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A problem with authenticity

Few language teachers would argue with the desirability of using, whenever appropriate, authentic or lightly adapted authentic listening and reading resources. In theory, they should give students an experience of hearing and seeing the language as it is actually used by native speakers and provide students with interesting materials to listen to and read. In addition, students should get less of a shock when they encounter native speaker language "in the field".

One problem which is rarely mentioned, however (apart from the obvious one, namely that authentic resources are often too difficult, therefore inappropriate), is that copyright issues mean that text books and exam boards have great difficulty sourcing them. If you have ever wondered why listening and reading texts in exam papers usually have an air of anaemic artificiality about them, it is primarily because it is really hard to get authorisation to use authentic sources. Occasionally permission is granted, but in most cases, when permission is sought, no reply is received, so writers have to assume that the source text cannot be used. This creates great difficulties for exam boards, as you can imagine, especially when the overarching authority (in England the DfE/Ofqual) are expecting students to use authentic resources.

In the real world, most teachers play fast and loose with copyright, photocopying texts and using them in class, and nobody seems to worry too much. Other teachers and writers, including myself, take authentic reading texts, then either use them as a source of information for a brand new text, or adapt them so significantly that the original text is barely recognisable. In this instance, any claim to authenticity is lost.

In any case, authenticity is probably overrated. As I have argued before in this blog, a text is a teaching tool the aim of which is to build up students' comprehension, grammatical, lexical and speaking skills. A good text is one that does this most successfully, not necessarily an authentic one. The best texts are usually at the right level of difficulty, stimulating, plausible, accurate and suitably idiomatic; they also, crucially, lend themselves to intensive controlled and communicative practice. A text may be authentic, but fail in those respects.

So, whilst I can see the value of using authentic resources whenever possible in the classroom, I would not see it as a failure if you end up using texts created for learning purposes. Part of our craft as teachers is to create, or select and adapt resources which are suitably tailored to our students' needs. It would be poor practice to just choose a resource for its authenticity rather than its suitability.


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