In the last two decades, the communicative approach has clearly substituted more traditional methods in the teaching of English, namely the so-called Grammar-Translation method. The advocates of this approach favour the use of real English in real situations and expect the learners of any L2 to be able to use the target language in real contexts. This emphasis on the real factor influences the choice of material to be used in the classroom or in coursebooks. Some of the latter focus on the importance of learning the principal functions that the speaker will be faced with when using his/her second language. In such a short period as ten years, if we are to compare it with the centuries of language teaching in Europe, writers have altered the whole structuring of their coursebooks to reflect this new approach.
‘Authentic texts’ were defined as those which were designed for native speakers: they were ‘real’ texts designed not for language students, but for the speakers of the language in question (Harmer, 1991: 185–88).
However, nowadays a new definition has been provided. It is not merely based on who designs the material and to whom is addressed, but on whether the language used sounds authentic in part or in its entirety, and on whether students are likely to hear or read it in real situations. For these reasons we should not define authentic material on the basis that it has been designed for native speakers.
Consequently, anything a native speaker of English would hear or read or use can be described as authentic: theatre programmes, newspapers, magazines…Because authentic materials are not designed for the EFL student they are not graded for level, although some are obviously more difficult to understand than others. Thus, the teacher should select the material carefully, with the needs and interests of the students in mind, and also decide what the students are to do with the material. So the same piece of authentic material can be used at different levels; an easier task can be set for lower level students and a more difficult task set for higher level students.
A non-authentic text in language teaching terms is one that has been written especially for language students. Such texts sometimes concentrate on the language we wish to teach.
There are a number of clues which can show us that the language used in this type of material is artificial:
– Both speakers use perfectly formed sentences all the time. Yet, conversation between people is just not like that!
– The language is extremely unvaried.
– Their aim is to isolate bits of language so that students can concentrate on it.
Such material should not be used, however, to help students become better listeners or readers. The obviously artificial nature of the language makes it very unlike anything that they are likely to encounter in real life. Whilst some may claim that it is useful for teaching structures, it cannot be used to teach reading or listening skills.
According to Harmer (1991:185–88), in addition to the two previous types of written materials, we should consider a third type, called ‘simulated authentic material’. This material is specially prepared for students of English; however, it attempts to reproduce the authentic written or spoken English.
The authors of this material roughly-tune the language and content to suit their students’ needs, but they do not sacrifice the feel of the language. Their simulated authenticity will be helpful to students who are practicing reading. What is being suggested, therefore, is that material designed to foster the acquisition of receptive skills must at least simulate authenticity. The need for language control at lower levels must not be used as an excuse for extreme artificiality.
In modern methodology, it seems to be a must to use authentic material in the English language lesson. It is important to realize that we, as teachers, must make our own selection from coursebooks although writers and publishers would argue that the material they include in their books is the best for learners of English as it has been prepared and designed by specialists. Thus, apart from following a coursebook, teachers should feel like introducing certain novelties, since they know not only their students and their level of proficiency, but also their needs, their weaknesses and strong points. As a result, they are perfectly able of selecting the most appropriate material to be used in class.
Presently, the use of magazines and newspapers in English lessons is widely acknowledged, since they provide stimulating texts full of cultural information to students who have a wide range of interests. According to Doff (1988: 170), once the appropriate text has been selected, students usually get interested in reading, listening and watching, since they regard English texts and programmes not merely as a tool to learn a language, but also as a source of information.
Valdeón (1995: 234) suggests that “once we have tried to establish a new classification of the material used in the teaching of English, or any other languages for the matter”, we should “focus on authentic material and the various processes that it can undergo to be adapted to suit the needs of our students”. That adaptation of given material responds to the need of individualizing it to focus on one or various aspects of the language. However, some authors, focusing their attention on the communicative trend, have rejected any alteration to the authentic material, without considering that the priorities of teachers and students may vary and change.
Once we have mentioned the main reasons for the adaptation of authentic written material, we will deal with the different ways whereby we can adapt this material to suit the needs of our students: adding, deleting, modifying, simplifying and reordering.
– Adding: Whenever we want our students to practise certain grammatical structures, items of vocabulary or minimal pairs that are not found in their L1, and the authentic material we want to use does not provide enough examples, we can supply the text with further examples of any of these linguistic exponents.
– Deleting: Textbooks are prepared for an international public with various needs. We must not feel guilty if we have to omit two or three exercises in one unit, if we feel that they are not relevant, or even the whole unit, if our students will not learn anything from it.
– Modifying: There are two main techniques to modify a text: rewrite it and restructure it. Furthermore, we can also adapt a text for our students to read aloud or for us to dictate it to the students, if we want them to practise certain features.
– Simplifying: This technique is also useful, but can lead to a distortion of natural speech or written English if we are not especially careful when we simplify grammar or certain features of speech. In many cases it would be worthwhile keeping those grammatical points which will certainly require further practice rather than simplifying them. Simplification can be mainly applied to texts rather than audiovisual material and affects the sentence structure, the lexical content and the grammatical structures. But as we mentioned before everyone of these processes must be carried out very carefully so that we do not turn authentic material into artificial language.
Breen and Candlin cited in Rutherford (1987, 149–150) contend that, “In the past, it has seemed easier to somehow separate the learner from the knowledge to be learned — to ‘objectify’ the target language as something completely unfamiliar to the learner. This objectification of the language in relation to the learner has perhaps been encouraged by a narrow definition of what the object of learning actually is, and by an incomplete view of what the learner has to offer. We have tended to see the target only in terms of ‘linguistic competence’ or textual knowledge, and we have limited such knowledge to the level of syntax without reference to structure above the sentence. Thus, ideational and interpersonal knowledge, which textual knowledge and from which textual knowledge evolves, have tended to be overlooked or neutralised.”
However, the use of authentic text in the classroom may bring the learner and the knowledge together because the learner is lifted from the confinements of traditional and more recent methodologies to become an intricate part of the language learning process.
Authentic text also appears to supply the essential input needed to increase learner awareness of language usage in written and spoken mediums and decrease reliance on pedagogic language rules, which may be viewed as inadequate since they are simplifications of language usage. Likewise, authentic text may provide an alternative to outdated textbooks, which may not meet the needs of learners, and provide learners with the various genuine texts they need to aid and improve reading comprehension.
Traditional teaching mainly consisted of teaching patterns and excluded the learner from being involved in the learning process. The Classical Method had a “ focus on grammatical rules, memorization of vocabulary and of various declension and conjugations, [as well as] translation of texts, [and] doing written exercises,” (Brown,1994: 16) which was adapted from the teaching of Latin grammar. Eventually, the Classical Method became known as the Grammar Translation Method. The only difference was a “focus on grammatical rules as the basis for translating from the second to the native language.” (Brown, 1994: 16) Eventually, the Audiolingualism Method came into practice. It stressed “the mechanistic aspects of language learning and language use” (Richards and Rodgers, 1986: 61) by utilizing pattern practice and structural drilling. While all these methods may be beneficial to lower-level learners, the teaching of patterns excludes the learner from taking an active role in the learning process. It also excludes learners from learning about all the other grammatical uses of words or language not considered in the lesson and seeing familiar grammatical forms with new usage.
To sum up, we could state that both extremes are obviously not useful for our purposes. What we need, therefore, are texts which students can understand the general meaning of, whether they are truly authentic or not. But texts -whether authentic or not- must be realistic models of written or spoken English. If teachers can find genuinely authentic material which their students can cope with, that will be advantageous; if not, they should be using material which simulates authentic English. According to Ur (1996: 150), “the use of ‘authentic’ texts with less proficient learners is often frustrating and counter-productive”. As a result, from this statement we can infer that the use of simplified texts is usually more effective at earlier stages of learning. Therefore, we should always make the text appropriate to the level of the learners.
Ultimately we should encourage our students to be able to deal with authentic reading material that any native speaker would find in real life. However, this is not always possible; as a consequence, what we should do is make some attempts to select tasks that approximate to those we might do in real life.
Finally, we will present the main points that can be inferred from our presentation on the use of authentic written material:
- Authentic material should be used in the teaching of English so that our students get used to real English.
- Teachers must be extremely careful when selecting this material since students might feel disappointed if the text is too difficult to understand. We must bear in mind that students will expect to understand as much as possible, no matter how strongly we insist on the fact that this is not necessary.
- Therefore, we might need to adapt this material to suit the needs of our students, which can be of various types, as indicated before.
- Adapting material does not mean to falsify its contents or structure. It means to use it to the advantage of our students and to focus on certain features of the language.
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- Ellis R. and Hedge ‘Second Language Acquisition research: how does it help teachers? An interview with Rod Ellis.’ ELT Journal 47/1 1993