Skip to main content

What happened to authenticity?

Back in the 1980's, if my memory serves me correctly, "authenticity" was a major buzz word in language teaching. An excellent newspaper for MFL was even established at Dublin University called Authentik, which was filled with real texts from various sources, accompanied by effective exercises. (It has now evolved into a range of magazines and interactive content to be found here.)

We don't seem to hear the "a" word much now. Is that because authenticity in language sources (texts and conversations) is taken as axiomatic? Or is it that we have realised that authenticity has its limitations?

Authenticity came, like plenty of other language teaching innovations, from the ELT world. It is easy to see why it became fashionable. Traditional grammar-translation (Whitmarsh), audio-lingual (Longman) and oral approach methods (Gilbert) had all used, to a large extent, home-made texts or, occasionally at A-level, texts adapted from literature.

The limitations of these methods, notably (and forgive me for simplifying here) in terms of their lack of real-life communication, the artificiality of the texts and the oral communication practised together with, arguably, their extreme emphasis on grammar acquisition, led to acceptance of alternative approaches (communicative, functional and notional).

Along with the partial rejection of grammar as the prime goal went the partial rejection of artificial texts and recordings and the search for "authentic" sources. If only the internet had existed then, teachers would not have been reliant on the occasional newspaper brought in by a thoughtful student and poor quality long wave radio broadcasts! I recall, back at Hampton School in about 1986, designing a listening task for Year 8 pupils using a recording I had made of some visiting French pupils. It seemed exciting at the time - a real conversation with real French children! It was at best a partial success, because the recording quality was barely adequate and the french children used some language forms which did not fit with the structured language our students had learned.

I think I learned a lesson, and my MA tutor of the time Alan Hornsey, a wise former teacher, then teaching PGCE and MA at the Institute of Education, said something I never forgot. What counts in a language source is not authenticity, but plausibility.

The trouble with authentic texts is that they rarely meet the criterion of hitting that sweet spot where you want learners to go, a bit beyond where they are now. It's a basic principle of education which I believe also applies to second language learning. There is no point giving students material which is way beyond them and nearly all authentic sources are beyond the means of many students, especially beginners and intermediate learners. Further, for those who believe in natural acquisition theories, authentic texts and recordings frequently fail to meet the needs of the "comprehension hypothesis", since the input they provide is not comprehensible or compelling.

What works better are "plausible" texts and recordings, which can be based on authentic sources or written by the teacher. Key point: these allow for selection and grading of language which means they become accessible to students and, hopefully, more enjoyable. They take the student that extra step forward.

These days you rarely find authentic texts in intermediate text books and even those in advanced level books are usually quite heavily adapted. Exam listening tasks in England and Wales, even those at A2 (advanced) level, have become more and more artificial over the years, and certainly do not sound authentic.

So, in answer to my questions above, I would tentatively suggest that, at school level, we have quietly consigned pure authenticity to the dustbin and sensibly sought a compromise between authenticity and the artificiality of older courses.

On ne cultive plus l'authentique?

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

Three AQA A-level courses compared

I've put together my three reviews of worthy A-level courses which you might be considering for next September. They are all very useful courses, but with significant differences. The traditional Hodder and OUP book-based courses differ in that the former comes in one chunky two year book, whilst OUP's comes in two parts, the first for AS or the first year of an A-level course. The Attitudes16 course by Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri is based on an online platform from which you would download worksheets and share a logon with studenst who would do the interactive parts (Textivate and video work). The two text books are supported by interactive material (Kerboodle) or an e-text book.

Attitudes16





An excellent resource which should be competing for your attention at the moment is the Attitudes16 course which writers Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri have been working on for some time. You can find it here at dolanguages.com, along with his excellent resources for film and li…

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’(http://pdcinmfl.com). The point i…