it may take over 2 hours as it requires finding a suitable reading/listening material, get familiar with the contexts, design tasks and then finally print and prepare handouts. As an EAP instructor who has more than 18 teaching hours a week, this can be daunting as I usually need over 30 hours of preparations and other administrative work.
The challenge of finding and adapting
Finding authentic materials to use in a class may require going to various shops to find it. Last semester, I tried to buy a box of cranberry for one of my classes because the students were going to listen and take notes based on a documentary about cranberry industry in the United States. I had to drive to various shops to look for cranberry, a fruit that is often difficult to find in Oman. I ended up buying cranberry juice instead of the fruit. Additionally, unless it is through the internet, finding an appropriate article by going through a pile of hard copy newspapers can become more like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Utilizing authentic materials adds more work because instructors have to worry about the cultural and linguistic context appropriacy. In one of my awkward classroom experiences, I projected a video from YouTube about an Amazon tribe so that the students understand the notion of Ecotourism in a reading article better when a woman suddenly appeared topless, which is very inappropriate scene for the Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. Although I watched and prepared tasks on that video before the class, I was not aware of the existence of that scene as it was towards the end.
While using authentic materials could further engage students through various meaningful relevant contexts that cannot be offered by most textbooks, such an approach can be difficult to maintain in a normal working load due to the time constrains and the difficulty of finding suitable materials. Despite the challenges, I believe that benefits of exposing learners of authentic materials could extend above and beyond our expectations ranging from highly developed learning autonomy to students, higher levels of engagements to more learning affordances, something that cannot be achieved when depending on solely coursebooks.
Al Azri, R. H., & Al-Rashdi, M. H. (2014). The effect of using authentic materials in teaching. International journal of scientific & technology research, 3(10), 249-254.
Beresova, J. (2015). Authentic materials–enhancing language acquisition and cultural awareness. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 192, 195-204.
Gilmore, A. (2007). Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning. Language teaching, 40(2), 97-118.
Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT: a dictionary of terms and concepts used in English language teaching. Australia: Macmillan.
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Using Authentic Materials in Classrooms: Advantages and Challenges
Al-Mahanad Albadi, Oman