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Evaluate the extent to which authentic materials are useful in teaching English in accordance with a competency based learning outcome.

| April 6, 2015


To determine the extent to which authentic materials should be used in material design for English teaching one must start by being mindful of the expected outcomes of learning. To this extent there are two broad competing theories: Competency versus Knowledge-base. The practice and mission of TESOL supports a theory of competence rather than having a strong theoretical base, as the course is generally aimed at adult, non-native English speakers. As such, interaction with authentic materials is absolutely vital. That being said, this is not without disadvantage. There are significant disadvantages to making use of these materials, however with the proper management by the educators involved, these can be minimized and ultimately will become a non-issue. Through examination of the benefits and disadvantages, it is concluded that in order to properly effect a competency based educational outcome, the correct inclusion of these materials is necessary subject to the level of the learner involved and the related cultural sensitivities.


In the past few decades there has been a shift in the introduction of authentic teaching materials in material in English teaching. There are a number of factors that may have influenced this shift, however notably due to the necessity of competent English skills there has been a global shift in adult education in the language sector. This has led to a change in approach as to the learning outcomes of teaching English. No longer is the outcome of language education knowledge based, rather it is outcome or competency based. This however is not a universal shift in language education approach and one must distinguish between adult education and young learner education on one hand, and native and non-native speakers on the other. For young learners, regardless of whether English is their native language a knowledge based approach will most likely be used as there is sufficient time and no immediate need for competent English practice. For adult learners however there is generally a specific requirement for competent English practice, therefore necessitating this need for a fast track of English learning. It focuses more on what the learner can do with the language, rather than the knowledge they have about it (Docking, 1994). The introduction of authentic materials in English teaching supports this idea of competency based outcomes. It is based on the idea that authentic materials introduce real use of the language produced by native speakers for real purpose rather than for the purpose of language development that may be in line with knowledge based curriculum outcomes. The central thesis of this paper will evaluate the extent to which authentic materials are useful in teaching English in accordance with a competency based learning outcome.

Authentic Materials Generally

Authentic materials generally have been described as those materials that are ‘real’ and were not designed for language students, in other words they are real materials that use everyday language to communicate to native language users (Harmer, 1991). Examples of authentic materials would include newspaper articles, signage, theatre, television, songs or magazines. Non-authentic materials are those which are specifically designed for language students concentrating on the language that one wishes to teach. Teachers of language need to be mindful of this distinction as selection of inappropriate authentic material may be difficult to understand and the obvious benefit of inclusion of these materials will be handicapped if they teach students bad or narrow use of the language. Therefore, the selection of these materials for material design in taught English must take account of all the various advantages and disadvantage in the extent to which is may be used.

Competency and Authentic Materials

One cannot evaluate the use of authentic materials in isolation and the broader context of teaching outcomes must be evaluated. If one has a clear understanding of the outcome expected, one can determine the most effective way of achieving that outcome. Therefore it is relevant to ask the question: What are we trying to achieve?

Knowledge-based learning outcomes involve a certain level of abstraction, conceptualization and organization (Richards & Rodgers, 1987). This will teach students a set of skills that can be used to approach the language with methods and techniques therefore making their knowledge of language universally transferable and not contextually dependant. Competency on the other hand “refers to a standard of performance either implicitly or explicitly, the term closely parallels definitions of mastery or criterion levels of performance” (Wong, 2008). This involves a broader inclusion of social, cognitive and communicative skills to allow for effective use of language. Simply stated, competency based outcomes are concentrated on allowing for actual communication in the way that native speakers would use the language, whilst not being overly concerned with the theoretical knowledge that the students have.

The essential difference between the two approaches to teaching can be summarized as different emphasis on ‘real’ English in teaching and this will significantly affect the outcome of the learner’s language skills. Advocates of the use of authentic materials argue that the use enables learners to have a more real grasp of the language as it is used by native speakers and without these materials, the gap between what is learnt and how one must use the language will leave learners unable to communicate in the ‘real world.’ Conversely, opponents will argue that these give a subjective knowledge of the language that will be ultimately harmful to the learners use. It clear however that the use of these materials is generally accepted as beneficial, the debate it seems about the type of material and context in which it is used. By and large there seems to be general consensus favoring competency based educational outcomes.

The mission of TESOL is “[t]o advance professional expertise in English language teaching and learning for speakers of other languages worldwide” (TESOL, 2007). TESOL generally can be said to be aimed at adult learners that are non-native English speakers. It is aimed at professionally equipping this demographic with competent English skills. Bearing this in mind, it is clear that there is a large element of competency based educational outcomes in TESOL teaching. It is against this framework, that one must evaluate the extent to which authentic materials must be included in material design.

Benefits of Using Authentic Materials

Exposure to Real Language

Very importantly, one must bear in mind that knowledge-based educational approaches teach learners to use proper, full sentences and engage with the language on that level. As all speakers of a native language know, this is generally not the way that people communicate. The difference between taught and spoken language is generally vastly different in terms of vocabulary and grammar, therefore there is some argument to be made that the use of ‘real’ materials in teaching conforms to the expected outcomes of TESOL as it engages learners with the language in the way that will benefit these individuals professionally.

For example, a simple greeting conversation has many intricacies and social nuances. It involves more than being able to enquire how a person is and respond accordingly. Teaching by way of authentic materials in this way will allow students to interact with social convention that will give contextual meaning to conversations that simple grammar based teaching will not. One can see that exposure to real language is a product of a competency educational outcome expectation as one is trying to promote competency in everyday discourse rather than teaching the theoretical basis for these interactions which will prove to be unhelpful in these situations.

Positive Effect on Learner Motivation

The use of authentic materials in teaching exposes learners to ‘real’ language, which has the effect of motivating them, because there is the opportunity for the students to see their progress tangibly (Hastings & Murphy, 2002). Psychologically, this is an important aspect as it increases the confidence of the students. A student that is able to read a newspaper article in a learning environment is far more likely to attempt to read further articles outside of the classroom. Having exposure to reading these articles will also improve the chance that they will understand these articles as they will be familiar to a certain extent with the grammar and vocabulary used. This is a kind of knock-on effect of using authentic materials in teaching with vast benefit for listening and speaking language skills of the learners. A key example of this is using television in material design. By exposing students to television that they can understand, it is more likely that they will seek out further programming in English, because they will be confident that they will be able to understand it to a certain extent and as these programs are meant for native English speakers, the vocabulary and grammar used will be varied and therefore challenging, increasing the learning potential. It is therefore highly beneficial to learner motivation and confidence to use authentic materials.

Provision of Authentic Cultural Information

“The great advantage of natural, idiomatic texts over artificial ‘methods’ or ‘series’ is that they do justice to every feature of the language” (Sweet, 1899, p177). This is particularly evident with authentic materials in teaching as they encompass a broad range of cultural idiosyncrasies. By their very nature, authentic materials have intrinsic educational value as they are often linked to current and global events – this is part of the general responsibility of teachers i.e. an educational motive (Sanderson, 1999). They also expose students to particular cultural information about the place in which they study. For example, there is a particular way that British English is practiced by locals and this is reflected in the media produced in terms of subject matter, colloquialisms and informal language or slang that are culturally specific (e.g. football, monarchy news, local politics, the upcoming Olympic Games). The inclusion of this material breaks down the language barrier as it will allow communication effectively between native and non-native English speakers. In other words, it tailors the language for use in a specific cultural context.

Relation to Learners ‘Needs’

Often with TESOL students there is a NEED to learn English as opposed to the desire to do so. In other words, while there may be a personal desire to learn the language, more often than not it is necessitated by employment opportunities, work environment or living circumstances. It is impossible to communicate effectively in an English speaking country without a working knowledge of the language. Authentic material use in English teaching is therefore more attune with the general needs of the learners (Martinez, 2002). By providing cultural context and real use of the language, these students will be able to interact in English speaking society faster and more authentically. An example of this is the average non-English speaking businessperson. It is important for these people to be able to conduct their business affairs in English and to be able to liaise with English stakeholders without disadvantage. It is however not necessary for these people to be able to produce a grammatically correct literary work. This is an illustration of the shift towards a competency based outcome system, where knowledge base becomes less important depending on the context of the learning environment. Therefore, teaching of real language use through authentic materials will be more beneficial than traditional theoretical language knowledge.

Disadvantages of Using Authentic Materials

Language Complications

A major disadvantage of the use of authentic materials in material design is that they often use difficult language, unneeded vocabulary and complex sentence structure (Richards, 2001). This creates potentially unnecessary burdens on teachers (Kilickaya, 2004). For lower level students this may be a burden; however it may also be a useful advantage for teaching more advanced students. It will allow for more variety and flair in language use that will accompany native-English speaker’s language use generally. An example of this can be seen in the presentation of an article containing satyr or jest. Much of what constitutes sarcasm or satyr in English language has to do with a specific contextual knowledge of either special circumstances surrounding the article or particular concepts of language. A good example of such writing can be seen in local newspapers such as The Guardian or The Telegraph raging on about whether the British Prime Minister is a reptile (Brooker, 2011). A student faced with such an article, advanced or novice, would be hard pressed to understand such material as it requires a fairly in-depth knowledge of the language. The vocabulary itself is exceptionally verbose and is written with a great deal of satyr, therefore to understand this one would need special knowledge of the circumstances surrounding it. The sentence structure is unconventional, as traditional journalism tends to be and when presented with such an article, there is a definite expectation that the student would end up entirely confused. It is therefore clear that despite the stated advantages of use of authentic materials in material design, there is a fair amount of discretion that needs to be exercised by teachers in these situations. Without proper filtering of materials, these will inhibit learning outcomes rather than helping and one can see by way of such an example that not all authentic materials are useful in teaching English.

Cultural Bias

This further presents the problem of cultural bias (Martinez, 2002). “Authentic materials may be too culturally biased or too difficult to understand outside the language community thereby making them inaccessible to beginners or elementary learners” (Berado, 2006 p64). Berado explains further by way of example that to this extent she often experienced students asking for translations of song lyrics or newspaper articles after having looked up every word in a dictionary, not able to understand a word. Martinez describes this as lower-level problems with decoding texts. The general consensus however is the control of authentic materials that is used in material design and like facing issues of complex language structure, a discretion must be used to ensure that the materials are appropriate for the level of learner using them.

Improper Structure & ‘Bad Habits’

It is fairly evident that exposure to authentic materials may cause the development of improper language use or ‘bad habits.’ General exposure through informal literature, especially on television can lead to improper language use. Examples of these bad habits are the addition of certain words or phrases to everyday language by native English speakers. Through repetition and exposure, non-native English speakers will add these phrases to their vocabulary thinking that the addition is correct, albeit colloquial. Examples of these phrases are the words ‘like’ and ‘you know.’ TESOL aims to equip learners professionally in their use of the language and it would not be effective or professional to have these colloquial terms included through exposure to authentic materials.


Use of Authentic Materials at all levels of learning

“Authentic materials… offer a much richer source of input for learners and have the potential to be exploited in different ways and on different levels to develop learners’ communicative competence” (Gilmore, 2007 p100). The truth of this statement cannot be denied, however there are clearly great disadvantages to using authentic materials in material design of English teaching. The recommendation of some is that these materials only be included at a certain level of teaching. For Guriento & Morley, this inclusion is to happen at the post-intermediate phase of teaching (Guriento & Morley, 2001). Kilickaya seems to support this view by explaining that this due to the advanced vocabulary and structure understanding that these students will have. There is clearly a point to be made here as there is also the time constraints on teachers in preparing these lessons and finding suitable material for beginner learners may prove to be challenging and time consuming. To this extent, a study was conducted which found that learners enjoyed interacting with authentic materials as it provided real interaction with the language which was found to be a motivating factor (Chavez, 1988). The recommendation therefore is that authentic materials should be used to some extent at all levels of learning, whether basic, intermediate or advanced. It is to the discretion of the teacher in this circumstance to ensure that the material is appropriate for the level of learner. The probative value of the use of authentic materials in material design, in these circumstances, clearly outweighs any potential disadvantages posed by their use. These disadvantages can be mitigated by exercising careful discretion over the type of materials used.

Inclusion of Cultural Content

Kilickaya advocates that despite the danger of inclusion of cultural content, it is an integral part of language learning, a view which is supported by most authors on the subject (Kilickaya, 2004; Guest, 2002; McKay, 2000). To this extent, the inclusion of cultural content is also believed to foster motivation and interaction with the language. The correct inclusion of this cultural content however is the essential consideration, as it is vitally important that there be cultural discourse in a learning environment that will facilitate interaction between the learners’ culture, international culture and the target market culture (McKay, 2000). In this way students are not exposed to cultural extremes and are able to see an interaction between the various cultures at play in language use. This will prevent assimilation into one culture and promote mutual cultural respect (Kilickaya, 2004). An example of this discourse can be seen in Arabic culture –which to a large extent is present in the use of language. Therefore, to learn English as a native-Arabic speaker, there will need to be the transference of culture in language. Whilst different societies such as those in Arabic speaking nations have varying degrees of gender, age and religious cultural tradition, these are not necessarily present in English language therefore it is vitally important that there be a facilitated interaction to ensure language neutrality promoting mutual respect. It is evident therefore that the variety in cultural background of persons learning English necessitates cultural inclusion in authentic materials used in material design for English teaching. Language is inherently tied to culture and is not just a compilation of words and without the inclusion of this, there are bound to be misunderstandings, which for the professional aims of TESOL could be disastrous. In line with a competency based outcome, cultural understanding is absolutely vital. Therefore, the potential for cultural bias can be mitigated by educational engagement with this subject matter, making the potential disadvantage of inclusion of these materials significantly less threatening.


The logical conclusion with regards to the extent to which authentic materials should be included in material design in English teaching is that it is highly beneficial at all levels of learning. Despite the disadvantages that it may provide, there is a strong case to be made for inclusion despite these. Practically, it presents difficulties to educators as it will require a fair amount of preparation for lessons and in certain cases, such as learners at a beginners level, this may prove to be highly challenging. The motivating factor that the inclusion presents is undeniably more important however and this shift to a more competency focused outline is heavily supported by the inclusion of these materials. Whilst knowledge-based outcomes are still highly favorable, for the purposes of TESOL English teaching, it is generally agreed that competency is the goal and to this extent educators must be wary of their inclusion of these materials, however academia would prove that this inclusion is necessary and favored. There is a general support of competency based educational outcomes and to this extent it is evident that authentic material inclusion significantly improves the potential achievement of this outcome. The extent to which they should be included will depend on the level of the learners involved and the particular resource itself. With a competency based approach to English teaching, this inclusion will be immensely beneficial for the listening and reading skills of the learners whilst educators must simply be mindful of the potential dangers of authentic material inclusion to ensure that these are used in the most effective manner for the greatest advantage to the student in professional discourse.


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