English Teacher Article Advantages and disadvantages of using authentic texts in class

Summary: Using the positive aspects of authentic texts, getting rid of the negative aspects, and deciding when graded texts might be better.

By: |Audience: Teachers|Category: Teaching English


Along with if and how to teach grammar, whether you should use authentic texts or graded texts (ones written or rewritten for language learners) remains one of the most hotly debated matters in TEFL. From what I’ve read, researchers seem to be moving towards more of a consensus that grading and rewriting texts is generally a good idea, and that students learn more from a text where the amount of new language is limited, as this helps them guess from context and doesn’t overload them. This also ties in with the idea that the language two non-native speakers use to communicate in English for International Communication is nothing like the idiomatic, idiosyncratic and style-obsessed writing that you generally find in a British newspaper. Intelligent use of graded texts is also, in my opinion, common sense. Even if a text that was written for the entertainment of native speakers that is almost perfect for the language learning needs of non-native speakers can be found, surely it is worth changing, however little, to make it truly perfect for learning English.

Whilst many textbook writers have also been moving in the direction of grading texts even in Advanced level books, this is by no means universal and many Business English textbooks have been moving in the opposite direction of having authentic texts from the Economist and Financial Times appear in even Pre-Intermediate books. Aside from the common ownership of publications like these and the ELT publishers, there must still be perceived advantages to the use of authentic materials at all levels. In my experience, many teachers also retain an attachment to this method of language learning. Whilst CLIL and Dogme are the trendiest new(ish) teaching methods for people to write about, the most popular kind of lesson among teachers I know who have taken on the criticism of PPP and grammar teaching is actually basing a whole lesson around a newspaper article.

My own position is that it is rarely better to use a text just as it comes, however good the tasks you put with it. Having said that, I can totally understand the problems people have with textbook readings as they usually exist and are usually used, and the appeal that authentic materials can have. By examining the advantages and disadvantages of using authentic texts in the classroom, in both practical and pedagogical terms, I hope I will be able to give some hints on how to bring the advantages into classes and avoid the disadvantages with both authentic and graded texts, and to give a balanced view for those who are still undecided on when, how and how much to use authentic texts in their own classroom.

The advantages of using authentic texts in the language learning classroom

Authentic texts can be quick and easy to find

One of the main advantages for the teacher of using authentic texts is that it is possible to find interesting and relevant texts for your students from your own reading of the internet, newspapers, magazines etc. The chances that you will find a good text while reading through a textbook or graded reader for pleasure are much fewer! Unfortunately, finding an interesting text is only the first stage, and possibly not the most difficult or important one. The next stages are making sure the language in the text is as suitable as the topic and creating the tasks.

In order to make the most of a good text you have found by chance without that making it more difficult to prepare than just trawling through textbooks, there are several timesaving tips you can use. One is simply to share your texts and tasks with other teachers. This can be done informally or though a system such as a notice board or folders (arranged by when the materials were added, level, language focus and/ or topic area). The second (less than perfect but very time efficient) method is to build up a database of question types that are easily adapted to all kinds of texts such as “Does the writer have a positive or negative impression of what he or she is writing about?” or “Predict what the story is about from the headline/ picture(s) and read through to check”.

There are also ways of replicating the “lucky find” method of choosing good texts with texts that are already graded and have tasks. The easiest is to collect them in a similar way to that suggested above for authentic texts - putting any particularly interesting and/ or useful texts that you find when working your way through a textbook or exam practice book into files marked by ESP area, grammar point, length, country it is about etc.

Authentic texts can be up to date and topical

Or to put it another way, textbook readings can be based on texts that are out of date in terms of content, old fashioned in terms of attitude and/ or dated in look. Unfortunately, using a news story that is hot off the press and so of overwhelming interest to the students usually leads to all of the preparation work mentioned above with the chance that it will quickly become out of date when the news changes and so will have to be thrown away in a week or two despite all your hard work. By typing up your worksheet you can at least save yourself a bit of time with the preparation next time you use an authentic text, and sharing it with other teachers should hopefully prompt them to do the same and save you some preparation next time.

When it comes to trying to replicate that topical buzz in the classroom with graded texts for language learners, there are two options. One is to use simplified news stories that some TEFL and newspaper websites offer at (usually) weekly intervals. Another is again to keep graded texts filed in an easy to use way so you can at least use one on the same general topic as a recent news story (e.g. “immigration” or “Japanese/ Korean relations”), so you can use that as a lead in to a discussion or reading on what has happened recently.

It’s what students will have to cope with eventually

In my experience, many of the teachers who choose to use the sink-or-swim approach of challenging even lower level language learners with texts written for native speakers seem to be those who also take the similar but more common approach of throwing them into a communicative situation to cope with as best they can. The assumptions are the same in both cases – that they will have to do it eventually so they may as learn how to cope with it as soon as possible, that “real language” and “real communication” are best, and that you learn most by doing. There are some differences between communication and reading, though, as well as some possible false assumptions with both.

The difference between being thrown into a real-life speaking task and being thrown into an authentic text is that in dealing with an unsimplified text you are doing the equivalent of trying to cope with a native speaker making no adjustment for talking to a non-native speaker, a situation that is only likely to occur when listening in monologue situations such as aircraft safety announcements and university lectures. The possibly false assumption some people make about both situations is that students will need to be able to communicate with native speakers at all, as most communication in the world today is between two non-native speakers. As with communication, though, there are advantages to be had from occasionally giving students a more difficult text to challenge themselves and learn how to cope with. These advantages are dealt with in the next point.

They have to learn how to cope

If students are given a text that is several levels above what they usually read, students have little choice but to learn to deal with lots of unknown vocabulary. This should give them the motivation to use the reading skills you have been trying to teach them of getting a general gist, skimming and scanning, etc. These skills can then later be transferred back to the readings they do in their normal textbook. I say that students have “little choice” but to use those skills rather than “no choice”, because the other option of panicking and giving up is always there! To make this a successful experience for them, you will need to make sure that the tasks are manageable using just the skills that you are trying to instil in them, for example by making sure all the answers are easy things to scan (e.g. numbers and words with capital letters). You can also replicate the effect of forcing them to abandon their attempts to understand every word and read everything in detail with graded texts. This can be achieved with the simple technique of choosing a text that is two levels higher than the textbook they are studying. As with the authentic texts, though, you will need to make the lesson manageable and focused on the right skills, which will probably mean writing totally different tasks to the ones designed for higher level learners that are in the textbook.

There is a sense of achievement

Few things give more of a feeling of something really achieved in a foreign language than turning over the last page of a book you have read all the way through, and this is true however much you had to skip parts of the book or use your dictionary in order to get to that point. Although it is not quite the same to have finished your first real newspaper article, this can still give students a sense of achievement if you talk up what they have managed to do. You can give even lower level students this little push in confidence by giving the kind of manageable skimming and scanning tasks mentioned above. This is not an effect that can or needs to be replicated many times, however, especially with students who slowly come to the realisation that they are finishing the tasks the teacher has given them but not really understanding the text in the way that they would like to. You can also partly replicate this sense of achievement with graded texts by giving them a whole graded reader book to read, praising them as they give it back to you finished.

There is more of it around that students can help themselves to/ It is easier for students to find

Perhaps the greatest argument for teaching students to cope with authentic texts is that it suddenly opens up a world of newspapers, websites, magazines, notices etc etc that was inaccessible to them before and that can provide a massive boost to the exposure they get to English. This is particular important with students stuck on the “Intermediate plateau”. You can reinforce this effect by telling them where the authentic texts you use in class come from and how they can get something similar for themselves. You can also ask them to find similar examples for the next lesson.

You can partly replicate this effect with graded materials by making sure they have access to graded readers and magazines and website for language learners. You can also make the easiest authentic texts accessible to your lower level students by focusing your lessons on the language they need to one particular source such as street signs (included in the PET and KET exams).

There is more stuff for teachers to choose from

While this is true in terms of number and variety of texts, unless you have an awful lot of time on your hands to choose something of more or less the right level with the right language focus and write a full lesson plan and set of tasks for it, lack of time can actually make the selection of good texts you can use well smaller than if you were just choosing from all the available graded texts in the teachers’ room. See tips above for how to make a good selection of suitable authentic and graded texts easy available.

You can sometimes find a translation

Although you don’t want students to get into the habit of translating texts as they read them, there are uses for translations in class such as reading an introduction in L1 to set the scene with cultural information etc or to prompt discussion to prepare them for a long or difficult reading. With more advanced classes, you can even discuss the differences between the two texts and/ or the experiences of reading them. Looking at the terrible translations that free automatic online translation services produce is also worth a laugh or two.

You can compare several versions of the same story

There are lots of interesting things you can do with a copy of the same story from a tabloid newspaper and a more serious publication, and people who have just got off their MAs in Linguistics almost all make an attempt to do so. In fact, in the last 20 years or so such activities based on Discourse Analysis theory have gone from something that challenged the false assumptions of sentence-based descriptions of language to something that has become an unquestioned standard part of language courses down to Pre-Intermediate level. As with many of the activities with authentic texts, there is no particular evidence that conscious examination of factors like this particularly helps the reading comprehension and language production of even higher level learners, and even less that it can be useful with lower level learners and students who read only in order to pick up and revise vocabulary and grammar that can help them speak better. This does remain an interesting activity though (if sometimes more interesting for the teacher than the students), so here are some tips on how to make it more interesting than just pointing out the differences between tabloids and broadsheets that students probably already know from L1.

Things you can do with two texts include finding synonyms and grammatical forms that mean the same thing (useful for FCE and CAE sentence transformations), finding words that are nearly synonyms but have different positive and negative meanings (e.g. “determined” and “stubborn”) or levels of formality (“youth” and “yoof”), comparing topics and column inches in whole newspapers, and comparing ease of comprehension (usually mid-brow newspapers, freebie newspapers and local newspapers are the easiest for students to understand, with tabloids and very highbrow publications like The Economist the most difficult).

These activities cannot be easily reproduced with graded texts, but some textbooks do have similar activities with two different texts already in them. Less interesting but perhaps more useful is doing similar activities with dialogues, telephone calls and emails of different levels of formality.

Students can follow a story and recycle the vocab

In my own language learning experience, I have found the most useful thing about reading newspapers in a foreign language is that the same vocabulary comes up day and after day - and even more so if you are following the developments of a single story and also watch or listen to the news about the same thing. For example, I will forever know the Japanese for “reinforced concrete” due to the story that was biggest in the news when I was really into studying that language. As you can see from that example, the fact that vocabulary is often repeated and easy to learn does not necessarily make it useful for anything other than talking about the news, but there are ways of making that vocabulary more interesting and spreading the effect to students who would gain more from graded reading.

One thing the teacher can do is choose a story or sequence of stories that is more likely to have useful language in it. This is easiest with ESP students who can read stories on their area, and this approach is very common in Business English and ESP teaching. Using a sequence of texts on exactly the same story as suggested here is, however, less common. Following a story is also not common on the websites that offer free simplified texts such as news stories.

They might know the story already, making comprehension and guessing vocabulary much easier

Some of the advantages that a graded text has in terms of the students being able to guess vocabulary from context due to understanding the language around it can be replicated with an authentic text by them being able to guess the meaning of the words they don’t know because they already know what the news story, Shakespeare monologue etc is going to say. Although we often try to introduce new information in our classes as well as new language, the research I have read and my own teaching and language learning experience suggest that we learn language easier if it is simplified for us with things like knowing the basics of the story already. This is supported by recent research that suggests that CLIL works better for the learning of language if the topic is revision rather than new information. Having said that, once the motivating effects of being able to handle a more difficult text for the first time wear off, reading something newsworthy, surprising or controversial that they didn’t know before is bound to add something to the interest of the class, especially for higher level students. You can combine the advantages of both the familiar and unfamiliar by making the text a continuation of a story the students already know the beginning of or an unusual viewpoint or explanation of a happening they are already familiar with. The same techniques can also be used the first time students use a graded text that is a level higher than they are used to.

The disadvantages of using authentic texts in the language learning classroom

It's probably idiosyncratic

My theory for why using authentic texts with language levels of all learners has been such a selling point over the years is simply that the words that are used to describe what are commonly taken to be the two options leaves one option in an unarguably strong position – the two words being “authentic” and its indefensible opposite “inauthentic”. In fact, though, the two good options a teacher has are usually to choose an “authentic” text or a more “representative” text.

We try to choose between the hundreds of possible language points we could cover in order to tackle the most important and manageable first. In the same way, a graded text is rewritten not just to be simpler but also so that the language is the kind of generally used thing that students need in order to be able to communicate in the greatest number of typical situations, i.e. to make the language “representative” of the English language as it is generally used. This is not the case in most authentic texts, where the skill of a writer is often to make their use of language personal and therefore unrepresentative of how other people use English. Even when the individual writer hasn’t stamped their mark on the text too much, you might also have problems dealing with the idiosyncrasies of particular genres or ways that particular nationalities of native speaker write.

These points can be great to look at with very advanced learners and can be exactly what they need in order to show them that there is still a lot to learn in English. Needless to say, the last thing that will motivate an Intermediate student is to be told how much there still is to learn! These idiosyncrasies are often taken out of graded texts (which is the main thing that makes them so dull for native speakers, more so than the simplification of language) and it is possible to partly do the same with authentic texts. One hint is to avoid famous writers and just go for almost miscellaneous stuff like shorter newspaper articles.

The grading of the various parts of the text might be different

This can particularly be a problem with novels and poetically written magazine articles, where the descriptive introduction is often several levels higher than the story will be once the plot and/ or dialogue starts. The same is true of punning newspaper headlines. Approaches include giving the difficult parts in summary form and just using an extract from the original text, or doing activities just with the easy bits like the captions or dialogue.

The information can quickly become out of date

This can be a problem both for student, for whom the language might fly out of their heads at the same time as the information gets replaced with something more important. It can also be an issue for the teacher, who might have spent lots of time preparing the pre-teach and comprehension questions only to have to throw the text away after a couple of days. This is mainly a problem for newspaper news stories, so there is no reason why you shouldn’t use more long-lasting formats like magazine articles, newspaper articles with more analysis, fiction or biography instead.

The difficulty can put people off reading

For some people the challenge and achievement of reaching the end of an authentic text for the first time is just the boost to their motivation that they need, even if they then don’t touch another authentic text until they have managed to reach a more advanced level. For other people, however, the struggle of dealing with authentic texts can just convince them that reading in English will never be worth the effort. The most common response to this from teachers and teacher’s books is to give students simple general comprehension and skimming and scanning tasks, and to skip the detailed comprehension tasks. This can work and give students a sense of achievement, but some students can feel it is just a con job to make them think they have understood when they haven’t really, especially if you try this trick a few times. You could try your best to choose the easiest authentic text you can find, but with a student or class that doesn’t like a challenge it is probably best just to stick to graded texts.

The vocabulary is not graded

However easy an authentic text you have managed to find, it is unlikely that every word in it is one of those “most used words in English” that are marked in learner’s dictionaries. This is particularly the case with children’s books, which can be easy and fun for adults to read but often have a vocabulary that is more suitable for the under 10s, and in which the most useless words are often those which are repeated the most often. This can be yet another good opportunity for students to test their guessing vocabulary from context skills. Alternatively, you can provide a glossary to the words you are not expecting them to know at that level but are vital for understanding that particular text, something that is sometimes given in graded readers and even test readings. Another technique is to underline the words that are probably new to them that you actually think are useful, so that when they get busy with their dictionaries in class or at home you know they will be somewhat guided in what they learn.

The grammar is not graded

The grading of grammar in a text is usually more difficult to spot and easier to forget about than the grading of vocabulary, but in a graded reader the writers are even more careful about the grammar than the vocabulary. This does not necessarily mean that all the grammar has to be exactly the same as they have already covered in their books, as grammar is easier to understand than produce and seeing it in context for some time before they tackle it in class will make it easier for them to pick up. A good rule of thumb is that most of the grammar in the text should be what they have already studied, and most of the more difficult grammar should be within one level (e.g. halfway through the Intermediate level textbook if they are halfway through the Pre-Intermediate level) and guessable from context. If there is any grammar that is even higher level, you can try and get the students to ignore it by having the comprehension tasks only for the information elsewhere in the text, or providing a “grammar glossary” similar to a vocab glossary.

The two surest ways of checking that most of the grammar is of the right level are using graded texts and rewriting authentic texts. Another possibility is just to use a short passage from an authentic text that only has the right kinds of grammar in it. If you do want to search for an authentic text that has the right kind of grammar, one way of searching is by genre. For example, stories usually have Past Perfect, Past Continuous and Past Simple, but jokes and anecdotes might use present tenses instead.

The idiomatic language might quickly become out of date

This has also been a problem with textbooks over the years, but most publishers seem to have twigged that now and made the language they deal with less idiomatic and more “timeless”. With authentic texts, you can perhaps avoid overly-trendy slang by sticking to articles from the stuffier publications or extracts from books (mainly from the 50s and early 60s) that were written in a simplified non-Shakespearean English but hadn’t got into the slangy language that many books and magazine articles nowadays have.

There could be copyright problems

For most publications in most countries it is perfectly legal to copy one class set of a text from the original, especially if you mark it clearly with where it came from. Restrictions usually only apply to making copies of copies and republishing things, and anyway language schools are not the first target of the copyright police, but it is always worth knowing what rules you might be stretching before deciding to do so. With freebie magazines and newspapers it might be possibly to get a class set together, but otherwise this is more of a possibility with graded texts such as graded readers or reading skills books.

If they want to learn every word in a text, the reading stage can go on forever and cover loads of useless language

Many teachers believe that explaining every piece of vocabulary is bad classroom practice and bad language learning, if only because they know of unprofessional teachers who are only to happy to fill up class time with this (usually preparation-free) activity and students for whom this is one of the anally-retentive habits that seem to be holding their speaking back. If you can persuade the students that sometimes some of the vocabulary is best left unexplained or at least left until they get home, that is one good response. It is also good, however, to try and look at it from their point of view.

Most language students do not read in English in order to learn to read better, but in order to pick up the language they need to listen, write or (most commonly) speak well. If that is the case, learning skimming and scanning skills are just a way of making a text manageable in order that they can do what they are asking you to help them with, which is to learn vocabulary. Ways of providing them with that vocabulary development without the class turning into one long teacher monologue include teaching and using monolingual dictionary skills, pre-teaching half the useful new vocabulary so that at least the explanation stage is split up, allowing them to choose only five words that they really want to know, giving them the pre-teach vocabulary to learn the day before, choosing a text where the language that they won’t understand is no more than one word every three or four lines, and giving exercises that help them guess which of several meanings the vocabulary has from the context. Many of these things are easier with graded texts but all are possible with authentic texts too.

Authentic texts are usually too high level

Assuming there are some levels of students so high that any grading would make a text too easy (and even then it must be possible to rewrite it so that there is more useful or even more challenging language in it), if you did take a text written for native speakers and try to match it by language level to a selection of articles from EFL language textbooks you would almost always end up with it in Proficiency (i.e. very Advanced) level. There are exceptions, though, including freebie newspapers like Metro, newspapers from non-English-speaking countries, some websites (again especially those from non-English-speaking countries), specialist texts in the students’ area of expertise, some instruction manuals, some notices and street signs, some pamphlets and leaflets, and some articles from Reader’s Digest. The fact that these can be more fully understood by lower level learners usually means that the language in them is more commonly used and therefore more useful to learn, but these also could usually gain from some judicious rewriting to tie in with the syllabus of the course etc if you have the time and technology.

There might be language and cultural references that even native speakers from other countries, areas or age groups would not understand

This can be a huge problem if the teacher also doesn’t understand! Ways of avoiding this include using the English-language press of the country the students are from; using texts about something you know one or more students are interested in and knowledgeable about such as one of their hobbies; and using websites, newspapers and magazines that have an international readership.

It might include language that isn’t in a dictionary

This could be a good time for students to practice their “guessing meaning from context” skills, but that is only usually possible if they understand over 90% of the language around that word. This means that they have to be Advanced or even Proficiency level to be able to do so with most authentic texts. As with the point above, there are few good ways of using this factor and the best thing to do is almost always to try to avoid it by choosing more suitable texts, rewriting, or concentrating on another aspect of the text you choose.

The texts are often too long

This can be a factor with Sunday magazine articles that you’d love to use in class but cover six pages, and also for books for students to read at home. In fact, the shortness of a graded reader can be just as much part of the appeal as the simplified language. One solution with authentic texts is to use only an extract, but this can make understanding it even more difficult unless you can find some way of explaining very clearly what comes before or after the part you give them. There are also shorter news articles in the margins of a newspaper and on the Internet, but these rarely have the interesting storylines and language that are supposed to be the selling points of authentic texts. So, unless you are prepared to rewrite the text yourself there is usually no solution but to keep looking till you find the length you are looking for…

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com