I’ve been a materials writer for 2 months now. It’s about time I started reflecting on it. I haven’t had time to do so as it’s a very busy role – hence the lack of blog activity.
I’m currently writing lessons for a functional, task-led syllabus. There’s a strong focus on speaking, listening and pronunciation. Each lesson has a listening text (well, bout 90% of them do) which is a model for the main task that students complete during a lesson. Target language and target pronunciation features (normally suprasegmental) all appear in the listening text. The text itself is commercially produced, by which I mean I write it, it’s kind of semi-authentic.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the nature of these listening materials since starting the job (and even since teaching the product). I’m trying to decide whether I’m pro- or anti- when it comes to these semi-authentic materials, or whether I need to have either stance. Here are a few of my thoughts.
During my diploma days (that’s only 2 years ago) I was really keen on using authentic listening materials in class, and strongly advocated these over the use of commercially produced passages (i.e. those often found in coursebooks). I remember answering a question about this issue during a self-study task. It was something like: ‘What’s your opinion on commercially produced listening passages?’
Here’s a summary of my response
- These texts alone do not provide enough authentic exposure to the target language, and may often omit key features of spoken language (even simplifying the content) in the hope that this may make the text more accessible for the learners
- accessibility of a text for the learners is desirable, but not at the expense of authenticity.
- there’s often a lack of accent diversity in textbook listening activities (unless an author feels there’s a specific need to address this, e.g. in resources like ‘Exploring British Culture’)
- exaggerated intonation and slower pace seem to be the artificial attributes of listening texts which I have most encountered
- structural repetition in commercially produced texts can make them feel contrived
- if students are only exposed to commercially produced texts then their listening experience could be very restricted and it may take them a long time to develop understanding of natural rhythm and intonation
Looking back, I can see exactly what was influencing me at the time. My opinions were pretty much shaped by two pages of this old article by Porter and Roberts (1981: 37-38). My various references to ‘features of spoken language’ (i.e. connected speech) came from work by Judy Gilbert (2008), articles by Helen Fraser, and my obsession with using the Book of Pronunciation (Marks and Bowen) and relating it to everything!
My misplaced use of authentic materials
I did write some counter arguments – e.g. a mix of using authentic and commercially produced passages is probably best. But essentially I was pro-authentic texts all the way. Around that time in class I was using clips from the BBC, Sky News, Radio 5 Live, loads of authentic stuff. It didn’t matter what level the students were, I’d create pre-listening tasks like discussions, matching tasks for difficult language chunks, making priming glossaries, and so on, just to help the students ‘access’ the text. Again looking back, I think my attempts to make texts more accessible sometimes sacrificed authenticity – not of the text itself but of the tasks that learners were performing. They certainly flouted some of Nik Peachey’s points in this old article, which are similar to those that Porter and Roberts go on to suggest themselves:
- Students first listen to a text should be as authentic as possible
- Teachers should resist the urge to help learners too much. In practise, this means less pre-teaching, and encouraging students to deduce the meaning of words from the context (far more natural).
- It’s not only the texts, it’s the tasks around the texts. ‘Authentic tasks should be ones that resemble as much as possible the original purpose for which the text was intended’
In hindsight I realise that my reasons for using authentic texts were perhaps a bit arbitrary, and failed to address the needs of my learners. Of course, my students did benefit at times from the listening activities I devised around the texts, but I was essentially using authentic materials only with inauthentic tasks, and rarely addressing the original purpose of the text. When I drew attention to features of connected speech in these texts (which I thought were really important), I focused far more on getting students to notice these rather than to practice them. Sure, that’s good for listening comprehension, but it’s a waste of these authentic resources in some ways.
How do these reflections help me now? Well, they embarrass me a bit, but that’s teaching. You have to be honest with yourself sometimes, and that’s pretty hard when you thought you were doing a good job!
Most importantly, they shape my attitudes towards the listening texts I’m creating. I used to be dismissive of commercially produced texts (mainly due to them being inauthentic) but now I see that authenticity isn’t everything. It’s what you do with a text that counts…
As I mentioned, I’m writing texts that provide a model for a functional task. These functions all relate to real world contexts. The tasks I create for learners have to be authentic, so the language used in the listening text has to be as authentic as possible (but accessible to the learners). Comprehension tasks are still part of the lesson, but these aren’t a major focus. Instead, tasks that require students to perform a function demonstrated in the text are the real aims. As a writer, I therefore have to write tasks that focus on text purpose or function, which has been good practice for me.
Which of my previous criticisms of commercially produced materials do my semi-authentic texts address?
- I’m encouraged to include (and create tasks around) features of connected speech, with these features appearing naturally in the text
- A lot of the functional language appears as chunks, and the clear context helps learners to deduce meaning. However, texts are not full of structural repetition, more functional repetition. For example, a text about giving advice will introduce a whole range of functional language for this purpose, which makes texts sound far more natural (in my opinion)
- I get to ‘mark up’ the text for features of pronunciation so I can try and ensure a level of authenticity (of sorts). Plus I could have a say in the accents used, meaning I can address the need for diversity (hopefully).
Which are not addressed?
- I still have to grade the text to make it accessible. For example, if I’m writing Elementary level texts then I have to use various content controls like the Cambridge KET vocabulary list or lextutor.ca. Still, functional language is often presented as unanalysed chunks so you can include some idiomatic language even at lower levels
- I guess it’s still not truly authentic!
What have I learned about authenticity since I started writing materials?
- My criticism of commercially produced listening passages was a bit unfair, especially as I haven’t really utilised alternatives (i.e. authentic texts) particularly well
- you don’t need authentic texts to write authentic tasks
- authenticity can be replicated pretty well if you’re allowed to include (and create tasks around) features which are sometimes ignored, omitted or simplified in commercially produced texts. An example would be building tasks around noticing and practising aspects of connected speech.
- my materials writing role is likely to improve my practice, as I will recognise the need to create ‘tasks that resemble the original purpose of a text’ (Peachey) next time I use a truly authentic text in class.
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Porter, D and Roberts, J. (1981). Authentic listening activities. ELT J 36 (1): 37-47. This article can be accessed here
Gilbert, JB. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid. Cambridge, CUP. This article can be accessed here