In the past few weeks I have notice that several of my virtual colleagues have questioned the necessity of using authentic materials for interpretive tasks in their World Language classrooms. Many fabulous language teachers have expressed their uncertainty about whether it is imperative to limit themselves to those materials that were written “by members of the target culture for members of the target culture”. Reading the blogs, Tweets, and Facebook posts of teachers whom I respect enormously led me to reflect about my own choice to rely almost exclusively on authentic materials in my classroom.
One of the concerns that my colleagues have expressed is that finding appropriate resources is overly time-consuming. I can’t disagree with this one. It does take a considerable amount of time to find just the right authentic document that will be accessible to our students, but still have the cultural and linguistic content that we are looking for. Although I don’t have any magic fixes, I do have a couple of suggestions. Firstly, and most importantly, I think it’s important to find the authentic resources FIRST. I suggest that before you write your Can-Do statement (or objective, standard, or goal), create a vocabulary list (if you do), create a vocabulary-building activity (if you do), prepare a grammar lesson (if you do), or write a quiz (if you do), etc., that you select the resources your students will read or listen to during the unit and on their Integrated Performance Assessment. It is much easier to design lessons around the vocabulary and structures in an authentic text than it is to find resources that happen to have those items you had chosen in advance to focus on. This was a really scary paradigm shift for me. I was so afraid that I would accidentally “leave something out” if I didn’t find a way to incorporate certain level-appropriate structures in each unit that I teach. I have slowly realized, though, that if a structure is important enough for students to know, it will usually appear in those materials which are appropriate to their proficiency level. My second suggestion for reducing research time is to establish a Pinterest board (or similar forum) for each thematic unit in your curriculum. Hundreds of other French teachers have spent endless hours looking for exactly what I need for each unit I teach and I’m eternally grateful to them for archiving their resources in a way that allows me to benefit from all of their hard work.
The second criticism that I have seen addressed is that students may become frustrated by having to interpret authentic texts. I think this is where the teacher’s role is vital. We have to select texts that are appropriate to the proficiency level of our students. Novice learners need lots of pictures, and only short sentences. I have found that infographics and picture books can be interpreted within a few weeks of language study. Secondly, we need to choose appropriate tasks. The template designed by ACTFL (http://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/implementing-integrated-performance-assessment ) works really well in my classes. Although I don’t use every section for each lesson (reserving the full template for IPA’s), the open-ended nature of the tasks, as well as the focus on both top-down and bottom-up strategies have helped even reluctant readers to be very successful. I can honestly say that my students seldom complain about reading tasks that I assign and I think this is because of the confidence they’ve gained by using the same strategies to approach increasingly complex texts. As a matter of fact, a level 1 student who has an IEP for a reading disability recently told me that she “likes reading in French” because she’s “good at it.”
The third reason that many teachers give for not relying on authentic materials is a belief that it just isn’t necessary, especially at lower levels. In my opinion, it is vital to expose students to authentic language from the beginning of their language study for the following reasons:
- Authentic materials help students to understand the connection between what they’re learning in class and the real world. When they read a text that was written for members of the target culture, they understand that French is not just an academic discipline that only exists within the classroom walls. When some of my French I students responded to post on a keypal site that I had assigned as an interpretive task, they made a connection that would never have happened if they had read descriptive paragraphs from a textbook.
- I think that authentic materials are necessary to ensure that students are being exposed to relevant cultural content. As an American, I am not always familiar with the “products, practices, perspectives” that are pertinent to a unit of study. However, when the authentic resources that I choose will often provide the direction I need to introduce relevant cultural knowledge to my students.
- In my opinion, students need to be exposed to language which is not entirely comprehensible. Each time we present our students with teacher- or publisher-created texts, we deny them the opportunity to develop the skills they need to interpret the non-familiar language in an authentic text. As I see it, there is little value in asking a student to demonstrate comprehension of a text that contains only previously-learned vocabulary and structures. Instead, the purpose of interpretive tasks is to use the context provided by the presence of some familiar language to acquire additional vocabulary and structures.
In closing, while we don’t have to rely exclusively on authentic resources when designing our curricula, I think we owe it to our students to do the best we can to incorporate these materials whenever possible.