The real deal

If you’re like me, you try to use authentic materials in your classes as much as possible. The most common arguments in favour of authentic listening or reading texts (in comparison to course book materials) is that they:

  •  are more engaging
  • provide a “real” model of language
  • give practice with texts students will encounter outside the class
  • are topical and up-to-date
  • provide a greater sense of achievement when tackled successfully
  • can be carefully picked to match student’s interests OR the student can choose the text themselves

Of course, there are many other advantages, as well as clear disadvantages (e.g. too difficult, too long), which are listed in detail, for example here. However, in this post I would like to focus on something different.

The question I want to pose has been hinted at in passing in one of my previous posts. Remember the A from the TAPEs? AUTHENTIC with a capital “A”. But what I’d like to advocate are authentic TASKS rather than authentic materials, or preferably combining the two.

My premise here is that as teachers we should focus more on designing authentic tasks, rather than looking for an authentic text to use in the class just for the sake of using it. We have to remember that “different texts call for different treatments” (Nuttall, Ch. 1996: 153), and try to design the tasks accordingly.

So what do I mean by authentic tasks? Consider this piece of course book material from NEF Up-Int p.30. The text itself is perfectly authentic, however, what about the task itself?

All 3 questions are typical comprehension tests (1. Gist; 2. Lexis; 3. Implied meaning). Not that they are wrong, but the problem is they

  • do not really teach the learner how to approach this genre (a short story) in the future
  • are not an authentic response to this genre

So how can we make the task more natural?

“A good rule of thumb, […], is to first consider the sort of things a target reader is likely to do with [the text]” (Nuttal, Ch. 1996: 153).

In other words, ask yourself: how would I read/listen to this text in real world? How would I respond to it?

Coming back to our example, one of the most natural reactions to a story/anecdote is that you retell it to your friends later on (possibly altering it, either consciously or unconsciously). The simplest authentic task would be then (presumably after a gist listening, but not necessarily, all depending on the level of your sts) to ask students to retell the story in groups. Then they could check it with other groups, and listen again to the original to see if their versions differed. Can you think of any other tasks that would be more authentic responses to the text than the original course book exercise?

As Wilson (2006: 39) rightly puts it;

“listeners cope with different types of listening by preparing themselves according to the conventions and expectations of the genre”.

Students then must be made aware of those conventions and taught how to react naturally to certain texts. After all, nobody answers true or false questions when listening to a friend telling a funny story over a pint of beer down the pub, do they?

Below then are some typical text types and suggestions for an authentic task to do with your students. Not a definitive list, of course. And not to say that the classical T/F questions should be abandoned completely. There is always some room for them. However, when designing listening or reading tasks, we should ask ourselves more often: how would I react/respond naturally to this text in the real world? WHY would I listen or read it? And how can I design the tasks to reflect this?

Some of the most obvious advantages of authentic tasks are:

  • they resemble tasks learners will have to perform in English outside the class
  • they are more meaningful
  • often there is no right or wrong answer, which avoids the disappointment and frustration of getting the answers wrong
  • they provide learners with skills they can use outside the class
  • they prepare them to attack similar texts more effectively in the future

So when you read it through the list, think why these tasks are presumably more authentic than a typical T/F or multiple choice question. And try to think of other authentic tasks either for these genres, or for other ones. I’d be more than happy to include your suggestions in the post 🙂

  1. Story:

  • retell your partner
  • T or student pauses the recording, the student reacts (e.g. That’s incredible/sad/unbelievable. etc.)
  • T pauses the recording at different points and asks students a question which will involve them in the process of telling the story: e.g. What do you think X looked like?

     2. News article:

  •  read the title and decide if it’s worth reading and why
  • skim through the paragraphs and find one which you’d like to read in more detail
  • skim through, and retell the news to your partner
  • compare the presentation of news in two different newspapers

     3. Interview:

  • respond yourselves to the questions
  • find one surprising/interesting piece of information and read more about it on the internet

     4. Dialogue:

  • ask for clarification when you don’t understand
  • try to interrupt politely
  • T stops the dialogue, the students respond appropriately (i.e. to practise functional language or adjacency pairs)

     5. Lecture:

  • use the information from the ppt to identify the main points of the lecture
  • pause after signposting language and predict what information comes next
  • take notes
  • summarise the content using the notes or convert them into an essay

Read up on reading and listening task design:

  • Nuttal, Ch. 1996. “Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language”. Heineman
  • Willson, J.J. 2008. “How to teach listening”. Person

7 thoughts on “The real deal

  1. I really enjoyed this article. It's so true that these true/false exercises are not interesting.
    You've focused mostly on speaking/listening tasks. I also think it would be a good idea to use writing tasks as well. For example, they get a part of the story and finish it by themselves (in writing). Or they write a critique on a certain story.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kuhara.
    My aim was to address both listening and reading tasks here, as the task designed is very similar for both of them. I guess these principles could be applied to a writing class too. Good idea for a future post.
    Good idea with the story. That's an example of an authentic task.

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