Authentic language materials are extremely diverse and they surround you. They are the brochures at the ticket counter, the signs on the bus, the intercom announcements at the train station and every other kind of language you encounter in daily life.
The truth is that, as much as we love using them in the classroom, it’s not always easy to find them. Scratch that—it’s not always easy to find the right materials for your students and their current language levels.
Imagine this scenario with beginner students:
Your students have been learning a foreign language for a few months now, mastering the in-class exercises, memorizing vocabulary and chatting with classmates. Their confidence is growing.
Then, one day, they are given a newspaper article to read in class. They can count the number of words they understand on one hand and, all of a sudden, the progress they still have left to make seems like an impassable abyss.
As teachers, we try to avoid taking that pin to our students’ balloons at all costs, which is why authentic materials are often first introduced when students are at an intermediate or advanced level. In an attempt to balance our curriculum on that fine line between motivational and challenging, we keep the joys of authentic materials at bay, at least for a little while.
This decision is understandable. Authentic content is designed for native speakers, not for language learners, so it naturally lends itself better to intermediate and advanced students.
However, authentic material is important for numerous reasons:
- Motivation: It aligns directly with most students’ ultimate goal of functioning in a new country where the foreign language is spoken. Many students count watching a full-on movie or reading a book in the foreign language among their learning goals. In this case, authentic materials help them achieve their language goals directly, and there is no better motivation than that.
- Relevance: The correct grammar rules, vocabulary words and sentence structures that students are taught often do not reflect the usage of the language by native speakers. Real-world content gives students an idea of how the language is really used.
- Fun: The real world is interesting and engaging. Using authentic materials gives students a break from book work and grammar exercises while introducing them to new themes, language lessons and cultural ideas.
The answer is a resounding “YES!”
The Blueprint for Simplifying Authentic Materials
Here are some general tips:
- Spend some time noting all of the authentic materials you encounter during a normal day—on the bus, in the movie theater, at work, etc.
- At the beginning, stick to materials with light text, like classified ads, movie listings or signs.
- If your students are ready, move on to short texts. Movie reviews are a good place to start.
- When you do transition to longer texts and articles, start with a focus, i.e. finding cognates or other patterns.
The 6 activities below are some of the best ways to approach authentic materials, but do not forget that you can always just stick to the good old read, understand, engage format initially:
1. Read the text as a class.
2. Review vocabulary.
3. Encourage students to utilize the language through role-plays, adapting texts, creating leaflets or any other proactive activity.
To get you started in the right direction, let’s take a look at 6 nicely adapted exercises that will let you introduce authentic materials into any classroom.
Teach Authenticity: 6 Adaptable Activities Using Authentic Foreign Language Materials
1. Research Like Scientists
This exercise is a triple threat: (1) It gets students working in a foreign language to achieve a goal, rather than focusing on the language directly, (2) it lets them interact with the real world and (3) it maintains their confidence, rather than diminishing it.
The assignment goes like this:
1. Split your class up into groups.
2. Give each group a computer or iPad and a research topic, which could include topics like The Silk Road, the Greek God Poseidon, JFK or Labor Day.
3. Groups have 15 minutes to research their topic on a site with simplified language material, usually directed towards children or young adults. Wikipedia Simple English and Vikidia (a similarly simplified Spanish encyclopedia) are good examples. The catch is that they are not allowed to write anything down.
4. At the end of the allotted time, each group will present what they have learned from memory, preventing them from just copying and dictating.
I know what you’re thinking: Something like Wikipedia Simple English is not really authentic, is it?
It is true that it is not intended for adult native speakers, but it is authentic. Its purpose is not to teach the language. It is first and foremost a research tool for those with limited knowledge of the language. This is true of most simplified language sites.
When presenting this activity to students, there is no need to highlight the fact that we are not using resources made for adults. I often do not even mention that we are using a website with simplified language, and instead I just bookmark the page on the class computers beforehand. Students will probably notice the header once they click the link and get started, but by then the clock will be ticking and they won’t have time to dwell on it.
The beauty of this exercise is that they are fully functioning in a foreign language to achieve a goal seemingly unrelated to language learning: Researching a topic of interest. Language learning, though ultimately the main goal, becomes an intentional side effect.
To spice things up and get some friendly competition going, introduce a “Jeopardy” round:
1. Give groups 10 minutes to research a topic. This time they will all have the same topic.
2. When the time is up, they will turn off their devices and you will ask them questions based off of the information provided on the website.
3. The first group to raise their hands gets to answer, and if they’re correct they get a point.
You can play as many rounds as you want and end with a Final Jeopardy round. In the Final Jeopardy round, all groups get the same question, but before hearing it they have to bet a certain amount of their accumulated points. Then they all have 60 seconds to answer the question by writing it down silently on a piece of paper. If they do so correctly, the amount of points they wagered will double. If not, they will lose that wagered amount.
Students have now progressed from studying the language to working in the language, and conducting real, bite-sized research projects.
2. Write Like Journalists
Reading newspaper articles in class might be the most loved and hated language learning activity—loved because students know that this text is the real deal, and hated because it is bound to be tougher than the language in their exercise books.
Normally the exercise involves passing out newspaper articles to students and working through the text with them. This task is challenging even for advanced learners and could leave beginners completely deflated and frustrated.
Does this mean that we need to deprive them of the newspaper experience completely? Nope. Here are 4 beginner-friendly speaking exercises that let students work with newspapers:
1. Split students into pairs.
2. Give newspaper to student A.
3. Hand slips of paper with the photo captions from the newspaper to student B.
4. Student A describes the photos without revealing them, and student B tries to match the correct caption to its corresponding photo.
5. Afterwards, encourage them to write their own alternative captions.
1. Read off some headlines and let students guess what the article is about.
2. Have two students come up and choose a headline to act out in a role-play.
3. The audience has to guess which headline they have chosen.
Movie Times Role-play:
1. Split students up into pairs again.
2. Student A pretends to be a movie theater employee and student B is a customer.
3. Student B “calls” student A to ask about movies and movie times.
4. Student A uses the real movie listing in the newspaper to answer his or her questions.
Classified Ad Inquiries:
1. Read through the classified ads together as a class and review vocabulary.
2. Split students up into pairs.
3. Role-play and have one student “call” and ask the other student, “the seller,” questions about the car/dog/etc. for sale.
4. Have students write their own ads.
Try using a local newspaper in the foreign language, like one of the free ones you might find at the grocery store or bus stop. The content tends to be more approachable and less focused on more complicated themes like macroeconomics that are often found in international media.
If you are going paperless and looking for online news outlets try the BBC. It is not local but still very user friendly due to its modular homepage layout with clear headings and subheadings. Plus, it is available in a diverse array of languages! The language is arguably more straightforward than in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.
What do all of these speaking exercises have in common? They let students work with real news articles without asking them to read very complicated texts.
The specific, focused tasks keep them from getting overwhelmed but still bring the real world into the classroom.
3. Advertise Like PR Mavens
Authentic classroom materials do not always have to be as serious as newspapers and research projects. Advertisements can also be great learning materials that do not require heavy reading.
Start by flipping through magazines and ripping out about 10 advertisements that include some text—idioms and catchphrases are a plus.
As a fun introduction to the exercise you can cover up the text and ask students to guess what the image is advertising. Then reveal the text and use the advertisements to facilitate a class discussion, starting with what they understand the slogan to mean. How does it relate to the image? What is the underlying message?
Broaden the topic and ask students if this is an advertisement they would see in their home countries. In multicultural classes this can lead to some particularly interesting conversations.
Next, have students split up into groups of two to four and make their own advertisements for any object they have in class with them.
You’ll need about 30 minutes minimum for this exercise, though an hour is ideal depending on how lively your class discussion gets.
Add a twist:
- Expand the assignment into a larger lesson on idioms or commands. For example, have students redo their advertisements using their newly learned polite commands.
- Instead of finding the advertisements yourself, add an accompanying homework assignment and ask students to find and bring in their own advertisements to class that day.
Consider saving this for the end of the lesson when students tend to get lethargic. Nothing counters drowsiness like a lively discussion and the opportunity for them to get their creative juices flowing.
A bonus of this exercise is that when students leave the classroom they’ll be hyper-aware of the advertisements around them, making them more determined to understand the messages that are being depicted.
4. Buy Tickets Like Globetrotters
If your students do not live in a foreign country already, chances are they plan (or hope) to visit one in the future.
Students love learning skills that they consider useful. The key word here is “consider.” All of the exercises we give them are useful in some way, but students can’t always see the immediate value.
This next exercise leaves no room for ambiguity. They will learn how to buy tickets, a concrete skill that they will eventually need.
2. Ask students to point out any words that are unfamiliar.
3. Through role-play, have students practice ordering tickets over the “phone” or at the counter using their new vocabulary.
If you can, bring in a real train ticket and ask students to tell you the time, platform and any other logistical facts.
A ticket or a ticketing website are examples of extremely authentic content that are simple and concise. They do not require students to digest any complex rhetoric and they accomplish our purpose: Encouraging language learning by engaging with real-world materials.
The main benefit of this lesson—learning how to buy tickets—will be obvious and valuable to students.
5. Skim Like Editors
Eventually your class will be reading the infamous full-length article. When this time comes, you’ll want to introduce the article in a way that is motivating and not discouraging.
Here’s one way to do this:
1. Give students a lengthy article. I like taking offbeat, fun articles from BBC Culture or BBC Travel, like this one on the well-known movie “Toy Story.” It might be tempting to use one of the quirky future articles on health or technology, but the language is often too niche.
2. Have students scan the article for cognates and write them down. If they have a printed version, they can underline the words. Either way, always have them write down the words. It is slightly more active than just underlining them.
3. Go through their lists as a class and ask students to explain the meanings of these words to each other.
Yes, this is an extremely simple activity, but there is nothing wrong with simple. In this assignment they are learning commonly used vocabulary, specifically false friends, without having to understand the entire text.
By giving them a specific focus you are letting them work with authentic material, which assures them that the vocabulary is used by native speakers, without letting them get overwhelmed by the complexity of the content.
6. Promote Like Party Planners
Here’s another simple exercise that lets students use their creativity, so think about saving it for late afternoon when your students have gone into zombie mode.
1. Bring in some leaflets from a local community center or tourist office. You can even bring in those leaflets that promoters leave under your windshield wipers in the parking lot, assuming you can find any that are PG.
2. Have students ask each other questions about the event, like “What time does it start?” or “Will there be food?”
3. After making sure that the vocabulary is clear to everyone, collect the leaflets and ask students to work with partners to create their own for a real or imaginary upcoming event.
Throw in a chocolate bar as a prize for the best leaflet to keep the mood from getting lackadaisical. Students can vote for their favorite and are not allowed to vote for their own group.
You can easily incorporate this exercise in a lesson on formal vs. informal language. One way to do this is to have them convert the leaflet into an invitation that will be sent to the president.
And there you have it—6 tested and effective exercises that you can bring into any language classroom. But don’t stop here. Let the authentic materials around you inspire you to develop some of your own assignments.
It sounds simple…because it is! Simple is okay.
If the authentic materials are interesting and relevant, they will pique your students’ interest and do much of the work for you.
Now you are ready to introduce any level students to the real world and watch the magic happen.
Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here: www.aFarCorner.com
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach languages with real-world videos.