A is for Authenticity

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty 

Since the 1970s, teachers have been arguing about authenticity in the classroom. As a TESOL professor and textbook writer, I’m often asked whether I’m in favor of authenticity. It seems a simple question, but there are several related ideas to consider: How do we define authenticity? What is a continuum of authenticity? How does authenticity relate to materials, situation, and task? and Where and how do we locate authentic materials?

Defining authenticity
Most definitions of authenticity in the classroom can be reduced to the idea of something not created for use by language learners. In general, although textbooks can contain authentic materials, they are not authentic. On the other hand, we consider a local newspaper, menu, or bus schedule as being authentic; the language is natural and generally more applicable to the needs and interests of our students. This is one of the great strengths of exposing students to authentic materials: Outside the classroom, they continue learning as they encounter additional authentic materials.

A continuum of authenticity
The opposite of authentic materials are those that are inauthentic. Elementary school teachers and teachers of beginners use inauthentic materials such as simplified menus with purely descriptive names (hamburger) rather than confusing brand names (Big Mac®, Whopper®). Other aspects of the menu are similarly set in plain speech to avoid confusion.

But between authentic and inauthentic materials are constructed materials. In making constructed materials, teachers and materials developers usually start with authentic materials but simplify vocabulary, grammar, and even typefaces to make them more pertinent and accessible. In other cases, materials are constructed from scratch, based on different genres. As an experiment, I asked 56 experienced language teachers to review three passages and decide which were authentic and which were constructed. Only three teachers identified all three correctly (Beatty, 2015). If most teachers can’t tell the difference, well-written constructed materials are probably an acceptable alternative. Continue reading

Four Key Academic Challenges

CarolNumrich Carol Numrich 2014_Frances_BoydFrances Boyd

Each year, teachers face new, more complex challenges in their classrooms. As students’ interests and motivations for learning English evolve, so must the ESL teacher’s pedagogical resources and techniques. Four “A’s” identify today’s key challenges:

Attention

How can classroom teachers attract and maintain students’ attention in this fast-paced, tech-driven world? Students are all multi-tasking, but studies suggest that multi-tasking doesn’t work. So, how can teachers get students to attend?

Compelling themes and topics can be carefully chosen to arouse student interest. Scaffolding of content and skills helps maintain student interest as content is deepened and language skills are developed.

 Authenticity

Students may have difficulty attending because the material with which they are provided is not always relevant to their lives. In a world where so much information is found with just a click of the mouse, students are not willing to spend their time reading or listening to texts that are not “real.” They know the difference between “ESL texts,” material that has been created for the second-language learner, and material that is meant for native ears and eyes. They may “tune out” when asked to participate in activities that do not seem genuine.

Teachers can seek to provide authentic materials and real-life language activities whenever possible, even at the intermediate level.

Accountability

In ESL classes, students are often not held accountable for producing the new language they are taught. They study new vocabulary and idioms, grammatical structures, and writing techniques, but then they may never actually use this new language in their own writing or speaking assignments. This could be because students do not get enough exposure or opportunities to practice, or it could be because the contexts in which they learn this new language may not be the most conducive to reaching the goals of language production. How can students be held more accountable for producing new language in their oral and written production? How can teachers lead students to a more natural production?

A purposeful recycling of language is essential if students are to produce new language on their own. Students need multiple exposures to new language in a variety of contexts to ensure their production of that language. Assessments must be well aligned to the language-learning goals of a particular course.

Academic Preparation

Students may struggle with meeting the expectations of an academic program. For example, discourse synthesis is a skill required in both high school and college-level courses, but ESL learners may feel overwhelmed with the task of writing about a topic with reference to multiple texts. They may need help in selecting, summarizing, and organizing texts.

In addition, performing well in college-level classes and on tests requires a variety of critical thinking skills. L2 learners from cultures that do not teach critical thinking may be especially challenged.

ESL teachers can teach organization and synthesis strategies and inference comprehension skills as part of their language curriculum. Higher-level critical thinking skills can also be incorporated to prepare students for the demands of an academic program.