Your Recipe to Using Authentic Materials for Reading Effectively in the Language Classroom

A delicious meal or a foreign book.

Which of those two would your language students choose?

Reading in a foreign language isn’t easy for students, and it’s usually not something they’ll do in their free time.

And yeah, we know free meals are hard to pass up.

But what if there were a way you could make reading as appetizing as a home-cooked meal?

We have the recipe just for you: the actual recipe.

Yes, I’m talking about that piece of paper with the ingredient list and cooking instructions—it can go a long way.

But it doesn’t stop there. We need to bring authentic materials into our classes to see huge reading improvements. We’re talking receipts, letters and business cards. Boat schedules, magazines and phone books.

No matter how your students hope to use their foreign language in the future—to travel, to understand their favorite music, or even to become a spy—they’re going to need to know how to read. And authentic reading materials are the best way to help your students attain a high level of reading proficiency.

These materials will transform your classroom into a place your students want to be, so let’s get started!

What Are Authentic Materials for Reading?

Authentic reading materials come in many forms, and before you pick up that hefty Cervantes, you’ll have to start with smaller texts.

  • Academic types: newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, editorials and opinion pieces, essays, papers, textbooks, reference materials
  • Job-related types: business cards, letters, messages, emails, memos, reports, schedules, financial documents, directories
  • Personal types: blogs, personal letters, personal emails, invitations, greeting cards, bus/train/boat schedules, menus, posters, recipes, advertisements, cartoons, works of literature

And don’t forget videos! While videos are authentic listening material, what if you provide subtitles or a script? Then the videos become authentic reading material, and your students can work on two skills at once.

In short, any type of realia with writing is authentic reading material!

Why Use Authentic Materials for Reading?

Not all words or grammatical constructions can be introduced at once in a foreign language; authentic reading materials give your students exposure to new words and constructions that they might otherwise not see for some time.

Reading authentic texts also gives your students exposure to the target-language culture. There will be references that only a native speaker would readily understand from a lifetime of experiences. You can introduce such concepts to your students through authentic materials.

Do your students want to study abroad? If so, they need to know what’s happening in that locale both for their own safety and to more fully understand the place. One way to do this is to read newspaper and magazine articles to keep up on current events.

Students need motivation to get through the tough times. An incredible way to increase motivation is to show your students they can understand authentic reading materials, even if they don’t get every single word.

Well-chosen authentic reading materials provide meaningful content that is relevant; it connects with your students because it relates to their lives in a way that allows them to think both about the material and themselves.

What About Near-authentic Materials for Reading?

What about near-authentic materials, such as those found in language textbooks? There are some who think that all such materials should be avoided, but nothing is further from the truth. Don’t throw away that textbook! These materials still provide valuable learning and teaching opportunities.

Most often criticized are textbook dialogues, relevant here in their written form, or stories that continue chapter by chapter. In a well-written textbook, they serve a valuable purpose: They provide motivation for your students to continue their studies to find out how the stories conclude, while allowing you—the instructor—to hone in on specific vocabulary and grammatical constructions in a clearly written environment.

Messy language—as seen in some authentic materials—can serve a valuable purpose, but so does sanitized language. And the latter can be compared to the former occasionally, so that students can learn what they need to do in order to write like an educated native speaker.

Do you want your students to read literature? You can’t assign Murakami right away! This is where readers or simplified forms of literature are perfect. They are often edited by native speakers so they’re authentic, but there’s an even more important advantage. Once your students know they can handle these works from an early stage, that feeling increases their motivation and encourages them to persevere until they can read that longer original text.

Plus, as with the textbook dialogs and stories, these simplified forms allow you to focus on specific vocabulary and grammatical constructions, building a scaffold through which your students can attain higher and higher levels of reading proficiency. After all, if you’re a native English speaker who grew up in North America, you might have started off reading “Dick and Jane,” or other similar books with simple, straightforward language that helped you grow as a reader. It’s okay to take the same approach with your students. It will pay off in the end!

4 Stages for Effective Use of Authentic Materials for Reading

You’ve found the perfect authentic reading material for your students. Now you need a strategy for using it effectively.

1. Pre-reading stage

You remember the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We prejudge all the time, but in the language classroom, it’s the perfect way to start a reading activity! A pre-reading activity is thinking about what is to come.

Let’s say you’re going to ask your students to read some business cards or a series of job ads. In both cases, your students are likely familiar with what these would look like in their language.

Let’s start with a brainstorming session. In pairs or small groups, ask your students to make a list of what they would expect to find in these documents. This will get their brains thinking about what they are going see, even if they’re not designed exactly as expected.

Once your students have a list of expectations, let the groups share so you will have a list of elements in common before you move on to the next part of the activity: looking at the actual material.

2. Scanning/skimming stage

Scanning is reading through the text to get specific information in answer to a series of questions.

Scanning activities can be used with any of the materials with which your students brainstormed in the pre-reading stage: Where do the card holders work? What jobs are being advertised? Your students don’t need to understand every word of the text you have given them in order to answer these questions; they don’t have to understand every word of a text to get the key points.

Skimming is rapidly reading through a text to get the gist of what is going on: What kind of text is it? What kind of writing does it represent? What is the main idea? Why was the text written? What will you learn from the text?

Let’s look at a different type of text for skimming activities. Give your students a letter, but don’t tell them what kind of letter it is. Is it a business letter? A personal letter? A love note? A job application? A formal complaint? A request for information?

Give them only a minute to look at it.

In that time they need to skim through the letter—reading quickly—to determine:

1) What kind of letter it is
2) Why the letter was written
3) What they expect to learn from a closer reading of the letter

For example, if the letter is a job application, then the answers would be (1) job application, (2) to apply for [specific job] and (3) to learn the applicant’s qualifications for the job.

If it’s a personal letter, then the answers might be (1) personal letter, (2) to ask mom and dad for money and (3) to learn the reasons why the author needs money.

With such a short amount of time, your students might not be able to answer question (3), which at this stage is okay, but they should have enough information about (1) and (2) so they can have a brainstorming session to make a list of possible answers to (3).

3. Intensive reading stage

This is the stage, sometimes referred to as decoding, when your students are learning to read. What are the hardest obstacles to overcome? Usually vocabulary, sentence structure and the relationship of one sentence to another through conjunctions, subordinate/relative clauses or language-specific written constructions, such as Russian-language participles (verbal adjectives) or gerunds (verbal adverbs).

For the students who have limited knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure, suddenly being given an authentic text that exceeds these limits can be intimidating. Pre-reading, scanning and skimming will all help, but to get to true comprehension, we need to give our students strategies for dealing with what they don’t know.

Let’s say that, alongside a traditional language class, you want your students to read a short novel. The vocabulary likely won’t match up with what they are learning, and they’ll certainly encounter new constructions and longer sentences than what they write. Scary at first glance! But we can help them gain skills to read longer works.

What about those long sentences? Nearly all sentences, no matter how long, have similar elements: a subject, a verb, maybe a direct object. Look for those elements and put them in order. Then start lining up prepositional phrases. What about subordinate clauses? Or relative clauses? Do the same for those. Take them apart, reorder their elements, and then make them fit with the main clause. While the first few sentences may take a while to work through, over time this will become natural, as students look for the key elements, reorder them, all in their mind.

What about those language-specific constructions? Sometimes those just have to be overtly taught in the native language, rather than in the target language. They’ll also need to be practiced outside of a reading text so that your students will know what to do when they encounter such language-specific constructions. There’s just no way around it.

What about all that vocabulary? It’s frustrating when you have to look up every word—by the time you get to the last word in the sentence, you’ve forgotten how the sentence started, and you have to go back to the beginning. That certainly isn’t an option, as it will quickly destroy any enthusiasm your students have for reading! But here are three tips that will help relieve frustration and give your students the power to wade through those words.

  • Make a vocab sheet for difficult terms. Define some of the tougher words on a vocabulary sheet or as a glossary, but only give it to them once. They are now responsible for knowing those words.
  • Teach students to look at word parts. By the time your students are reading a short novel, they are familiar with the basics of word structure: prefix, root, suffix, ending. Maybe they don’t understand a word, but teach them to look for a root in the middle of it; they know that root. They know what the prefix means, the suffix might tell you the part of speech, and the ending tells you the case for those languages that are inflected. At this point your students can make a logical guess. Will they always be right? Possibly not, as there are always exceptions, but this is an important strategy for guessing.
  • Write questions that also help with vocab. Write out questions your students should be able to answer as they read the text. Shouldn’t this be in the comprehension stage? It should, and it is, but it is also a good way to help your students determine word meanings. How? Consider this: There is a sentence with an unknown word in it, one that would be difficult to guess. Write a question that steers them toward this sentence, but replace the unknown word with a word they know. This will allow them to guess the meaning of the unknown word! It won’t be exact—otherwise why would there be another word with the “same” meaning—but it allows them to work out a meaning for themselves and increases their vocabulary. As time goes on, they will learn the differences in shades of meaning, and for now they’ll be encouraged that they were able to figure out a word’s meaning for themselves!

At this point will your students have understood every word? Perhaps not, but by systematically moving your students through this stage and giving them concrete strategies for working out what they don’t know, they will be well on their way!

Does this sound like a lot of work? You bet it is—both for you and for your students—but the payoff will be that they have read an entire novel by the end of your class. And maybe that’s what brought them to you in the first place: a desire to read. You’ll have given them tools to do exactly that, and you’ll have created a life-long reader in a second language!

4. Comprehension stage

In the final stage, we want to see if our students have understood the text, not just the gist, but the meat of it as well. How can we check for comprehension? Here are four ideas we can use in that class reading the short novel:

  • Give your students some questions to answer. These help them keep key events in the story in mind in the order in which they happened.
  • Give your students the opportunity to write questions. You’ll be surprised by how deeply your students try to understand the text when they want to write questions that no one else can answer! A little competition gives added incentive to comprehend the text.
  • Ask your students to present the story structure. Who are the main characters? Who’s good? Bad? Where does the story take place? What is the main problem? What is the resolution? This requires them to gather information from different parts of the text and bring them together.
  • Ask your students to retell or summarize the story in their own words. Take the three previous elements and combine them in written paragraph-length form. Do you want to make this a spoken activity instead of a written activity? Then tell your students that as part of the final oral exam they will have to narrate the story for you.

How to Transfer the Use of Authentic Reading Materials to Meaningful Writing Assignments

You’ve had a great class, your students have successfully worked through a text, and now you need to assign homework. What could be better than to design a writing assignment that follows up on your reading activity and gives your students the opportunity to create their own authentic materials? Such assignments can take a variety of forms.

Imitative writing assignments

Imitative writing assignments are where you ask your students to create the very type of document they just read. This is the perfect assignment for students who are just beginning to learn the mechanics of writing because you are concentrating on specific forms.

Did you examine business cards in class? Have your students design their own business card. Did you look at job ads? Have your students compose their own.

The important thing to remember with this assignment is that whatever the students are asked to write should be in the same form as that found in the target language, not in the native language. Thus, a business card should look like a business card from the target language’s country, where the last name might be listed first and in all capital letters, for example.

Controlled writing assignments

Controlled writing assignments are where you ask your students to use specific vocabulary and grammatical structures in the course of a longer assignment, with an emphasis on sentence-length discourse.

Are you working on a unit about literature? Music? Art? If so, you likely had your students read some mini-biographies. You can’t read about everyone, and your students have likely heard of other famous people. Why not turn this into a writing assignment?

Odds are that each of the biographies your students read answer the same questions: when and where the person was born and died, where the person grew up, their education, where he or she worked, etc. Make a list of 8-10 questions that a good biography should include. Then ask your students to “interview” a famous person from the target language country or culture. As much as teachers shy away from Wikipedia, it’s appropriate here. More adventurous students might actually dive into the target language site!

For their interview, each student needs to write out the questions and then the answers, thus practicing specific vocabulary and grammatical structures while learning more about the target culture. Do you want to go further with this assignment? Have your students turn in their interview for you to check and offer feedback; then have them take their interview and write a paragraph-length report about their famous person. This will help your students get to the next stage: writing paragraph-length discourse.

Responsive writing assignments

Responsive writing assignments respond to a piece of authentic reading. Here your students begin to have more freedom, as there is less emphasis on form and more on content and meaning.

Remember that job ad you asked your students to read? Now they can go home and apply for that job! In this assignment they are taking the information contained in the ad and writing a letter in response. It doesn’t matter in this assignment if your students answer truthfully or not—they can pretend to be that rarest of entities: the 100% perfect job candidate!

The important thing here is that they write a letter appropriate to the ad they read in class. This is a particularly useful assignment if you have students who will be going abroad and wish to apply for internships or jobs while there. They will already be a step ahead of the competition because you provided them the opportunity to gain this valuable skill in your class!

Extensive writing assignments

Extensive writing assignments are for your advanced students, as they will be using their own lexicon and personal style to focus on developing, organizing and providing evidence and support for their own ideas/specific point of view.

These writing assignments are most likely to go through an extensive editing and re-writing process. Assignments could range in length from an op-ed written in response to an article that you read and discussed, to a research report developed over several weeks, to a capstone thesis researched over the course of a year.

I hope you find these tips useful. If you have any ideas from your own experience or suggestions for additional activities, I would love to hear about them!

Jonathan Ludwig has 25 years of foreign language teaching experience. He has successfully directed language programs, taught and mentored current and future teachers, and is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage and educate his students.

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