Guest Contributor: Karin Fajardo, co-author of Conectados.
When should beginning language learners use authentic materials? In my opinion, the answer is from day one. I know some may disagree, equating that practice with diving into water without knowing how to swim. However, one must approach the use of authentic materials with the same care as one who is entering the water for the first time. If provided with the proper tools and support, beginning language learners will not only be able to wade in the context of the authentic material but will soon want to dive deeper.
When creating the Introductory Spanish program Conectados, my co-author Patti Marinelli and I knew right away that we wanted to include authentic materials—that is, materials created by and for native speakers for real-life, non-pedagogical purposes. As explained below, working with authentic materials has important benefits, even for students who are learning the bare basics of the language.
Why Use Authentic Materials?
Motivation. Most people want to learn languages to communicate about subjects that they find interesting. The sooner that they have the opportunity to work with real language, the more inspired they’ll be to continue studying, even if they only partially understand what they’re reading or hearing.
Meaningfulness. Words, expressions, and grammatical features are easier to grasp and remember if learners discover them in a meaningful context. Language used in live conversations or unmodified printed material carries an intrinsic story and purpose, and its content usually appeals more powerfully to the learner’s imagination.
Cultural Competence. Advertisements, news clips, paintings, interviews, songs, street signs, train schedules, and even photographs contain a wealth of cultural information. Authentic materials not only place language in context, they also connect learners to aspects of the target culture: humor, current events, norms, or mores. In addition, they provide opportunities to expand beyond the artifact at hand in conversation, integrating the 5Cs (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, Communities).
Self-Confidence. Perhaps more than anything else, self-confidence is the ingredient that allows learners to acquire a language and use it in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Beginning learners need plenty of opportunities to puzzle over unfamiliar aspects of language. When they succeed in figuring something out on their own, they are emboldened to undertake even more challenging materials. Working with raw, real-world specimens of the language is a natural way to build language “muscle.”
How to Use Authentic Materials
The how is equally as important as the why in the case of elementary language learners. To ensure successfully interaction with authentic materials, the following criteria should be met.
A Safe Environment. The learner should feel free to explore, work with the language, and even make a few mistakes along the way. The online environment is the best setting to accomplish all that; hence, the authentic readings in Conectados live online. Online, learners have control over when and how they will interact with the authentic materials. They may read at their own pace and access glosses with the hover of the cursor; with videos, they may pause and replay as many times as they wish and turn on subtitles.
Well-Curated Materials. Authentic materials should be carefully chosen, especially in beginning courses. When we looked for authentic texts for Conectados, we asked three questions: Is it relevant? Is it up-to-date? Is it accessible? The last criterion, finding texts with simple linguistic structures that matched the level of the students, was a time-consuming process. At the end, we selected infographics for the early chapters. The attractive-looking layout immediately grabs learners’ attention and its visual graphics enhance comprehension of the content.
In early chapters, low text/high infographics build confidence and interest (while developing 21st Century Skill: Information Literacy). Later in the program, longer texts are presented as students develop effective L2 reading strategies.
Pedagogical Support. Language learners, especially beginners, need plenty of support to help make sense of unsimplified Spanish. We recognize that reading in L2 is not the same as reading in L1, so in Conectados, before students are exposed to authentic text and video, they are guided through two preparatory activities: Estrategia and Palabras. Estrategia provides strategies to help learners understand what they read and hear. In Palabras, learners preview important words that appear in the text or narration and obtain some contextual knowledge. As N.J. Anderson argued in Exploring second language reading: Issues and strategies (1999), L2 readers need to be able to recognize words so that they can adequately comprehend text.
After the preparatory work, learners are then presented with the authentic text or video. In this step they still need guidance so Comprensión questions help them focus on the main idea and the most important details. After completing Comprensión, students feel satisfaction that they understood the key points without having to understand every single word; in other words, they learn an important lesson of real-life language: to tolerate vagueness and incompleteness of understanding.
The final activity, Comparaciones y conexiones, ensures deeper learning by enabling students to conduct further research, construct new knowledge, and share that knowledge with the instructor and the rest of the class. (Once again, incorporating ACTFL 21st Century Skills.)
If learners have well-designed supporting materials, then working with authentic language is an excellent way of motivating them, increasing their knowledge of the target culture, and building their self-confidence with the language.
Do you use authentic materials in your beginning language courses? What do you think are the major advantages? Drawbacks? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.