The Value of Using Authentic Materials in Foreign Language Teaching
Going beyond the “by-the-book” method
In foreign language teaching, good, well-designed textbooks provide a lot of advantages: They follow a clear structure which usually adheres to CEF criteria or some other curriculum standard, they often present an attractive format which engages students and makes learning easier, and many textbooks also supply vocabulary glossaries or grammar sections for easy reference. And yet, there are still a lot of times when teachers (and the students themselves!) will want to diverge from the clear structure that a textbook provides in order to make learning even more interesting, effective and long-lasting. Using authentic language materials is a brilliant way to make the language come alive for students.
Why should teachers use authentic language materials in the foreign language classrooms?
Using authentic reading texts and other authentic materials can enrich the language learning experience immensely. This article discusses several approaches which teachers can apply in using authentic materials in the target language.
Two general approaches: Augmenting already learned language or trying out completely new topics
Supplementing curricula topics with authentic materials in teaching
Real-life materials in the target language can be used to supplement structures and vocabulary which have been presented in the curricula and textbooks with the aim of achieving an enhanced, synergistic learning effect. Such materials might include articles and other literature, videos, podcasts, songs, menus, etc., which address topics that have already been covered by textbooks.
A simple approach would be to simply find authentic material in the target language which discusses a topic that was covered in the textbook, but from another perspective. Let’s say that the textbook covers the topic of food and restaurants, presenting food words and the grammar of ordering. On the internet, it is amazingly easy to find a wealth of material in various levels of difficulty such as restaurant menus, articles about restaurants dining, restaurant reviews…the list goes on and on. You can then use these materials in a multitude of ways.
Students can perform internet searches as group work
Teach your students how to use internet search engines in the target language. Even though this might seem self-explanatory, in reality, many students are hesitant to perform searches in the target language and need a bit of guidance. Then, assign small groups the task of researching and presenting material to the rest of the class. This approach will deliver a wealth of paybacks. In the above example of food and restaurants, each group could find authentic menus, online customer reviews, photos, etc. The classic teaching method of role playing a restaurant setting with waiters and customers (maybe even the chef could make an appearance following a customer complaint!) will be much more effective if the students themselves have researched and found the authentic materials in the target language.
These approaches support students’ authentic language learning and provide long-lasting benefits
In-context reinforcement of target vocabulary and grammar structures will foster efficient and long-lasting learning effects. There is an old language teachers’ adage that you need to use a new vocabulary word at least seven times in order to make it part of your active vocabulary. In my own experience of learning languages, it’s more like fourteen times or even twenty-one times! In any case, finding opportunities to use the newly acquired word will help it to become a reliable companion in applying the language naturally. Regardless of how many times you may need to encounter the word, repetition in context is much more effective than rote repetition.
Encourage students to search for their own authentic foreign language materials
Students will already have acquired a certain amount of confidence in a topic already discussed in the textbooks and they will be better equipped to explore further if they already have learned key vocabulary and structures. In other words, the teachers can assign students the task of finding their own materials on a particular subject.
Authentic materials develop reading skills
Because students already possess basic knowledge of topics, they will be better able to develop skills of reading or listening. This creates an environment where the skill of intelligently guessing at the meaning of a word or sentence from the context can be honed.
Authentic materials are a good way to review previous topics
This is also a good way to review topics already presented weeks or months before. Find an article which roughly matches a topic which has been covered in the textbook and choose a time to review when the topic is still relatively fresh. Repetition at this stage will firmly anchor learning effects in students’ minds.
Using authentic materials on completely fresh topics to help students develop real-world language skills
This second approach entails using authentic materials to introduce students to real-world materials and to using the language in a completely natural way. This might involve presenting an article on a current event or presenting a popular song with video or audio and then studying the lyrics. Another activity might be to select a city in a country where the target language is spoken and then find out as much information as possible about it, e.g., famous sights and museums, hotels and restaurants, history, etc.
Find authentic materials on fresh topics for all levels of language learners
Materials can be found to suit all levels, which is a great way to build confidence in real-world language use, even for beginners. Teachers can make use of language learning news sites, such as Newsdle for French and Spanish or The Chairman’s Bao for Chinese, which present news articles for all levels on a variety of topics. These particular sites also offer vocabulary and grammar lists, authentic language audio, vocabulary trainers as well as context questions and testing, making it simpler for teachers to present the articles.
Real-world materials will awaken students’ interest and build confidence
Using this approach will sharpen students’ curiosity about the target language and the countries in which it is spoken. Even if the students are pure beginners, this approach will present them with their first real-world success in using the target language. It’s a great confidence builder.
Authentic materials can be a fun diversion
This approach of applying authentic language materials in class might furnish a welcome break from strictly adhering to textbooks. Such activities could be applied on a weekly basis, e.g., on Fridays.
Devise groupwork activities with real-world materials
Once again, this activity delivers great opportunities for groupwork. Different groups can select, research and read various materials on a single subject or on entirely different subjects. Finally, they can present their work to the rest of the class and possibly initiate a discussion.
Some ideas for finding authentic materials in foreign language teaching
The internet offers the greatest wealth of authentic materials
Once students have learned how to search in the target language and have discovered the best search engines to use for the countries in question, their curiosity will be whetted. Learn to use Google’s (or other search engines’) classification of results into news, videos, shopping, etc.
News and magazine articles in the target language
Finding suitable news articles can be most challenging for students in the beginning stages of language learning. Teach students to use news sites which are designed for children who speak the target language as native speakers. Many countries also offer more-or-less official sites for learners of the language which present authentic reading texts in a simplified language, e.g., by the BBC for English learners.
Videos on a variety of subjects
Easy topics such as cooking or other tutorials would be suitable for beginners because they can follow the language on the video as it is being spoken. For example, try following the instructions in the target language to make, say, a paper airplane. Of course, there is also huge amount of content available for higher levels. YouTube videos tend to teach colloquial language and listening in context which are highly valuable and desirable to students. YouTube and other sites also usually offer automated subtitling of the videos in question. As a general rule, set the subtitles to the target language if the students can manage this; it’s more effective for learning.
Song lyrics can be taught in such a multitude of ways. Sometimes a teacher will simply want to use songs to teach culture and present songs which are currently popular in the countries where the target language is spoken. Songs can also be used to enhance or focus on certain vocabulary or structures which have been taught in curriculum. If the song is presented thoroughly and listened to several times, the targeted vocabulary and structures will stick in the students’ brains forever!
A lot of podcasts are presented in a conversational format, meaning that the authentic language includes natural language features such as pauses, reactions, repetitions, people interrupting each other, etc. Teachers can also access podcasts from language learning sites which also usually supply written transcripts of the podcasts, thus enhancing the learning effects.
Find menus online from around the world. This can be an excellent group work activity and there are endless possibilities for expansion such as assigning restaurant roleplays, researching ingredients, locating the restaurant on Google Maps, discovering online reviews, etc.
Discovering recipes in target language from blogs online will reinforce vocabulary on a subject which is of great interest to most students. Of course, recipes also practice the grammar of the imperative. Many internet recipe blogs also present the instructions in videos on YouTube. This kind of simple video can be a very good method to instil a sense of success and progress in students.
Online shopping or websites from supermarkets or other stores
This activity has the advantage of being extremely simple and suitable for beginners, yet which can be expanded to suit all levels of learners. After all, each product is illustrated by photos. Find online prospectuses for supermarket specials or home delivery services. Send students on an imaginary shopping trip where they have a certain amount to spend – maybe to buy ingredients for the recipes they have researched!
Events in a certain city or following certain bands
Research which events will be occurring in a certain city where the target language is spoken. This activity would be useful when reviewing dates and times. Or perhaps, a follow-up activity to a presentation of song lyrics might be to track the concert schedule of the group which performs the song.
City information websites
Cities usually have websites using simple language which describe sights, accommodations, restaurants, etc. Of course, this would be the most interesting in certain touristic hotspots. The class could plan a virtual trip covering everything to hotels or hostels, local restaurants or markets to a daily itinerary of activities. This would also be an excellent group work exercise, perhaps extended over several weeks.
“Old school” authentic materials for foreign language teaching not found on the internet
Board games in the target language are an outstanding source of authentic language. Playing familiar games such as Pictionary or Monopoly which have a certain amount of text involved would be an easy way to introduce this activity to beginners. Also try to find games popular in the country where the target language is spoken. More advanced students could be assigned the task of reading the instructions so that they can try to figure out the rules themselves!
Graded readers from publishers of foreign language materials are always a good source of authentic materials in foreign language teaching. The simplified, abridged format is especially suitable for students in the early stages of learning and will allow them to experience success in reading comprehension at the same time they are building confidence. More advanced students could compare the graded reader with sections of the authentic, unedited text.
Alexa, Siri & Co
Finally, try setting up Alexa or Siri with a speaker system in the classroom and programming it (her?) to speak in the target language. This simple system is not only informative (Alexa: “Where is Tunisia?”) it will also be great fun for the student of all ages. Encourage students to apply the target language to ask Alexa questions directly and get instant results - that will truly create a feeling of success.
In conclusion, using authentic language material is a great way to design a truly interactive class
If a foreign language class is limited to the textbook format, it will eventually pan out to be safe, predictable and mundane. By introducing authentic materials into the classroom, students will develop confidence and curiosity regarding the language as well as regarding the culture of the countries in which it is spoken. Eventually, perhaps sooner than you think, your students will be performing their own searches in their free time. The language will be truly merged with their own interests.
An unashamed language nerd from Anchorage, Alaska, Heather’s life has led her to a degree in German and International Studies from Willamette University and a three-year stay in Taiwan with her German husband at the end of the eighties. In Taipei she took intensive Chinese courses at the Mandarin Training Center of Taiwan Normal University and also taught English at the Taipei Language Institute. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, she became intrigued by the life in a former East Bloc country and finally decided to relocate to Leipzig, Germany in 1991. There she and her husband established the FAE Fachinstitut für Angewandtes Englisch, a private English institute focusing on teaching adults, translations and language coaching. This has been a successful venture for over 30 years.