Silk or polyester?
Hamburgers or tofu?
Caffeinated or decaf?
There may be some room for debate when discussing certain items and their not-so-authentic counterparts. In the matter of the ESL classroom there is no room for debate: Authentic is always best.
What Are Authentic Materials?
Authentic materials are materials that have been created for native speakers and are used as teaching tools in the ESL classroom. It is important to note that ESL considerations were not made as the materials were being created. This could include texts like books, directions, newspaper articles or recipes. It could also include videos or music. Really, any source of language designed for the native speaker could be considered an authentic material.
Let’s say we are focusing on following directions. To use an example from above—we choose to learn how to make coffee. If we use authentic materials with our students we would use the actual manual, written in English, that came with the coffee maker.
We would use a can of good ol’ American coffee with the directions printed on the canister. We could even pour our coffee into mugs printed with catchy idioms. You know the type:”Hang in there” or “Friday is just around the corner!” All of these items could be considered authentic materials.
Why Use Authentic Materials for ESL Class?
Authentic materials can be a very motivating teaching tool. When using authentic materials, the learner is actually using them for a real reason. These are not manufactured worksheets, which can sometimes be irrelevant in nature. The learner feels motivation to understand the material because there will be a pay-off in the end, like a fresh cup of coffee. Authentic materials help make communication real.
Authentic materials are also useful because they give the learner an unadulterated glimpse at the language. These materials are made for native speakers, usually by native speakers for the sole purpose of communicating some sort of information. They aren’t carefully fabricated texts, with measured proportions of all things grammatical. Authentic materials illustrate the way real people communicate.
Below are three theme lessons which all use a variety of authentic materials. These can be delivered over the course of several days or even weeks depending on the level of your learners and the style of your classroom.
3 Epic Themed Lessons for Your ESL Class Using Brilliant Authentic Materials
1. Birthday Party
A birthday party is something almost everyone is familiar with, and it’s a great way to incorporate some novel, authentic materials into the classroom. It’s also a fun activity that can be executed on-site, with no need for costly field trip arrangements.
The party can either be planned for a fictitious individual, a student or maybe someone special to the class (another teacher, administrator, etc.).
Like all parties, you start with the invitations. There are tons of online resources for creating invitations. Researching, selecting and creating the invitations will expose students to all sorts of language. Once they’ve been created, they can be labeled or addressed, another authentic use of language.
Next come the recipes. Again, there is a wealth of online recipe sites, but it’s also good to bring in real cookbooks. This familiarizes students with the components of a book, like the table of contents and the index.
Talk about motivation! Is there anything more motivating than cake?
Birthday decorations offer another authentic material. We’ve already talked a little bit about the “amusing” idioms of coffee mugs. Such amusing phrases (like these) are also available on birthday party decorations. These are an excellent opportunity to explore the English language at its wackiest: “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s Forty!,” “Over the Hill” and “Aged to Perfection” are just a few examples.
Once the party is in full swing, there are even more opportunities to use authentic materials. The ever-popular “Happy Birthday to You” is a staple in the English language. Don’t stop the party there—music is a lively way to examine syntax and phonological awareness. Board games and card games can also be fun ways to engage in the authentic use of language.
2. A Trip to the Zoo
If you have the resources, it can be exciting to venture off-campus for a little authentic adventure. The zoo is typically a pretty accessible field trip that offers many opportunities in the realm of authentic materials.
It can be useful for students to help schedule the trip. Calendars can be used to determine the best dates for the trip. It is also necessary to check with the zoo to see what openings they might have available. This is an opportunity to introduce a phone book. If you’re checking it out outline, of course, search engines and websites are great resources.
Once you’ve got your trip set up, it’s time to break out the maps. City maps can be used to plan routes to the zoo. It would also be helpful to access a map of the zoo prior to the trip. This would be especially helpful for newer learners. Zoo maps are usually fairly simple to navigate, making them ideal for an introductory lesson on map reading.
You’ve arrived at the zoo. It’s time to secure tickets. Often times, you don’t have to worry about monetary exchanges for tickets on field trips, but it could be an interesting lesson before you go. Helping your students to use money in exchange for tickets is another manner in which to apply authentic materials.
Signs are a highly accessible form of authentic communication. They are everywhere, and the zoo is no exception. Signs for the bathroom, signs for the tram, signs for the aquarium, signs for ape house—you literally cannot look anywhere at the zoo without language in your face. Once more, signs can be great for new learners because the language is minimal and direct.
3. Let’s Go to the Movies
Planning a “movie night” (or day) is another inexpensive and interesting approach to integrating authentic materials into the classroom.
When I was in college I was enrolled in a French IV class. One day we got to watch a “movie.” This movie was clearly created for the purpose of educating a non-native French speaker on the ways of the language. This was thinly veiled in a plot about Jacques and his tennis injury. Everybody spoke so slowly and put emphasis on the pronunciation of body parts. Though I did feel bad for Jacques and his bothersome coude (elbow), we were all bored to tears and maybe a little insulted.
If you are going to show a movie in class, make it an interesting, real movie, preferably one made in this decade. Judging from Jacques’s attire, that cinematic masterpiece was created sometime in the late-seventies.
Let students vote on which movie to watch. Give your students the opportunity to read articles reviewing various movies before making a choice. This is an excellent way to authentically use magazines and other sources of review.
Check local movie show times. Much like the zoo trip, you can schedule your movie day together using a calendar. Even though you most likely won’t be going off-campus, you could also grab a local newspaper to assess an actual movie schedule and how it might be used.
Visit theater websites. It could also be interesting to check out all of the available features on movie theater websites. An authentic lesson could be designed around calculating ticket and concession prices for varying groups of students.
Your culminating activity is, of course, your movie. As we’ve already discussed, the film should be fun and interesting. The movie itself should be all the incentive your students need to make an effort at comprehending the language.
Really, Truly, Genuinely Authentic
There will always be value in using instructional materials designed specifically to teach language, but keep an open mind. These authentic lessons, and many more, can be just the catalyst your students might need to open them up to learning the English language.
Jackie Hostetler has worked in the field of education for 14 years, earning her ESOL Masters in 2010. Her passions include early childhood education and language acquisition in our youngest learners. She is the director of an early learning center and the mother of two of her own little learners.