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The TEFL Lab’s Guide to Teaching with Authentic Materials

activity adult learners authentic materials homework listening reading vocabulary Sep 05, 2022

If you’ve been in the classroom for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard from other teachers, your own teacher training, or other places that authentic material is a must for English language classes. But what actually counts as authentic material, and how can you use it effectively in the classroom? We’ve got you covered with this blog post!

First, what IS an authentic material?

Think of authentic materials as materials that exist in the natural world to communicate to people who speak a language fluently. They are not designed with an educational purpose in mind. We use authentic materials every day, in every corner of the world, no matter where we are! Your movie ticket, the bus schedule, the billboards you pass on the highway, the news report you hear on the radio– all of these are examples of authentic materials. Their purpose is to communicate something, but the recipient is assumed to be fluent in the language used on the material.

And what can you call a material that isn’t authentic? They’re called representative materials, and they encompass worksheets and presentations, drilling sheets, materials that were once authentic that you’ve edited for clarity, and other materials designed with learners and the classroom in mind.

So who can we use authentic materials with in the classroom?

The great news is that you can use authentic materials with learners at every level! How’s that possible? Well, since authentic materials aren’t designed with language learners in mind, they don’t really have “levels”. What you can analyze yourself is the level of grammar, slang, or other linguistic features they contain, and that can help you make a decision as to whether it’s an appropriate resource for your learners or not (more on this later). But can you use an authentic material with an A1 learner? Absolutely! The thing is this: there are no authentic materials created for an A1 learner. If they were created for this learner profile in mind, they wouldn’t be authentic (nothing wrong with that, but we’re talking categories here!). So when working with an authentic material, you should have a very clear, level-appropriate objective in mind. While a learner at the A1 level might not be able to understand an authentic material perfectly, if they can achieve an objective you set with them (identify vocabulary, highlight subject-verb agreement in the present simple, understand the steps to a task, etc.), you’ll definitely have some proud and motivated learners by the end of class. As far as intermediate and advanced learners, they’re typically always game for the challenge of working with an authentic material, so you’ve got possibilities no matter what level your learners are!

Why are authentic materials useful? What are the pros and cons of working with them?

There are tons of pros and cons to consider, so to keep things concise, we’ll go with the following:

Using authentic materials can be motivating to learners because it’s a challenge that shows them how English is used naturally. It can be a little boost to their confidence when they achieve an objective you set with an authentic material. Additionally, authentic materials allow you to address specific needs or interests that a learner has. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find representative materials that address specific mining language or oyster-farming terminology. The good news is that these very specific linguistic needs can be addressed by authentic materials. On top of all of that, authentic materials provide a great way to expose learners to a greater variety of accents, as well as communicative contexts (formal vs informal, or persuasive vs. informative, etc.).

On the flip side, there are a few cons to using authentic materials. The truth of the matter is that adult learners simply benefit from explicit instruction, and that is greatly aided by representative materials that allow you to focus a given amount of time on a specific area. At the same time, authentic materials are sometimes complicated by pop culture references, slang, and other native speech features (which in some contexts and with a certain level of learner, could also be considered a pro).

You’ll very likely be able to find teachers that insist representative materials are the only way to go, and other teachers that insist that authentic materials are the best option for teaching English. The reality lies between those two extremes– representative materials work and we need them to give structure to lower- and intermediate-level learners. However, everyone (and especially proficient or advanced learners) can benefit from regular exposure to English as its used outside of the classroom.

What should I keep in mind as I select material?

It’s a little reductive, but for now let’s just consider all authentic materials as belonging to one of two categories: short and long. Let’s say short is something that takes up one slide or page (without being a wall of text), or if it’s a video/audio material, around 2 minutes or fewer in duration. And anything beyond those parameters can go into our “long” category.

What types of materials might you find in these categories? In the short category, you’ve got short videos, songs, Instagram posts or tweets, sales ads, a store’s website, a travel review, a hotel reservation page, a restaurant’s menu, a short-and-sweet recipe, a movie theater’s schedule, etc.
In the long category, you’ve got podcast episodes, slightly longer videos or songs, interviews, articles, blog posts, recipes (you know the ones with the life story on the front end?), and more!

Any of these can be used for specific objectives. Let’s say you’ve been working on the future simple, or comparative adjectives. It’s not hard at all to select a few cities around the world and find the week’s weather forecast. Have learners use the target language to describe the forecast or compare the weather in different cities with that authentic material. Maybe instead you want them to see the past simple and present perfect dueting in an article. Whether you’re selecting a material to work with specific vocabulary, grammar, or functional language, the options are endless.

Also, keep in mind the culture and context in which you’re teaching EFL classes. Some content that you might find humourous or interesting may be offensive to a learner from a specific culture, or might not be appropriate for the classroom context. Err on the side of caution when selecting materials to be used with learners, and don’t forget that everyone is bringing their own experiences, culture, and values with them to the classroom.

How do I actually plan a lesson around an authentic material?

The way you plan any lesson will depend on your own choices or the methodologies that have been requested of you based on where you teach, as well as the constraints of your classes (number of participants, duration, etc.), but these are some of the steps you should include in your lesson plan when working with authentic materials:

– Start with a warm-up to activate background knowledge. This will help your learners prepare to work with the authentic material’s topic. You might be surprised to see how much they already know about it.
– Pre-teach some vocabulary or phrases. Besides the target language you want to work with through this authentic material, what other phrases or vocabulary words do you think will be distracting, challenging, or otherwise represent an obstacle to the learners as they process the material? Those are the things you’ll want to pre-teach!
– Introduce the material. Show the learners the material. Tell them where it’s from. Ask them if they’re familiar with the source, if it’s a media resource.
– Ask for predictions from the learners. What words or grammar are they expecting to hear? Do they think the material’s purpose will be to inform, to entertain, or to persuade? What other predictions do they have?
– Process the material (read, listen, watch). You can have learners take turns reading aloud and summarizing at strategic pauses you create. This is a great way to monitor learner comprehension throughout the activity so you won’t get too far without realizing there’s a problem.
– Check for comprehension, highlight vocabulary, invite more vocabulary. Throughout the activity, and then again at the end, ask questions that will check learners’ comprehension. Highlight specific vocabulary from the article and as the definition is shared (by learners or yourself, if necessary), invite learners to brainstorm related vocabulary.
– Now give the learners a task– ask them to describe, recreate, respond, analyse, compare, or evaluate the content from the authentic material in some way. This activity should be a productive one, focusing on speaking or writing skills.
– Provide your own feedback to the learner and review new language they encountered in the lesson.
– Elicit learner feedback– ask them questions about their own preferences regarding material type, topic, etc. to gauge whether this is a type of material they would be motivated to work with again in the future.

What else should I know about using authentic materials in class?

One of the cool things about authentic materials is that we’ll never run out of them, and the internet makes them extremely easy to source. Whether you highlight a twitter thread, Instagram post, news video, or blog post in class, you’ll want to make sure it’s something that you can easily share with your learners, ideally by sending them a link.

Additionally, keep in mind that if you’re attempting to use authentic materials in a lesson with the flipped classroom methodology, you’ll want to have a plan B on deck in case your learners don’t do what you’ve asked of them prior to class. The flipped classroom methodology is very fun to implement and is popular in the K-12 world, but just keep in mind that homework assigned to younger learners is more likely to get done than homework you assign to your 43-year-old accountant learner during tax season!

Authentic materials are a great way to bring the outside world into your classroom in an engaging but supported way. Your learners won’t feel the immediate pressure of telling a bus driver exactly where they need to go or understand a complicated set of instructions in order to get a subway pass, but they will get to experience the enriching challenge that authentic material represents, with you as their trusty guide to see them through it. Every course can benefit with a sprinkling of authentic material here and there, and as your learners become more and more proficient, you may find that it becomes the best way to offer the customization that learners at this level often seek!