Tuesday, 14 April 2015

What's so special about authenticity?

One feature of the latest KS4 curriculum and GCSE draft specifications just released is the emphasis laid on the use of authentic texts. As far as reading is concerned, the DfE say:

"GCSE specifications ... must require students to deduce meaning from a variety of short and longer texts from a range of specified contexts, including authentic sources involving some complex language and unfamiliar material, as well as short narratives and authentic material addressing a wide range of relevant contemporary and cultural themes"

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/400854/GCSE_modern_foreign_languages_January_2015.pdf

A similar message comes across with regard to listening.

We are faced with a familiar conundrum here. How do we source material which is authentic (i.e written or spoken for native speakers), whilst also interesting and at a suitable level for teenage students?

This problem is particularly acute for listening, where almost any authentic source will be too fast. As far as reading is concerned, authentic literary and non-fiction texts will also tend to be too hard for most students and break the usual conventions for appropriate grading i.e. pitching at the right level.

If these issues exist I am bound to ask why the DfE are so hung up with authenticity. As far as I understand it, the argument goes that authentic sourced are more motivational and stimulating than ones concocted by teachers or exam boards. Is this the case?

Authentic material can be dull just as concocted pieces can be interesting. The "novels" written for language learners following the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) style of lessons, quite popular in the USA, are said to be very motivational, but are clearly not authentic in the usual sense. Graded readers we have seen in the past such as Bibliobus and collections like the Inspecteur Bleu de Bresse are fun to read and develop extensive reading skill, but were not written for native speakers.

On the other hand plenty of authentic texts make for dull reading. A "fait divers" about a petty crime may be authentic, but will it interest the average 15 year old? A series of authentic comments from a chat room would be frequently inaccurate. An extract from a novel, out of context, will probably be too hard and a bit boring.

Now, it has to be said that it is not easy to predict what 15 year olds will want to read or listen to. Even if you ask them they may not be able to tell you. To start with, they are all different, so selection of material will always be a compromise. Even with that caveat in mind, is the principle of authenticity so important?

A wise MA tutor of mine, Alan Hornsey, once told us that plausibility was more important than authenticity. If a text is interesting, pitched at the right level and plausibly real, then it will work well and lead to effective language acquisition. I think he was right. Interestingly, it seems that exam boards take a similar view. Listening exams and published courses rarely if ever use genuinely authentic listening material. An authentic conversation between two teenagers would be barely decipherable. Reading material gets closer, but at an exam board training meeting we were told that the term authenticity is interpreted loosely.
Even at A2 level texts are adapted somewhat for exams.

Just a quick word about literary texts: I have previously blogged about this in more detail, but these create quite a problem. One exam board (OCR) has used a short extract of Ionesco's La Cantatrice chauve, an absurdist play, in the Higher Reading specimen paper. This seems absurd to me in a different sense. Is this of interest or accessible to teenage students? Is the language level appropriate? This is what can happen when exam boards are instructed to use authentic literary texts. Sourcing authentic, approachable literary texts at the right level is really hard.

In sum, I hope exam boards and text book writers continue to seek out stimulating material to adapt or write their own interesting texts. Teachers rightly complain that the texts in books and exams are boring. We just need better texts. Plausibility and smart grading should trump authenticity.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. There's a lot of sense in this, but it is worth turning the question around: if language learners aren't learning so that they can tackle authentic texts, then what are they learning for? And following on, if the stage which you have reached in the learning process is so artificial that there are no authentic texts out there which correspond to your level, then doesn't that ring warning bells about the style of the course being used?

    Of course, these arguments aren't absolute. Learning a second language is not the same as learning a first language, and it may be that the inherent artificiality of classroom language learning creates an insuperable barrier to real texts. If that's the case, then we just have to hope that learners continue until they reach a high level of fluency, and then they can join the real French-speaking world. But given that many learners drop out of language learning at a relatively low level, this seems a very risky, all-or-nothing proposition. The ideal must be to make learners able to deal with *some* kinds of real texts at every level.

    But I quite agree that readers and specially-designed materials can be very useful tools along the way.

  2. Thank you for commenting. I agree that the ultimate goal is to enable at least some students to understand real texts and real spoken language, but, as you imply, not all texts need be authentic to get you to the final destination. Some authentic texts are fine if they are not too hard or too dull.