On Saturday, 16th June from 13.30 to 14.15, I will be doing a workshop at the IATEFL BESIG Summer Symposium: Authentic Learning Materials is the title. I´ve been working with authentic materials and working on strategies to maximise their potential in my English for Professional Purposes courses for the last five years, and in that time my ideas have developed a lot. I´ve now managed to distill this down to a series of strategies for selecting and using authentic texts and these are what I´ll be focussing on in the workshop. I´ll post the Prezi I´ve created for the workshop which includes these strategies, a lot of examples and some guiding principles for integrating authentic texts next Saturday on this blog.
In order to give you some background to my take on authentic materials, here´s a short article I wrote recently in which I did a SWOT analysis of authentic materials in true business English trainer style. Here I was specifically looking at the use of authentic materials in technical English courses, but in my Paris workshop, I´ll also be broadening my focus to look at other areas of English for professional purposes, including English for logistics and financial English.
Authentic materials are materials which are considered authentic because they have not been designed for the purposes of learning English, instead they have been created by the company whose employees you´re teaching or by those the company interacts with. The scope of authentic materials is extremely broad, since they can include anything from press releases to machines and from test reports to technical drawings. Basically, anything your learners and their company will let you get your hands on, any relevant materials you find online and any of the machinery or equipment you have access to if you´re teaching in-company.
Let´s put authentic materials under the microscope and do a SWOT analysis on using them in technical English courses: what are their strengths and weaknesses and what opportunities and threats do they present?
The greatest strength of authentic materials is probably their relevance to the learners´ working lives— it´s easy for learners to relate to texts on aeronautical engineering, if that´s what they spend every day at work concentrating on. The learners, therefore, feel like they´re learning the English they need, rather than stuff which is just “nice to know” and this can give their motivation a boost. Vocabulary found in authentic materials will be the vocabulary they will need to know and the format or style of authentic texts will most likely be the formats and styles that they will need to be able to read and, potentially, write in themselves. In some smaller and more specialised industries, authentic materials are usually the only way that technical English teachers can gain access to industry-specific vocabulary.
Although I see the use of authentic materials as being a very positive and useful component of a technical English course, they do also have their weaknesses. Perhaps the biggest weakness is what defines them as authentic materials: the fact that they have not been created with the purpose of being used for teaching English in mind. They may be poor translations with spelling and grammatical errors in them and the English used is likely to be at a high level, i.e. B2 plus. From the teacher´s point of view, probably the greatest drawback is the fact that they require the teacher to first of all understand their contents and then spend their preparation time incorporating them into exercises and activities which will create learning moments. This is, of course, particularly challenging if you are not an expert in the field that the learners are working in, as many of us aren´t. There may also be a tendency towards more language reception than production whilst working with these predominantly written materials. Teachers need to be creative to ensure that a communicative element is still present in lessons where authentic materials are used.
Authentic materials can, therefore, provide the teacher with opportunities to engage learners, give them what they need in terms of vocabulary and reading comprehension and support them as they encounter and have to use English at work. On the other hand, authentic materials may make demands on the teacher which they wouldn´t have to fulfill if they were using a course book instead. While using authentic materials, the teacher also abdicates some control over course content to the learners since they are the ones supplying the teacher with materials.
In short, authentic materials can have a positive impact on Technical English courses, but should be handled with some caution.