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Extensive Reading and Listening

Massive language practice

May 23, 2009

Authentic Texts. Good or bad?

Many people ask whether it's okay to use authentic texts for ER.

My answer depends on two things. Firstly, 'what do you mean by authentic?' and secondly ' who is doing the reading?'

To many people, 'authentic' means 'native texts' - i.e. materials not written for second language learners - native novels, magazines, websites etc.. Some people suggest that these materials are good for learners because ultimately they need to read native materials - newspapers, websites, novels and so on. I think this confuses the end goal with the process. Sure the end goal might be to get them to read native texts, but should we start with them? It would not be a good to teach people to drive in an Formula 1 car, so why start beginner readers with native texts? Native texts are full of native language - they are very lexical dense, full of complex phrases, and are written for people versed in the English culture(s). It can take years to learn enough of a foreign language to read native materials fluently.

The counter argument of course is that it is because the native texts are rich in native language that they provide a model for what the learners need to read. But anyone who has learnt a foreign language knows native mateirals are all but inaccessible unless the materials are read slowly - often with a dictionary. But this is intensive reading not extensive reading.

The aim of ER is to aid fluent reading by reading materials that can be read
a) without a dictionary
b) quite quickly - i.e. without too much pausing
c) with very high levels of comprehension
d) with active engagement - i.e. they are enjoyable

To me it makes sense to start learners with what they know. The gap between most learner's English and the language is native texts is to far and from their point of view the language is too randomly presented to make it meaningful and easy to learn from and will not meet the 4 conditions for ER set our above. Therefore learners should start reading with graded materials - graded readers. Beginner drivers start with the basics, and so should beginning readers.

However, if the learners are able to comprehend native materials quickly, without a dictionary, then of course native materials can be used for ER. But in my experience, less than 1% of English learners in this country can do this.

Authentic (native) texts are neither good nor bad. The issue is whether the learners are able to read them fluently or not. If they can't then they are not doing ER - they are more likely doing IR and struggling as they go.

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why should educators use and encourage learners to read and write authentic texts

well,authentic texts are useful, but not always are they preferable. IF the SS are beginners, it would be wiser to explode them to the graded texts since the authentic material might cause many difficulties in comprehensiion and even the disappointment in many learners.

Authentic texts(AT) - are they wise to use? The answer is yes. What level are ATs being used as text in the classroom and are they graded according to level? These surely are the questions. I find that using very short texts on new users is the best way to manage ATs, such as advertisements in newpapers (jobs, houses for sale, advertisements for selling equipment - there is usually quite a lot of text)and glossy magazines have interesting letters to the editor and very short pictures/with short text to go with it and great advertisements (cars, eg who is the advertisement geared towards. What socio-economic class and so on). Then as the confidence builds, I use longer texts that are relevant to the student needs and this can be content-based activities too.
On the subject of short ATs vs readers, ATs are great in the classroom because they are an activity that extensive reading does not allow, since readers are really more useful for additional reading, for enjoyment rather than as a classroom activity. That's not to say readers cannot be used in the classroom, but the use of readers is that they encourage fluidity and this can only be done in longer spells of reading, say as homework - reading a chapter a night and then maybe doing an activity - roleplay in the classroom (with class sets). ATs are more suited to task-based learning and they meet the needs of students in everyday life - real world reading instead of artificially contextualised texts.
Again, that is not to say that the texts on the commercial market should not be used. My philosophy in language teaching is to provide a panoply of texts, so students get a broad understanding of language use.

can you give me explanation on characteristics of good authentic reading materials and what to do to overcome weaknesses of using it? thanks indeed



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