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Keeping it Real: Using Authentic Resources in the World Language Classroom

authentic learning foriegn language instruction general coaching Jun 02, 2023
An image with speech bubbles containing greetings in many languages. Banner text that reads, "Keeping it real: using authentic resources in the world language classroom."

Written by Matthaeus Hulse

A young woman stands in a bakery next to the Hackescher Markt in Berlin, Germany. After three years of high school German, she finds herself struggling to understand the rapid-fire dialect coming from the baker. And even after some struggle to find the right words in the right order, she finds her interlocutor switches to English for her sake. “Don’t worry, it’s quicker that way.” Years of preparation, grammar worksheets, vocab cards, and role playing have left her unprepared for the real world application of the skills she so diligently worked on.

This short anecdote rooted in the experiences and stories of many former students is a stark reminder of the gap that exists between classroom language learning and real-world language use. In this article, we will explore the use of authentic materials and realia in the L2 (Second Language) classroom. We will make a case for the use of authentic resources as valuable assets for not only preparing students, but for instilling an interest and curiosity for new cultures and perspectives. We will explore barriers to adopting those resources, and give actionable advice and best practices for helping teachers bring real-world language into the classroom. Whether you are new to the concept of authentic resources, or you are looking for inspiration and advice to enhance your current practices, this article aims to provide you with help in selecting appropriate realia, and scaffolding them for the classroom.

Authentic Materials are artifacts we incorporate into our lessons that are not designed for learners, but for native speakers. Traditionally, those have been food menus, newspaper articles, tv commercials, or other products of the target language and culture. As teachers, we tend to shy away from such materials. We may deem them too difficult for our students to understand, we may think that students would not catch the cultural nuances, or maybe we want to incorporate authentic materials, but we can’t justify the time commitment it takes to prepare them. But if you ask any successful L2 learner, they will confirm that learning a new language is always going to be confusing, you will miss cultural nuances, and that it may get frustrating. As learners we rise in proficiency, we struggle to keep the growing repertoire of skills, vocab, grammar rules, and mnemonic nursery rhymes about irregular verbs in one brain. Struggle is baked into language learning, and shielding our students too much will do them a disservice when they get a chance to order that cup of coffee and pastry from the bakery they followed on Instagram, sitting in their language class, multiple years ago.

Using materials designed for native speakers, offers students exposure to real-life language in real-life context. Connecting one's acquisition of new skills, directly to an immediate benefit. At its best, including such materials opens our student’s eyes to a new world of cultural products. Exposing students to music, social media, or current events of your target language not only takes advantage of the passion of our students, but it offers a little window for consistent exposure. Exploring a new favorite artist or following a few social media accounts are opportunities for our students to get a bit more interaction with the target language outside of the classroom. These interactions can spark curiosity about cultural differences, and create opportunities to learn more about the target culture. Authentic resources also build confidence and agency in our students to pursue their own interest, through their growing skillset. Deliberately building an environment where students celebrate their success, no matter how small the win or how daunting the task, has to be fundamental to developing learners that are resilient and can withstand the pressure of constantly rising expectations in a world language class.

Best Practices for Authentic Materials

Our first barrier of entry is finding resources and materials that we would even consider. When assessing new material for use, consider these 4 components: 

1.) Is this resource authentic? Would a native speaker engage with this? 

2.) Is this resource appealing? - Will my students find this interesting and will it spark some curiosity or questions? 

3.) Is this resource aligned? Most authentic resources will offer a plethora of ways to highlight different grammatical components, giving you some freedom in this category. Nevertheless, consider how the content of your material adds to the cultural standards of your unit. 

4.) Is this material accessible? This is probably the most difficult question to answer about any text and we will go into more detail about scaffolding materials later, but for now, consider what the core message of the material is. What is the gap between the students’ proficiency level, and their ability to find the core message? What kind of questions can my students ask about the text in the target language?

Finding appropriate resources can be difficult and we may shy away from more challenging materials. What stands at the core of that apprehension, is the notion that our students should be gradually exposed to language. Designing and creating the language around them, so that students should be able to understand close to 100% of the language we are presenting to them. In reality, this seems contrary to the reality of acquiring a high level of proficiency in a new language and it creates the expectation in our students that they should understand everything they are given. If the language level of our class is “I”, we tend to expose our students to a level of “I +1”, but when entering the real world of native language, the level feels a lot more like “I+100”. The use of authentic materials has to be rooted in the idea that struggling is essential, even normal, and that understanding the message is more important than understanding each detail. That does not mean we ignore the details, but we focus on learning skills and techniques to help comprehension, while encouraging them to interact with the messenger, rather than with the message. We focus on techniques to identify the core sentence, find ways to ask for missing information, while developing an eye for context clues.

Exploring the target culture for materials

As a general rule of thumb, it is worth exploring the TV channels and broadcasters of your target language and culture. Deutsche Welle for German or TV5 Monde for French, have been producing language content for native speakers and language learners alike and offer a variety of audio, video, and text content. Those resources are usually a great way to get started with authentic materials and one can take inspiration in their worksheets and scaffolded content. That said, it is important to note that those are not necessarily always truly authentic, as they were produced and designed to be for language learners. We recommend exploring your own interest as inspiration. If you enjoy the music of your target language/culture, consider exploring lyrics and music videos. Videos especially offer another visual cue to the lyrics. Alternatively, explore tools like Lyrics Training that creates fill in the blank like games for popular songs and music videos. If you like to follow the news in the target language, consider sites like News In Slow or the actual news outlets of your target language. One of the best ways to find easily adaptable content, is to explore the social media outlets of broadcasters, or news media. Social media posts are, by design, to be short and relatively simple, which make great entries into truly authentic language. Success of those particular ideas is based on the idea that students will be able to learn to explore those resources independently. We want to encourage students to choose their articles to read, or the music to listen to, because it is their own interest that will feed intrinsic motivation.

The other component that is vital to the success of incorporating authentic materials, is the connection of the chosen material to an actual, real-world task. Students will find themselves reading the news, listening to music, or exploring literature, film, and TV on their own, if it falls into their interests. Consider exploring comic books from your target language, as they offer clear visuals and relatively simple and short texts. Grocery stores from your target language will offer weekly ads that can connect to an authentic task, or exploring the local transit of a city will usually give the option of downloading bus or train schedules.

Scaffolding and incorporating authentic materials

Even the most well intentioned YouTube clip showcasing your target language’s humor will fall on deaf student ears, if the preparation feels like a very long walk for a short glass of water. Offering glossaries and pre-readings are good strategies, but will wear down the curiosity and interest of our students if we spend too much time on it. If you are going to provide a vocab list or a glossary, begin teaching that vocab early and with enough lead time before presenting the authentic material. Additionally, we recommend to focus on adapting the task, rather than the text. Try to focus on a process or a progression that highlights the steps of finding the core sentence, or identifying cognates and context clues. Tools such as EdPuzzle, offer a great way to help guide students through such a process independently.

If you find yourself explaining each grammatical oddity and how it affects the sentence, we recommend taking a step back. Keep the students’ attention on the authentic task of discerning meaning first, rather than using your resource as a case study in syntax. Incorporating authentic materials lends itself to creating plausible and real-world tasks, so when engaging with a map for example, give students the task of planning a trip or a vacation. When working with a train schedule, offer arrival and departure times that would mimic a real-world scenario.

Authentic materials should stay in the realm of your student’s proficiency level, especially early on. We can create teachable moments from low text materials such as grocery ads or train schedules, and focus on developing strategies and techniques that will create resilience and confidence with difficult texts early. As proficiency increases, we scale the amount of text and the complexity. Another strategy to consider is to take advantage of collaboration and teamwork. Having students tackle a difficult text, such as lyrics, in small chunks and in groups, allows them to learn from their peers, and observe other approaches and strategies. Task students with asking questions about the text, and challenge them to ask for clarification in the target language.

Incorporating authentic materials in a language classroom is not only valuable in preparing students for real-world language use, but it also instills an interest and curiosity for new cultures and perspectives. While it may be difficult to find appropriate resources and scaffold them for the classroom, the benefits of using materials designed for native speakers far outweigh the challenges. As language instructors, we must create an environment where students celebrate their successes, no matter how small, and understand that struggling is an essential part of the language learning process. By connecting language acquisition to real-life tasks and encouraging students to pursue their own interests, we can build confidence and agency in our students to take control of their own learning. With the right balance of scaffolding and adaptation, authentic materials can provide a gateway for students to explore a new world of cultural products and achieve proficiency in their target language.

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