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Authenticity, characterized in language teaching and learning as "the degree to which language teaching materials have the qualities of natural speech or writing" (Richard et al., 1992, p.27), has never been far from the thoughts of ESL/EFL teachers. This considerable pressure, thus, has forced teachers and educators of languages to find ways to bring such authenticity to the process of language learning and teaching. And many of them find the answer in authentic materials which, whether spoken or written, are produced and used naturally for any reasons (introduction, information giving, advertising, etc.) but not for language teaching and learning. Consequently, such materials can really engage language learners in real events and real situations through real language.
However, besides many benefits that authentic materials can provide both language teachers and learners, they may become a big puzzle in some teaching situations like teaching learners at elementary level. Thus, besides advantages of authentic materials, this paper aims to summarize, from researches and experiences of different language teachers and educators, the exact problems teachers of elementary learners have to face with as well as solutions for such problems.
What are authentic materials?
The definitions of authentic materials are slightly different in literature.
Nunan (1999) defines authentic materials as "spoken or written language data that has been produced in the course of genuine communication and not specifically for purposes of language teaching" (p.54). Akin to that definition of Nunan, Harmer (1991) states that authentic texts are designed from native speakers; they are real text, designed not for language learners but for the speakers of the language. Meanwhile, Morrow (1977) characterizes an authentic text as a stretch of real language, produced by a real speaker or writer for a real audience and designed to convey a real message of some sort.
Though teachers and educators give varied definitions of authentic materials, they all agree on the same point that materials are considered authentic if they are primarily created for information exchange in the language speaking population and not developed or adapted for second language learners. In other words, their primary intent is to communicate messages among speakers of the language, not to be used as a tool for language learning and teaching.
In today's globalized world, numerous sources are available for language teachers to exploit and select appropriate authentic materials for their lessons.
Firstly, teachers can find authentic listening viewing materials from television's programs like TV commercials, quiz shows, cartoons, news clips, comedy shows, movies, songs, documentaries, etc. and from the rich source of Video Compact Disc (VCD) and Digital Video (DVD).
Teachers also can find authentic printed materials from newspapers and magazines which are full of news articles, astrology column, sports reports, advice columns, lyrics to songs, etc. Tourist information brochures, university catalogs, telephone books, maps and even bus schedules or candy wrappers can become useful teaching materials for language lessons. Their pros are widespread availability and reasonable price.
Furthermore, thanks to the revolution of technology with the advent of the World Wide Web, teachers now can find both of the above-mentioned types of materials available online. They now can access and download endless lists of valuable materials full of informative, educational and even entertaining information with their disposal in large amounts for the language classroom.
Because of such availability, authentic materials currently become more and more popular in the choice of language teachers for language teaching materials.
Disadvantages vs. advantages of authentic materials in language learning and teaching to elementary learners
It is proved by many language teachers and educators that the use of authentic materials may bring language learners in general and elementary learners in particular a lot of benefits.
First of all, authentic materials appear to supply learners with the essential input which can be considered an excellent alternative to outdated textbooks (Murdoch, 1999). While such textbooks seem not to meet learners' needs of language as well as knowledge, authentic materials are supposed to increase learners' awareness of language use in both written and spoken media by exposing learners to a wide range of naturally produced texts which are characterized by various language styles with a repertoire of genuine vocabulary and structures.
Authentic materials are also supposed to aid the improvement of comprehension in real situations by exposing learners to real, though, difficult language, which are far different from that of simplified texts from textbooks. With such real and also updated information, authentic materials are believed to provide learners another advantage of becoming a part of the language learning process (Murdoch, 1999). Learners are provided opportunities to self-observe how language are employed and adapted in new circumstances, self-examine and self-discover relationships held with lexical items and then, make generalizations about grammar and vocabulary language usage for themselves instead of waiting for language generalizations from their teachers or grammatical presentation.
Authentic materials are viewed more beneficial since this self-discovery kind of learning is more likely to arouse and harness the learner's curiosity than a presentational methodology which makes learners more dependent on teachers and thus is more likely to motivate learners. It is motivated because it helps learners to avoid speaking English "like a book" which is modeled and at the same time, provides learners more genuine reasons for wanting to communicate in target language (McCarthy and Carter, 1995, p.207). Thus, authentic texts may more equip learners to cope successfully in future situations and/or conversations outside the classroom.
To conclude, many teachers find authentic materials a valuable source which is quite abundant and cheap for them to access as mentioned in the previous part of the paper.
Despite all advantages that authentic materials can bring to learners, both language teachers and learners, especially elementary learners, still experience difficulties when they use such materials.
The difficulties for teachers come from the lack of effective research skills as well as material selecting and task designing skills. It is obvious that many language teachers do not master how to search for needed materials, which leads to the result of hesitating to find new materials for their teaching but used provided ones in textbooks. Some are believed to be unable to select appropriate materials to the curriculum, the course and most importantly the level of the learners among a vast amount of authentic information in written, spoken, or multimedia format. Some others are thought to have difficulties in designing suitable tasks from such authentic materials. All those difficulties in combination with the lack of time result in the reluctance of many language teachers to exploit authentic materials as one of the most important sources of language input.
The difficulties that authentic materials bring to language learners, especially elementary learners, are even more burdensome.
Martinez (2002) argues that learners may have to struggle with the language irrelevant to their present stage of learning. There are too much terminology including unneeded vocabulary and too many complicated, sometimes substandard structures which requires elementary learners to take risks generalizing while at this stage of learning, learners expect explicit teaching with simple presentation, explanation, visual clue or rote-learning from their teachers.
Such materials are also claimed to lack "guidance" or "focus" for learners to follow (Murdoch, 1999, p.2) because too many language items of different, even irrelevant themes are included in one material. Consequently, learners can easily feel confused when they work with this kind of materials. Sometimes, learners may even be puzzled by the too culturally-biased information of reading materials or by locally-uttered accents in audio/visual materials.
Also according to Murdoch (1999), another serious problem for learners may occur when learners learn language for the purpose of attaining success on an examination only. The only way for them to achieve such goal comes from getting marks as high as possible by learning the simple rules generalized by teachers or course books; not self-generalizing complicated structures and vocabulary of authentic ones. It is extremely true for the situation of English learning in Vietnam where most learners learn English just because they are forced to learn it as a compulsory for pedagogic completion. Last but not least, the length of an authentic text sometimes cannot fit the requirement of the lesson. Sometimes, it may be too long since it cannot be cut for some reasons. Sometimes, it may be too short.
To sum up, elementary learners may become overwhelmed at the amount of data and dissatisfied by unorganized and complicated learning providing by authentic materials.
Suggestions to overcome disadvantages of authentic materials for teachers and learners of elementary level
Because of the valuable advantages that authentic materials can bring to language learners, many teachers and educators have tried their best to sort out solutions for above-mentioned problems. Below is a brief summary of such solutions to over such problems.
The first suggestion offered by Nuttall (1996) to teachers of elementary learners is thorough selections whenever they use authentic materials. The materials that are chosen should firstly have the feature of authenticity which is established not only by the appearance of texts themselves (used as original and without any changes) but also by the way those are exploited. For example, an advertisement is used with tasks requiring for information that one needs to access the advertised product in real life or a train schedule is used in the way thanks to which one can get on board in the right time. The content of such materials should also be carefully selected in order to be suitable and exploitable for the level of elementary learners. More specifically, the content should be relevant and comprehensible to the learners. For instance, a complicated scientific article on global warming full of terminology or a speech on politics is not appropriate for learners who just start their language learning. The length of texts should also be put into considerations for materials selections. For elementary learners, too long texts can make learners feel exhausted and thus, de-motivated.
Berardo suggests some other important factors that teachers should take into considerations when they choose authentic materials for their lessons, especially reading ones, by asking some following specific questions:
Suitability of Content Does the text interest the learners?
Is it relevant to the learners' need?
Does it represent the type of material that the student will use outside of the classroom?
Exploitability Can the text be exploited for teaching purposes?
For what purpose should the text be exploited?
What skills/strategies can be developed by exploiting the text?
Readability Is the text too easy/ difficult for the learners?
Is it structurally too demanding/ complex?
How much new vocabulary does it contain? Is it relevant?
Presentation Does it "look" authentic?
Is it "attractive"?
Does it grab the learners' attention?
Does it make him want to read more?
( 2006, p.63)
To satisfy all those above requirements of selections, another suggestion is put forward on the selectors of materials. It is believed that, besides teachers who are considered well aware of which should be selected for the lesson based on their sound knowledge of learners, topics, etc., learners themselves can also be the best selectors of materials as no one can understand the learners better than the learners themselves. With the help of the teachers (topic provisions, materials rescanning, task designing, etc.), learners are supposed to be able to access easily all above-mentioned sources of authentic materials and choose the most suitable to their ability. Furthermore, choosing the materials themselves can also fully engage learners in the process of learning, which consequently motivate learners much more than the traditional way of learning.
The last but also the most important suggestion for teachers using authentic materials to teach their elementary learners is on the way authentic materials are exploited for the lesson. As afore-mentioned, the success that language teachers can benefit from authentic materials can be achieved mainly through assigning learners authentic tasks based on such materials. Teachers should think about how native speakers would approach the text naturally and then, try to design tasks in such approach. Below are some suggested tasks which are supposed to be authentic by Hartel, 2007 for elementary learners in a lesson using labels of some products:
recognize common products and labels to manage shopping for example
recognize the name of a product appearing clearly in a photograph with the logo prominent
control the string of letters the word represents (e.g. if for some reason, some letters are missing, so let's guess what word is this?)
decode simple words (Cola and Lola; Mac and pack)
For elementary learners, Shepherd, a teacher of British Council recommends that authentic materials should be used in combination with other kinds of materials such as realia or even textbooks which can provide and facilitate learners' learning with simple explanation, familiar visual articles, or simplified generalization of language items (2004). He also emphasizes that the tasks designed from authentic materials for elementary learners should be simple, relatively undemanding and most importantly they should focus on key vocabulary. By doing this, teachers can prevent their learners from being panic, and thus, not hesitated to work with authentic materials.
To conclude, it is quite necessary to use authentic materials in language learning and teaching on the account of their usefulness, lifelikeness as well as the interest and motivations they create for learners. By contextualizing language teaching, they not only build up learners' communicative competence in the target language, corresponding to their needs, expectations and interests, but also help to develop their capacity to give an authentic response to authentic texts and communicative events, not just examples of languages.
Besides, teachers should be careful and flexible when teaching learners at elementary level with the use of authentic materials because such materials can cause troublesome problems for those learners: unneeded vocabulary items, complex language structures, culturally-biased information, etc. In such cases, what teachers are suggested to act as a filter which thoroughly selects authentic materials ensures their comprehensibility and then determines their applicability and adaptability by thoroughly designing authentic tasks from such materials. Learners are also suggested to get involved in the process of selecting materials for the urge of suitability and exploitability.
Since this is just a secondary academic writing, the information is considered bookish. It is hoped that in near future, the author will have opportunities to do further practical research on this issue.