What are the advantages and disadvantages of using authentic materials in the classroom?
With the emergence of communicative language teaching approaches, the campaign of ‘authentic’ language data use has been established for second language learners in the classrooms in most countries. However, in the field of second language acquisition research, language-teaching practitioners have different viewpoints in relation to the use of authentic materials in language classrooms either concerning its importance or its effect on the students.
In teaching and learning English as a foreign and second language, the use of authentic materials has been debated. Although they have communicative value (Yuk-chun Lee, 1995), they bring about a hindrance in using them. This essay, first of all, will examine the viewpoints of written or spoken authentic and non-authentic materials from different language teaching experts. Secondly, it will highlight the importance or advantages of utilizing authentic materials in second language classrooms in general. Then, I will look at the disadvantages of authentic texts used in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) context from the discourse and pragmatic aspects. Next, I will attempt to discuss the applicability of authentic material use in the Indonesian setting and provide an alternative activity to stimulate learner authenticity in the classroom. Finally, I will present a brief summary of the issues examined in the previous sections.
First of all, the term ‘authentic’ itself is defined as ‘known to be true or genuine’ (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 1995). In line with the term ‘authentic materials’ in second language teaching, David Forman (1986, cited in Underwood, 1989) says:
Any text is ‘authentic’ if it was produced in response to real life communicative needs rather than as an imitation of real life communicative needs. The term can be applied to any sort of text, written or spoken, and in relation to any kind of situation of language use.
Similarly, Little, Devitt & Singleson (1989, cited in Peacock, 1997) define authentic materials as those generated to ‘fulfill some social purpose in the language community’, while Yuk-chun Lee (1995) proposes the terms ‘text authenticity’ and ‘learner authenticity’, in which the learner can give appropriate and positive responses towards authentic materials. Meanwhile, Nunan (1998) characterizes authentic materials as ‘genuine inter-actions and authentic texts’, which are not planned for ‘pedagogical purposes’. These materials are written for real-life communicative needs, in which the writers intend to transfer some messages to the readers.
From these definitions, it can be inferred that any material, which is not for the intention of teaching language, is authentic regardless of who the writers are, either native speakers or non-native speakers. It can be English newspapers, magazines, songs, poems, brochures, or natural conversation of native speakers in the street, at home, on some radio programs, at meetings, and in schools (Underwood, 1989). So, any material, which is modified for the aim of teaching language, though this is done by native speakers, is considered not authentic. Forman (1986, cited in Underwood, 1989) also gives an example that the script of a play is an authentic play script, but not authentic conversation.
Unlike authentic materials, which always refer to real speech or original written text, non-authentic materials lack ‘naturalness and spontaneity’ (Underwood, 1989). Burns (1993) asserts that the typical features of non-authentic or scripted spoken text, are ‘standard’ pronunciation, unnatural frequency, complete sentences, apparent role shift and the same amount of talking among speakers, a slow and conscious pace, no backchannelling, formal, finite vocabulary, too much information and lack of outside noise. He further claims that scripted samples will de-authenticate speech if they are used in the classroom.
Many language classrooms, especially in EFL contexts use scripted materials in the form of textboooks as the only resources. The reason is they are easy to find and understand since they are mostly established by the local curriculum developers and non-native English teachers. Dialogues or conversations in the scripted samples are often stilted, strange and funny due to the grammar demands. Even they sometimes lose the important elements and strategies, in which the real spoken discourse is built together (Burns, 1993). Being exposed to artificial samples, students will not learn about the language used in real life conversation (Underwood, 1989). It will cause difficulty when students attempt to understand authentic written and spoken language. As a result, the outcomes of the language learners are still questionable.
Secondly, the use of authentic language data has been considerably widespread and promoted in language teaching and learning for some beneficial purposes for students in the classroom. Some essential features of real speech, which underpin the importance of it are natural rhythm, intonation and pronunciation; speakers overlapping; normal rate of delivery; unstructured and incomplete sentences; background noises; and natural starts and stops (Underwood, 1989). On the other hand, written authentic materials have more lexical density or linguistic complexity so that their cohesive devices are more apparent. The sentences are much more formal, although they still have a sense of naturalness with consideration for ‘rhetorical structuring of different text types (Paltridge, 1996).
Savignon (1991) stresses the importance of authentic language data use in context in presenting either written or spoken materials. This will provide students with various kinds of language experiences from different language functions so that they will be stimulated to create their own modification of expressions. In other words, they will be creative in exploring the language from the exposure they attain.
Then, in authentic materials students will deal with real actions and real written language in different situations and for different purposes. In real speech students will listen to genuine communication with ‘interactional features’ (Underwood, 1989), which scripted dialogues do not have. Doubts, false openings and errors often happen in real, spontaneous speech, and these are very useful for students to learn when they face the outside-classroom English, which is more practical and ordinary.
Next, in terms of linguistic complexity, Morrison (1989) acknowledges that authentic materials generally go beyond the students’ linguistic level. But this, in fact, will challenge them to reach an understanding of either written or spoken text, in which the cohesion and coherence of a discourse always comes up. McCarthy (1991) states that generally most texts show unity in terms of grammatical features or cohesive devices.
In addition, authentic language data may be empowering for teachers and learners (McKnight, 1998). It is one thing that genuine language data will offer students with valuable input, in which the language is ordinarily utilized by native speakers, thus, they will feel independent and confident in speaking English. It is another thing that the teacher will give students ‘power’ to be ready to encounter the English environment in different situations and contexts. In other words, authentic materials can decrease students’ degree of anxiety to face the new environment in the target language (Moya, 1998)
Finally, authentic materials will improve students’ motivation in learning English since they are more interesting. Based on Peacock’s (1997) classroom research with two beginner-level EFL classes, there was a significant increase of students’ motivation in terms of ‘interest, persistence, attention, action and enjoyment’ when they were given authentic materials in their learning.
The following article, which was taken from ‘The Herald Sun’ on 20 May 2000, could probably be used for a reading activity in the classroom:
E-mail jobs option
Many recruiters now prefer to receive resumes via e-mail and some are using technology to scan, store and screen them, an American study has found. One-third of the human resource professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management preferred electronic job data, but only 17 percent of job seekers actually sent resumes via e-mail.
Of course, the use of this authentic written text will challenge students in their learning process. From the pragmatic aspect, they have to activate their cognitive processes and employ their schemata or background knowledge to interpret the intended meaning of the text. Looking at the title of the article, the readers will immediately recognize that the topic will be about computer or the internet, whereas today we know that the internet, especially e-mail has been popular among computer users in the world.
This is relevant to what Nunan (1988) has mentioned that ‘the materials should reflect the outside world’. This means that in selecting the materials the teacher should consider the topic, which might be useful for students when they encounter the society. This will stimulate students’ interests to know more about the text since the article is an up to date issue. As well, the authentic text lets the students deal with the culture and the technology from another country. For example, in the text it is stated ‘an American study’, students will immediately guess that this situation occurs in America, which has an advanced computer technology.
Subsequently, from the discourse aspect, the article above will allow students to know about ‘report’ genre and ‘description’ text type (Hammond, et.al. 1992, cited in Paltridge, 1996). As in a written text the sentences are usually well formed (McCarthy, 1991), it is more obvious for the students to learn about cohesion and coherence of the text from different genres and text types. As a matter of fact, this article only consists of two sentences, but indeed between one sentence to another there is coherence or links, which make those sentences hang together. Hasan and Halliday (1976, cited in McKnight, 1998) have categorized the cohesive devices in written text, which encompass reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical. In the article, for instance, students can recognize the reference, such as some and them; conjunction, such as and and but; and lexical cohesion, such as the collocation of the word ‘e-mail’ will suggest words like ‘technology’, ‘scan’, ‘store’, ‘screen’ and ‘electronic job data’. Thus, students will learn how the sentences connect together.
In contrast to those advantages above, the use of authentic materials in the language classrooms generates constraints as well. Widdowson (1998) has argued against the use of authentic language in the classroom since it is impossible to do so. He explains that the classroom cannot provide the kind of contextual conditions needed for normal pragmatic functions, which usually happen in the specific discourse community. He further asserts that language, which is authentic for native speakers, does not mean authentic for the learners.
Besides, some authors, such as William (1983 & 1984); Freeman and Holden, (1986); and Morrison (1989, cited in Peacock, 1997) have acknowledged that authentic materials might discourage students since they are too difficult. This is absolutely reasonable, especially in terms of pragmatics and culture aspects. Authentic materials generally go too far beyond the students’ level or prior knowledge. In addition, Underwood (1989) asserts that authentic materials cannot be arranged before they are produced, thus careful selection by the teacher to match the material with the course books topics is needed.
In EFL contexts, as in Indonesian classrooms, the notion of authentic materials might be considered new for some English language teachers because they are used to teaching using scripted materials. Obviously, authentic language data use would bring about some problems for them. First of all, taking into account the limited teaching and learning resources for English lessons, it is very difficult for the teacher to find authentic materials either from printed or electronic media. This would occur mostly in schools, which are located in remote areas. Then, even if the teacher has found authentic materials, he/she still has difficulty in using them in terms of the limited time because the teacher has to use the textbook required for the English teaching in the school concerned. Lastly, using authentic materials reveals a difficulty in predicting the underlying meaning of the written or spoken text. This is because with finite ‘experience and shared-cultural knowledge’ (Turner, 1988), it is very challenging for students to decode authentic written text and with finite ‘contextual knowledge’ (Fromkin, et.al. 1999) they will have difficulty understanding either written text or real speech since they do not know the actual context or the pragmatics in text.
In interpreting a poem, for instance, entitled ‘The last of snow’ by Douglas Stewart (Parker, 1960), students would deal with the collocation of the word ‘snow’. In Indonesia, students with limited background knowledge do not know what snow is, what snow looks like, when and why it happens. They might know the linguistic context or the discourse (Fromkin, et.al. 1999) of the poem, but they do not have any idea of the situational context of the countries, which have four different seasons. On the other hand, in comprehending real speech, such as in ‘Two old friends meet up again’ (Carter and McCarthy, 1997:42), the process of learning is similar to the written text, but spoken discourse needs more student effort to predict the situational context backing up the conversation.
Finally, considering these advantages and disadvantages of using authentic materials in the Indonesian classroom, there should be a compromise in using materials for language learning in the classroom. Firstly, the teacher should still take into account the degree of authenticity in selecting the materials (Nunan, 1988). This means that there is authenticity between the materials and the student activities and tasks in the classroom. Nunan further explains that the materials should assist the students in increasing independent learning so that they will be aware of their learning process.
Then, authenticity is not only a matter of the authentic text itself, but authenticity can mean the relationship between the passage and the reader’s response (Widdowson, 1978, cited in Taylor, 1994). Authenticity emerges in that response being appropriate. In this respect, a genuine text does not always generate student authenticity, conversely, inauthentic text might create authentic student response (Yuk-chun Lee, 1995). How difficult the authentic text is not significant since its ease or difficulty can arise from the tasks designed (Field, 1997). All of them depend on how the teacher presents the materials and how s/he exploits it in communicative activities, which activate students’ cognitive processes to explore the language.
The following activity is one of the communicative activities, which makes use of authentic materials. It has been demonstrated in McKnight’s (2000) and Reuter’s (2000) classes. The list of words below was taken from ‘The Age’ articles, they are ‘Gold Coast beyond the theme parks’, which was published on 28 May 2000 and ‘Australian ballet gets an extra $1m’, which was on 29 May 2000.
holiday touring program Queensland dancers off spring parks hotel Australian ballet ferry performing arts sheltered beaches increase trip offer funding lovely announcement application guests
In this activity the teacher could adjust the texts to any ways, in which they can be utilized to maximize the students’ involvement in the class activity. For example, in the first procedure, instead of providing students with lists of words on the board, the teacher could dictate them for the purpose of activating their listening skill. Then, with their peers in groups, they can check spelling and pronunciation together. After that, the teacher asks students to divide those words into two categories according to its collocations. Lastly, they have to create a short text type based on their interests of the chosen category and perform them in front of the class.
Although those words are actually from two articles, which I consider difficult for my students’ level, the teacher can elicit vocabulary, which is a little bit above students’ level. So, in this case, the teacher does modify the communicative activities in such a way that the difficult authentic texts still can contribute valuable input for the students. From the activity, it can be seen that all the steps of the procedure require students to employ all their linguistic competence to create new sentences.
Initially, in listening to the teacher’s dictation, the students recall or activate their background language knowledge about words and spelling they already know, then practise how to articulate them in appropriate pronunciation. Additionally, the nature of authenticity of the actual social interaction of the language classroom (Breen, 1985, cited in Taylor, 1994) appears when students collaboratively interact in producing sentences. Finally, while constructing a paragraph students have to determine what sort of text type they like to create: a description, an exposition or others and what kind of mass media their texts are supposed to be: television news, radio news or newspapers. In this case, students will learn different kinds of language functions in the social community. This process of learning has generated ‘learner authenticity’, in which the students appreciate and acknowledge the text, task, set of materials or learning activity (Nunan, 1988). In other words, the students can respond to the materials appropriately and positively.
I agree with Underwood (1989) that the terms ‘authentic’, non-authentic’ or ‘semi-authentic’ are, in fact, not crucial. The most important thing is that the students can authenticate the materials they deal with (Nunan, 1988). This means that the students can engage with the materials given and the materials can accommodate students’ interests and trigger their background knowledge and experience because these can expedite the students learning process. Thus, students will be encouraged to create genuine communication in the language classroom.
More importantly, the teacher should not always rely much on authentic written or spoken discourse, which might be a waste of time and energy. This is also significant considering the limited authentic learning resources in EFL contexts, especially in Indonesia. The teacher still can utilize ‘realia’ or a real object to stimulate students’ creativity in exploring the language.
For example, in a ‘genre exploration’ activity, which has been demonstrated in Reuter’s (2000) class, the teacher makes use of a shoe, to arouse students’ curiosity. From only one object, the teacher can stimulate students to construct short texts in different genres and text types according to the students’ proficiency level. They can learn how to make a report, an advertisement, a storybook and a procedural text. Of course, beforehand the students need to be exposed to examples of different genres and text types so that they can employ both their communicative and linguistic competence in the negotiation of meaning and make decisions.
Indeed, referring to the activity above, the teacher can bring into play anything, which is beneficial for students in the learning process. The final product is not really the crucial thing in this respect, but the students’ process of learning. In other words, the students have the opportunity to use the target language in context, thus in a meaningful way. So, it seems that it is a matter of the teacher’s creativity in modifying either authentic, semi-authentic texts or realia to activate student authenticity in the classroom with regard to the target goals in the curriculum.
In conclusion, the emergence of authentic materials use in the language classroom has brought about controversial points of view among language teaching practitioners. Some of them believe that the use of authentic materials is very important for students because it will improve their motivation in the learning process. On the other hand, a few of them assume that authentic language data use will also generate more problems apart from their difficulty, when it is implemented in EFL contexts, as in Indonesia. However, there are still some ways to adapt pure authentic materials into communicative activities, which stimulate and activate students’ cognitive processes in the classroom. As a result, a kind of genuine communication, which occurs in the simulated real context, will be established.
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