Throughout my teaching career, and whether I have been working on a course that is based around a coursebook or not, one thing my students have always asked me for is ‘real’ English. They tell me they want to hear different accents, and read articles and short stories, watch video clips, and listen to songs intended for native speakers. It is easy to understand why – such ‘authentic materials’ offer exposure to the living language and can be used as a gauge of progress based on how much the learner can understand. There are, of course, a number of benefits real-world media can bring, but there are also pitfalls to be avoided. In this month’s post, I consider some of them and, as ever, your comments and thoughts are welcome in the comments section.
DO consider how the material supports learning aims
This is perhaps the most important point, so it is the best place to start. Any material we bring into the classroom should always be viewed through the lens of how it will help our learners advance towards the aims of the lesson and the course. Sure, that article may be relevant to the theme of the current unit, but how does it fit in with the linguistic aims? That video may have gone viral recently, but what language can be extracted from it and what kind of activity or lesson can be built around it?
DON’T choose materials ‘just for fun’
Authentic materials can be engaging for students, especially when related to the latest internet craze or viral video. However, one thing that often makes me cringe (especially in my work with secondary students) is when a colleague excitedly declares they are planning to use a funny clip or meme they have seen online. I say ‘cringe’ as the students themselves usually fail to engage in the way the teacher intended. The media is either ‘so last month’ and not as relevant as the teacher thinks, or something the students have already seen so often, they no longer react. Again, it must be about what can be done with the material more than what the material is.
DO look for and/or edit in examples of target language
So, there is a piece of media that has caught our interest and is potentially relevant to our current learning aims. What next? We should carefully check it for language - positive examples of structures and/or vocabulary our class may benefit from examining. That does not mean the text, video, song, or image has to include crystal clear examples of a particular language point (that’s the coursebook’s job!) but it should be either accessible to the learners or a provide a starting point for exploring and generating language.
When using articles, we may take the option to edit the text to include more examples of a particular language point, remove any confusing and/or high-level language, and shorten the overall length. Take, for example, this recent Guardian article on people who had won ‘lifetime’s supply’ competition – as I read it, I noticed several examples of relative clauses. However, before using it with my class of B2 fourteen year-olds, I made it shorter and used the opportunity to add in some more relative clause examples when I did so.
Naturally, it is impossible to do this for recorded media such as videos and podcasts, but it is still worth noting down the high frequency language and including a focus on it in your lesson plan.
DON’T forget the whole picture
One thing that makes me cringe more than the ‘fun’ authentic materials is the blind declaration of “This is full of examples of ‘have got’.” or “This is perfect for days of the week!” Songs are especially problematic for this. In one of my first jobs as I observed a class of beginner middle-aged adults looking bemused as their teacher played Lou Bega’s I Got a Girl because of the repeated phrase “I gotta girl in Paris, I gotta girl in Rome …” I would later see a repeat incident when a beginner class of teenagers looked even more bemused when their teacher decided Friday, I’m in Love by The Cure would be perfect for teaching days of the week … Just never mind all of the other language in the song then!
DO utilise ‘language free’ materials
We should not only consider the language within the resource itself. Media without any inherent language, such as photos and images, can be just as powerful in the classroom as a video laden with examples of conditional sentences. We can use images to introduce vocabulary, prompt discussion, elicit speculations and assumptions, or provide context for a student-generated dialogue. Let’s not forget that images are often used in speaking exams as well. A class preparing for Cambridge First, for example, may appreciate some real images from their local surroundings for a compare and contrast exercise to provide more familiarity along with a break from the coursebook.
For more ideas about using images in class, make sure you check out ELTpics.
DON’T dictate the content
One benefit I find of bringing authentic materials into the classroom is that it often prompts students to do the same themselves. Using images again as an example, I have had students bring in photos they have sourced or even taken themselves for further practice and discussion. Learners will not always spontaneously do this; however, but they can be encouraged to do so. A favourite activity of mine ahead of introducing a new topic is to set up a Padlet wall and invite my class to contribute related images as a visual brainstorm. After introducing a language point, I often ask my students to find examples of it in use as a homework activity. They then bring these to class or again share them through Padlet or our class blog for us to review before the next lesson. After covering present perfect recently, for example, my teenage students shared excerpts from books, clips of dialogues from TV shows, and, yes, even song lyrics as examples of the language in action, which we then used for further analysis.
DO check and credit sources
One final but often ignored point is to validate and acknowledge your sources! Using authentic materials usually involves taking the work of a performing artist, author, or singer and – whether professional or amateur – as such, they should be credited. A simple note on your handout or link on your digital materials will usually suffice. It is also important to check exactly where the media you are using originates from. The example of a colleague putting an amusing gif on his IWB slides to provide a fun example for his primary class only to find out later that it was taken from a gruesome horror movie springs to mind!
DON’T violate copyright
Related to the above is the importance of respecting copyright. We often take the attitude that “If it’s on the internet, I can use it.” but this is simply not true. Neither is the assumption that “No-one will be bothered if I use this in a school setting.”. Take a recent example from Germany involving a local education authority being sued by a photographer after one of his images was used in a student project and published in the school website. It is always worth finding the original source and checking permissions before you use any digital media – we should be setting a good example for our students, after all!
So, over to you now as we’d like to hear your views. Do you use authentic materials in class? How do you select them and incorporate them into your lessons? Please share your ideas and comments below.