Authentic learning materials: Creating them for in-company learners

On Saturday, 16th June 2012 I gave a workshop at the IATEFL BESIG Summer Symposium in Paris: the title of which was, Authentic Learning Materials: Creating them for in-company learners. My aim was to look at how we can overcome some of the challenges of using authentic materials (some of which I outlined in a previous post on this blog, Authentic materials: A SWOT analysis) by learning how to effectively select authentic materials and make use of their potential for relevant and engaging learning moments in the training room. I decided to focus, specifically on text-based authentic materials. Although I also use other types of authentic materials in my courses: video and audio materials, realia and other items from the learners´ workplaces, in 45 minutes, there is only so much you can talk about! Here is an overview of the workshop. Thanks to everyone who attended for your participation, your input and your questions.

What are authentic materials? Well, authentic materials in this context could be any materials you can obtain which have not been designed for the purposes of learning English, but which could be adapted for that purpose. In this workshop, I focussed specifically on text-based resources and mainly on what I would term “internal resources,” by which I mean resources that the learner has obtained and then passed on to and/or resources originating from the company or industry in which the learner works. Here are some examples I´ve compiled:

The general consensus today seems to be that using authentic materials in business English and ESP courses is a good idea, but the fact remains that authentic materials pose a number of challenges for English teachers who want to use them in their courses. Which materials should they use and where can they find them? How can they tailor them to fulfil learners´ needs? How can they really get the most out of these materials? I decided to focus on the two main challenges teachers face when they want to integrate authentic materials into their courses: selecting and using the materials.

Would you use this? I showed the audience some examples of authentic materials and asked them to consider whether or not they would use them with their learners. The first document I showed the participants was an article on strategic corporate management which two of my learners gave me (see below). They are attending a summer school for branch managers from their company from all over Europe this year and have to read a number of articles as preparation for the course: this article is one of them. I did read through the text with the learners and help them to understand it because I knew that was important to them, but I would never use this material of my own accord. The language is unnecessarily complex and its level is much too high for these low B2 level learners. This topic is definitely interesting for the participants, but I could have presented it in a more accessible way for them.

The second text is an article from the BBC that looks at how the British greet each other and it´s called, The Pecking Order. I would see this as being an inappropriate authentic material to use with my in-company learners: some learners may find the topic an inappropriate one, the language would be too challenging (and also not useful) for most learners and there are a lot of unfamiliar and potentially confusing words, the content is also not really that interesting or relevant, especially for learners who don´t have any contact with the UK and British English. There is also the issue of copyright to consider and how you could legally copy and distribute a text of this kind from a website. Laws vary from country to country, but they´re generally becoming stricter.  Personally, I wouldn´t use this text in its entirety in my courses, but I have used it as the basis for discussion on how you greet people you´ve just met, how you greet your work colleagues and how this can vary between different cultures. As a warmer for this discussion, I reproduced the graph on the top right-hand side which shows the results of a poll asking people in Britain how they would greet a colleague of the opposite sex if they saw them outside of work. I reproduced the poll as four bars without any labels, only the percentages, and then asked the learners to speculate about which greetings received which percentages of the vote, or in other words which greetings occurred the most frequently. This worked really well and, needless to say, the actual results surprised my German learners, who have quite a different attitude to greetings. Using the topic of or an idea from authentic materials as a springboard to the rest of the lesson, can be very effective. It ensures that there won´t be a mismatch between the language level of the text and the learners´ language level, and it can also result in the learners being more active in the lesson.

The last of the three was a slide from a presentation that a colleague of one of my participants gave in a company that produces scaffolding and formwork (see above). Although, PowerPoints can be quite a static resource to use, I would nonetheless see some value in using this material since there is a close connection between the content of the material and the learners´ work, it was written by someone who works at their company and looks at issues all of them have to deal with in their daily business. The more specialised the industry where your learners are working, the greater the need to use authentic materials produced within that industry. You could create an activity by removing the words in the labels on the high-rise building and ask the learners to write them in the right place and you could get them into a discussion on what the internal and external parameters that you have to consider when constructing a high-rise building are.

I have compiled four tips for selecting authentic materials which I included in the next slide.

Next we looked at four different example activities which make use of authentic materials:

1. Creating reading puzzles: here you can see how I have modified a text about one of the construction projects that one company I teach at is currently working on by removing some words, or leaving only the first letter of the word.  The learners were already familiar with the text and the vocabulary it contains beforehand, so this activity served as a revision activity to reactivate this vocabulary. I also highlighted some chunks I found interesting and asked them to explain what was meant by them. You could also ask the learners to identify chunks they find interesting and then explain what is meant by them or what they mean to them. This can then lead on to more extensive discussion of the topic.

2. The next document I showed was an insurance quote one of my learners received. He is the CFO of the American subsidiary of his company as well as the German head office, so he receives a lot of financial documents in English. I encouraged the learner to devise a communicative task based around some of the materials he had and he suggested a telephoning role-play in which I would call him to ask him questions about anything in the quote which was unclear for me and he would respond to my questions. This made for a very successful role-play.
3. I then showed an activity I used to practise forming accurate questions for a group of learners in a construction company who were having difficulties with this (see below). I divided the learners into two groups, one group had a photo of a project the company was working on at the moment and the other group had a text about the project which I had adapted from the company website. The group who had the picture weren´t give any information about the project other than what it looks like and had to write six questions to ask the other group to find out more information about it. The other group then had to respond to their questions and then they changed over roles. I asked the learners to give the answer if it was included in the text or to speculate on what it would be based on the knowledge they have, if it wasn´t there. We often get so excited about using authentic materials that our learning aims and the learning outcomes we want to achieve go out of the window, so I wanted to make the point that this doesn´t have to be the case: keep the learning aims in mind, look at the materials you have available, and look for possible areas of overlap between the two.
4.  I brought this part of the workshop to a close by looking at a graph about energy use in Germany, which I was given by some participants in a German energy company. The activity idea here it to use the interpreting of authentic graphs and charts as a consolidation exercise after doing some work on language for describing graphs and trends. The one criticism I made of this particular resource is that it might appear out-dated because it only provides information on energy use up to 2008. One of the great advantages of authentic materials is that, if chosen carefully, they tend to be relevant for learners, choosing up-to-date resources will help to make them even more relevant.

At the end of the workshop, I wanted to leave the participants with some guiding principles for selecting and using authentic materials:

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Authentic learning materials: Creating them for in-company learners

  1. phil3wade

    Great stuff. I’ve been using the nearly created English version of the local Tourist Info website a lot as it is perfect for almost everybody who has anything to do with tourism. It was going well until a student said today “who wrote this?” “I don’t agree with it at all”. the reason is perhaps because 1)it was translated by a foreigner 2)It is all salesy language and 3)It was probably written by a non-local.

    The alternatives are very few so I’m resorting to building more on their skills/resources to create their own personalised descriptions of tourism-related things.Well, that’s the idea.

    • That sounds like a good idea to me, Phil. I think having them create their own personalised descriptions of tourism-related things should get them being more active and producing language than just reading texts from the tourist information website would be. I´d like to suggest using these authentic materials as a springboard or an inspiration for communicative activities: as a stimulus for discussion or the basis for a task, for example. I often encounter the same thing with texts from the internet which are poorly written because they´ve been translated (sometimes badly) from German into English and by a non-specialist in the field. If I do use these materials with high level learners, which I have quite a few of, I encourage them to re-write sentences or sections of the text so that they´re clearer and more accurate, they seem to quite enjoy doing this and I think it can be quite a useful exercise for them.

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