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The problem with authentic resources

Authentic resources in language teaching are usually defined as ones written or recorded for a native speaker readership or audience. There has been a long debate in language teaching circles about the value of such resources.

Those who argue strongly for using authentic resources usually make the following points:
  • They are more motivating than dry text book materials.
  • They show language as it is really used so are a better preparation for real world language use.
  • When they seem too difficult for the class you can adjust the task to fit them. "Alter the task, not the text."
Arguments presented against authentic materials include:
  • It is hard to find sources which match the attainment level of the class.
  • They often contain low frequency language which may not be usefully transferable to other contexts for students.
  • There are copyright issues with using authentic resources.

My own view is clear on this. Written and spoken texts for classroom use are best when they are both interesting and matched quite closely to the class's level. An authentic text may or may not be interesting; an adapted or concocted text may or may not be interesting. Authenticity is not the key to interest level.

If you are acquainted by Krashen's comprehension hypothesis you will know that he works on the principle of the best input being i + 1 (namely input is best when it is almost wholly comprehensible but with some new elements to take the learner forward). Whether you accept Krashen's hypotheses as valid or not, I find it hard to fault that general principle. It is, of course, a principle of learning in general: build on what has gone before, scaffold the learning, become more knowledgeable or proficient step by step. Some take this further and suggest that any new text should be about 95% comprehensible. (This seems suspiciously prescriptive to me.)

Now, it is of course possible to occasionally find an authentic source which matches these criteria, but if, like me, you design resources, you will know how infrequently this is the case. Let's take a brief example of how an adapted text is better than an authentic one.

This is from 1jour1actu.com, a good source of authentic reading and listening produced (broadly) for 10-15 year-olds in France. It's worth noting in passing that the writers for this site have already simplified the language and content somewhat for their readership (raising the question of to what extent a text is "authentic"). This extract is about work for the disabled in France. How interesting it is depends on the reader (this is an issue when deciding what may or may not interest a class).

Depuis 12 ans, il existe une loi qui oblige les entreprises de plus de 20 salariés à embaucher des travailleurs handicapés. Plus l‘entreprise est grande, plus elle doit recruter de personnes handicapées : environ 6 travailleurs handicapés sur 100. Ce qui permet à beaucoup de personnes en situation de handicap de rejoindre le monde du travail. Et pourtant, aujourd'hui encore, 1 personne handicapée sur 5 ne trouve toujours pas d'emploi. Pourquoi ? Parce que certaines entreprises n'embauchent pas de travailleurs handicapés. À la place, elles paient une amende car elles ne respectent pas la loi. 

En France, d'autres lois existent pour améliorer les conditions de vie des personnes handicapées notamment au travail, à l'école ou dans les lieux publics. Des mesures sont alors mises en place, comme la construction de rampes d'accès pour les fauteuils roulants dans certains espaces publics par exemple. Les progrès de la science permettent aussi de faciliter le quotidien des personnes handicapées notamment grâce aux nouvelles technologies : smartphones, robots, imprimantes 3D, etc. Toutes ces inventions peuvent désormais changer la vie des personnes en situation de handicap.

Difficult words here for many intermediate learners might include: salariés, embaucher, rejoindre, amende, loi, améliorer, lieux, mises en place, fauteuils roulants, quotidien, notamment, grâce aux, imprmantes, désormais. 

Of course it is hard to know which individual words, chunks or structures will cause issues for each individual student, but in my estimation this text could be used unaltered with high intermediate (very good GCSE Higher) or advanced level classes.

However, if I wanted to use this material with lower achieving students I could easily adapt it to make it less daunting, more enjoyable and useful for learning. So this is what I might do:

Depuis 12 ans les entreprises de plus de 20 employés sont obligés à recruter des personnes handicapées. Plus l'entreprise est grande, plus elle doit employer de personnes handicapées: environ 6 employés sur 100. les personnes handicapées peuvent alors trouver un travail. mais aujourd'hui 1 personne sur 5 n'a pas de travail. Pourquoi? Parce que certaines entreprises n'emploient pas pas assez de personnes handicapées. Ils préfèrent payer une amende. 

En France il y a d'autres lois pour améliorer les conditions des personnes handicapées - au travail, à l'école ou dans des leiux publics. Par exemple il y a des rampes d'accès pour les fauteuils roulants dans certains lieux publics. La technologie joue un rôle important aussi: smartphones, robots, imprimantes 3D etc peuvent transformer la vie des paersonnes en situation de handicap.

The adapted text is a bit shorter, has fewer vocabulary and syntactic challenges, yet conveys the meaning while maintaining a pretty natural French style. for many classes this second text would be preferable despite its lack of authenticity.

As far as listening resources are concerned the main issues are ones of speed, clarity and the fact that natural speech contains all sorts of added difficulties for learners. Whilst built-in repetition, simplification  and pausing make life easier, disjointed syntax, idioms and colloquialisms can make comprehension harder. Students often report that real French is nothing like classroom French. This is of course true, but the best route to understanding real French may well be via easier versions of it. (Here are some ideas for making the transition easier.)       )


Now I think I know why authentic resources are so highly valued in some quarters. In the USA, for example, there has been a strong reaction to what are perceived as dry text books. As a result a natural response is to opt for "real" resources which are perceived as more exciting. I recall a similar phenomenon back in the 1980s in the UK, exemplified by publications such as the excellent but now defunct Authentik (from the University of Dublin). Suddenly we had access to authentic recordings when the only other possibility was to make our own from long wave radio broadcasts. Authentik was particularly useful for A-level students where less adaptation of source text is needed. They subsequently produced an easier version for intermediate level, if I recall correctly.

It's also the case that many contemporary text book articles and recordings are not very exciting. It's actually hard to source texts which most adolescent readers will find really interesting, so while text book writers are hide-bound by the syllabus, they face the same issue of sourcing exciting material.

What about the idea I mentioned at the top about adapting the task, not the text? This can certainly help with any text. But although there may be some value in having students decipher a tough text, I remain convinced that it is more effective for acquisition to adapt and invent texts. By doing this you can tailor the text to your individual class (e.g. by including words an chunks you know the class have practised), fine-tune the content and build in the repetition we know is vital for acquisition.

Alan Hornsey (MA tutor at London University) once told me that plausibility may be better than authenticity when choosing texts. A text is one classroom tool which helps you build acquisition. It doesn't have to be authentic.

Note on copyright

Text book writers and writers of examinations are often obliged to avoid authentic resources since obtaining copyright is often very difficult. Where copyright can be obtained it can also be expensive, which is one reason you will not find extracts of modern literature in GCSE examinations in England and Wales. The literary extracts you do find in GCSE exams are highly adapted. It leaves you asking why they are there at all!

In general terms the principle of "fair use" allows teachers in schools to use extracts of copyright material as long as it is not for commercial gain.

Comments

  1. "It's worth noting in passing that the writers for this site have already simplified the language and content somewhat for their readership (raising the question of to what extent a text is "authentic")."

    It is authentic because it is written for native speakers who are between the ages of 10-14, etc. An authentic text doesn't have to be something written for adults. It can be a movie ticket stub, a map, an infographic, or a children's book. Just one point I thought should be clarified here.

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