Thoughts on the Use of Authentic Materials

Copyright © 2002 by Ashley Hastings and Brenda Murphy. All rights reserved.

The value of authentic materials

Authentic materials that could potentially be used in second language classes are everywhere: books, newspapers, magazines, videos, etc. Their abundance is one of their most attractive features. While a small bookshelf can probably hold all of the textbooks that a typical teacher could find for a given course, an ordinary school library could not begin to find room for all of the authentic materials that might be used.

Furthermore, most of the materials that ordinary people seek for entertainment and enlightenment are authentic. People enjoy authentic materials and eagerly devote hours of their time to reading or viewing them. They provide a depth of interest and a breadth of variety that cannot be found in even the most outstanding textbook series.

The value of authentic materials in second language teaching is beyond question. However, we cannot just pull them off the shelf on the way to class and expect them to magically create wonderful lessons.

Plans are needed

If we have no plan for using authentic materials, we are likely to waste time and create an impression of aimlessness. We must have clear, deliberate goals in mind, and specific plans for reaching those goals. We must structure class time in ways that make sense. It would be very unsound to simply show a movie or hand out a story to read, without doing anything with the material. As teachers, it is our job to add value to the materials in some way. If we fail to do so, our students and our supervisors will justly conclude that we are not living up to our responsibilities, but instead are using the materials as entertainment. We may be accused of "baby-sitting" instead of teaching.

Plans, therefore, are essential. However, this does not necessarily mean that elaborate, detailed lesson plans are required in order to use authentic materials.

Elaborate plans may be counterproductive

If we insist on creating or finding elaborate lesson plans for using authentic materials, there are at least two potentially serious drawbacks. First, we may not be able to make much use of authentic materials, since prepared pedagogical activities to accompany them are scarce and take a lot of time to create. As Larimer and Schleicher (1999) note, "one of the major barriers to [using authentic materials] is the scarcity of authentic materials that have been analyzed for pedagogical purposes." (p. vi). Indeed, the major goal of their book is to furnish examples of activities that can be used with various kinds of authentic materials; many of these activities require worksheets, study sheets, handouts, illustrations, etc., all of which demand preparation. While the contents of this book are valuable and welcome, they do not reduce the amount of time and effort needed to produce new activities for new authentic materials. There is, after all, a reason why mass-produced textbooks and workbooks are popular: they save time and labor. Many teachers, faced with the task of developing activities for authentic materials, may simply decide not to use them.

Second, even if we can find or develop the pedagogical materials, we run the risk of nullifying the spontaneity, interest, and authenticity that attracted us to these materials in the first place. We should bear in mind that when real people use authentic materials in real life, they do not do "activities" or fill out worksheets. How many people would go to movies or read popular novels if they had to "write examples of words you missed in your dictation" (Larimer and Schleicher 1999, p. 11) or "skim the article and answer the following questions" (p. 54)? This is not to challenge the potential pedagogical usefulness of such activities; the point rather is that authentic materials, by their very nature, were not designed to be used in these ways. Many students (and teachers, for that matter) may tend to view the activities as the focus of the lesson, with the authentic materials themselves serving as mere pedagogical accessories that have no intrinsic value or interest of their own. At this point, they become functionally indistinguishable from traditional, inauthentic textbook materials.

Excessively elaborate lesson plans and activities for authentic materials may therefore detract from their authenticity or even discourage us from using them at all. A different approach is needed.

Authentic activities for authentic materials.

What is needed is a set of pedagogical techniques that will enable teachers to make effective, structured, purposeful use of authentic materials, but that do not require elaborate preparations. Such techniques should involve activities that blend naturally and seamlessly with the authentic materials themselves, enhancing and highlighting the materials rather than analyzing and manipulating them. These techniques should be informed by our knowledge of language acquisition processes and principles, and should be based on pedagogical skills that teachers can develop and apply effectively within the the time and energy constraints of the actual classroom environment. As a rule of thumb, we would suggest that "authentic activities" (that is, activities that resemble the kinds of things people normally do with authentic materials) may often bring us closer to the kinds of pedagogical techniques that we have in mind.

Below, we give two examples of lesson plans that involve elaborate, relatively inauthentic activities to accompany authentic materials. In both cases, we suggest alternative lesson plans using more authentic activities. Both examples are taken from Larimer and Schleicher (1999).

Example 1: Video.

On pages 34-36, Larimer and Schleicher present an authentic video lesson plan by Eve Connell. Here is a summary of the recommended procedure:

  • teacher finds the Seinfeld episode "Kiss Hello" (or a similar episode) and selects 6 or 7 very short clips showing greetings
  • teacher prepares a worksheet with a vocabulary list and questions
  • class discusses greeting customs in various countries
  • class brainstorms a list; teacher puts in on the board
  • teacher plays video clips with sound off
  • students do the handout
  • students share ideas
  • teacher plays clips again with sound on, repeating as much as the class wants
  • students check their own worksheets
  • class discusses and summarizes what they have seen
This is intended to take one hour of class time and requires about one hour of preparation by the teacher.

Such a lesson might work very well. However, it is remarkable that the amount of authentic video the class actually sees and hears is very small in comparison with the amount of time that is spent on the elaborate activities prepared by the teacher. Six or seven brief clips of greetings might amount to only 30 seconds or so of video, which accounts for only 1 percent of the class time. This almost looks like a plan for using as little authentic material as possible!

A more authentic video lesson plan. Instead of extracting tiny segments, why not show the entire episode? This would take full advantage of the story line and embed the greetings in a meaningful context, making their significance easier to understand. If the students are at a relatively low level, the teacher can pause frequently to narrate and paraphrase, using the FOCAL SKILLS Movie Technique (Hastings 1997), providing a lot of highly contextualized comprehensible input. If the students can understand the dialogue without much help, the focus of the class discussion can be on the personalities of the characters and the cultural implications of their interactions, including but not limited to greetings.

This way of using the video episode would present perhaps 20 minutes of authentic material (assuming commercials are skipped), provide much richer comprehensible input, and involve more authentic activities than Connell's plan. The teacher preparation time would be about the same, or perhaps even less, since it would require little more than a thorough preview of the episode.

Example 2: Newspaper articles.

Larimer and Schleicher (pp. 52-54) present another contribution by Eve Connell -- a lesson plan for using a newpaper article. The procedure outlined includes:

  • teacher finds an interesting article
  • teacher prepares a vocabulary list and a worksheet with questions
  • students read the article
  • students do the worksheet
  • students write a summary
  • students discuss worksheets and summaries
  • students discuss the ideas in the article
  • teacher lists the ideas on the board
The estimated class time is 45 minutes to an hour, and the preparation time is 20 minutes.

All of these activities are reasonable and worthwhile. Notice, though, that only one piece of authentic material (in this case, an article containing no more than 300 words) is encountered during what amounts to an hour of class.

A more authentic newspaper lesson plan. Suppose the teacher were to spend 20 minutes finding several interesting articles from the newspaper, with no vocabulary list or worksheet. Each article could be read aloud by the teacher during class, with the students following along in their copies. This would give them excellent input with normal intonation and pronunciation of unfamiliar words and names. The students could then ask questions about any words or phrases that puzzled them. The teacher could lead a class discussion of the content of the article, following up on whatever points were of particular interest to the students.

These activities would be more authentic and spontaneous than most of Connell's lesson plan. They are more learner-centered, because the students themselves select the vocabulary and ideas to be addressed. Furthermore, by skipping the worksheets and related activities, it is likely that the teacher could present several articles in an hour-long class, exposing the students to as many as a thousand words of authentic material rather than the 300 that Connell's plan calls for. All of this would require about the same teacher preparation time (20 minutes or so).

Taking authenticity seriously

We appreciate the skill and professionalism of all the lesson plans in Larimer and Schleicher (1999), and we consider them to be a great step forward in the use of authentic materials. Nevertheless, we detect in some of them a reluctance to trust the materials -- an unwillingness to "let go" and allow full contact between the students and the language. When authentic materials are sliced, diced, and doled out in small doses to be washed down by worksheets and lists, it seems to us that the materials are compromised and their potential is diluted. If the strengths of authentic materials are their interest, variety, spontaneity, and abundance, then we would urge all language teachers to develop ways to bring these strengths more fully into the classroom. We believe that this will require teachers to overcome the tendency to analyze, predigest, and supplement the materials (treating them, in effect, as if they were intrinsically boring, obscure, and scarce) and instead to focus on the materials themselves. Our own use of authentic materials has convinced us that this approach is not only possible, but extremely rewarding.


Hastings, A. 1997. Movies and listening comprehension in FOCAL SKILLS programs. Unpublished ms [now available as] 

Larimer, R. E., and L. Schleicher (eds). 1999. New ways in using authentic materials in the classroom. Alexandria, Virginia: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.