By Margaret Hurley
Teaching English with authentic material is often inspiring, rich and topical. It can be a significant motivator for students and it can go a long way toward keeping teachers interested, too. So, why isn’t it used even more often? The short answer is: it’s a lot of work for the teacher.
The major disadvantage of authentic material is that it doesn’t come with ready-made tasks. Turning the material into a lesson is entirely up to the teacher. And when a busy teacher is using “fresh” material (current news, for example), the supporting tasks may be developed in a rush.
There’s nothing wrong with doing things quickly – but time pressure can tempt the best of us to get a bit sloppy. Herewith, then, is a set of tips for avoiding bad habits when developing handouts to accompany the authentic material.
Provide the context
Even when using materials or subject matter that students may be familiar with, there is generally some element of set-up required. The most common set-up requirements are context and vocabulary. Exercises may include tasks that require students to deduce context or vocabulary. Choose which ideas or words are within students’ reach, and which must be fed to them in advance.
For example, if the authentic material were to be listening to an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, then it is important that students understand generally who he was and the time and circumstances in which he was living. This is something which, if students did not already know it, would be difficult for them to deduce just from the excerpt. In that case, a pre-listening task might include presentation of a picture of Dr. King and soliciting from students anything they might know about him. Pre-teaching of specific vocabulary may also be necessary. The choice of what to pre-teach is a judgment call, based the capabilities of the students.
Read: Context is King in TESOL
Avoid the fill-in-the-gaps rut
Listening for specific words or phrases is a simple, common and useful exercise. Giving students a copy of the text of a listening exercise with the target words blanked out is a common way to direct students toward this type of listening. Be conscious of overusing it. It is quick and easy, but tends toward overuse. Alternatives include asking for the target information in a more open-ended way (with inference questions), asking true-or-false questions, using a correct-the-mistakes approach or using multiple-choice questions.
For example, if the target vocabulary from the “I Have a Dream” speech were “character”, the fill-in-the-gaps approach would present students with:
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their ________.
Other options would be to ask:
What is Dr. King’s dream for his children?
T/F: Dr. King thinks his children should be judged by the color of their hair.
Listen and correct any mistakes:
….the content there is terrible.
Be consistent with definitions
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When using authentic material as a method for introducing or reinforcing vocabulary, it is often necessary to provide definitions. A common task is to ask students to listen or read and “find a word or phrase that means…” When creating these exercises, be sure to make your definitions morphologically consistent with the excerpt students are using. Even if it is not the main definition of the word or phrase, it must be consistent with its usage in the material. If the target vocabulary is an adjective, for example, don’t slide into a definition that suggests an adverb. If the target vocabulary is a verb, provide the definition in the same tense as it is used in the material.
Space the worksheet appropriately
The look and feel of worksheets gives a strong suggestion of what is expected from students. If students are expected to provide full-sentence responses to questions, ensure that the worksheet provides sufficient space for that. If students are expected to focus on single words, avoid leaving excess space.
Remember to vary interactive patterns
Authentic material most obviously suggests lessons focused on receptive skills (listening and reading). The majority of it is actually designed for intrapersonal use. Most reading, for example, is not done in a group setting. It is easy to focus on this pattern of interaction when using authentic material. Making the material more memorable requires variation in the ways in which students interact with it. Discussion of the material is an easy way to move the interaction from intrapersonal to interpersonal. Another option is to use information gap exercises, in which students are given partial information and must share with each other in order to get all the information.
Authentic material is fun, exciting and useful. Keeping the methods of use fresh and varied will ensure it stays that way.
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