A is for Authenticity

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty 

Since the 1970s, teachers have been arguing about authenticity in the classroom. As a TESOL professor and textbook writer, I’m often asked whether I’m in favor of authenticity. It seems a simple question, but there are several related ideas to consider: How do we define authenticity? What is a continuum of authenticity? How does authenticity relate to materials, situation, and task? and Where and how do we locate authentic materials?

Defining authenticity
Most definitions of authenticity in the classroom can be reduced to the idea of something not created for use by language learners. In general, although textbooks can contain authentic materials, they are not authentic. On the other hand, we consider a local newspaper, menu, or bus schedule as being authentic; the language is natural and generally more applicable to the needs and interests of our students. This is one of the great strengths of exposing students to authentic materials: Outside the classroom, they continue learning as they encounter additional authentic materials.

A continuum of authenticity
The opposite of authentic materials are those that are inauthentic. Elementary school teachers and teachers of beginners use inauthentic materials such as simplified menus with purely descriptive names (hamburger) rather than confusing brand names (Big Mac®, Whopper®). Other aspects of the menu are similarly set in plain speech to avoid confusion.

But between authentic and inauthentic materials are constructed materials. In making constructed materials, teachers and materials developers usually start with authentic materials but simplify vocabulary, grammar, and even typefaces to make them more pertinent and accessible. In other cases, materials are constructed from scratch, based on different genres. As an experiment, I asked 56 experienced language teachers to review three passages and decide which were authentic and which were constructed. Only three teachers identified all three correctly (Beatty, 2015). If most teachers can’t tell the difference, well-written constructed materials are probably an acceptable alternative.

Authenticity in materials, situation, and task
Beyond authentic materials, there are questions around the authenticity of situation and task. An authentic situation involves taking students outside the classroom to learn about, say, bus language while riding a bus or soccer language while playing a game. This situational approach to language learning sounds exciting and perhaps even practical for a second-language tourism course, but it would be time-consuming and impractical when you consider the countless language situations teachers would have trouble accessing. For example, conversations with police officers, firefighters, doctors, and dentists are all common in language textbooks, but arranging such meetings week after week would be impossible. Instead, teachers resort to role plays to simulate authentic experiences.

In terms of tasks, teachers too often assess students based on multiple choice, matching, or true/false questions, despite the fact that these forms are seldom or never used in everyday conversations. Perhaps the focus is about preparing students to write more tests rather than providing opportunities to practice and demonstrate competence in authentic contexts. Teachers should create opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know in authentic ways.

Locating authentic materials
Most teachers work too hard. Beyond teaching, marking, lesson planning, meetings, and extra-curricular activities, they are also always on the lookout for additional materials for their classrooms. But there is a solution to the problem that improves the teaching and learning process: make the students responsible.

Ask students to bring authentic materials to class. Everywhere in the world, there are second language materials in the form of advertisements, instructions, business cards, bilingual menus, and other documents. What students cannot bring in person, they can often copy or capture on camera phones. Students can even (with permission!) take video of native speakers using the target language. Students who are tasked with collecting, evaluating and sharing authentic materials raise their language awareness. And a raised awareness of language opportunities in the real world can be the greatest benefit of introducing authenticity in the classroom.

Beatty, K. (2015). Embracing Authenticity in the Language Classroom. Language and Education. National Research University Moscow Higher School of Economics

Dr. Ken Beatty, TESOL Professor at Anaheim University in California, has taught in Asia, Canada, the Middle East, and the U,S. and lectured widely on language teaching and learning from the elementary through university levels, including more than 200 teacher-training sessions in 22 countries. He is author of 130+ textbooks including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).