Using authentic reading materials in FLT

Written by: Maria Neikova

The article focuses on the use of supplementary authentic reading texts in teaching English as a foreign language. It aims at improving the reading skills and strategies of adult learners in a conventional classroom setting and in a computerized learning environment. The use of authentic materials is an important principle of communicative language learning and it contributes to the development of an individual learning style and learner autonomy.

Developing reading skills is an important part of foreign language teaching. Foreign language textbooks offer a variety of reading texts but there is usually a one-size-fits-all approach to the way the texts are presented and to the choice of reading comprehension exercises. When that is the case, foreign language teachers try to find supplementary texts and design their own exercises. In order to achieve better results, certain issues have to be taken into account. These are the similarities and differences between reading in one’s first language and reading in a foreign language, the reasons for reading and the aims of a reading programme, the advantages and disadvantages of using authentic texts at all levels of language proficiency and the criteria we use to choose appropriate texts from various sources.

The following terms will be used in the article:

Ÿ reading – an activity that has as its main purpose “the extraction of meaning from writing” (Nuttal, 1982:4);

Ÿ reading comprehension – “Understanding a written text means extracting the required information from it as efficiently as possible.” (Grellet, 1981:3);

Ÿ authentic texts – “those which are designed for native speakers” (Harmer, 1991:185), e.g. the articles in a newspaper or a magazine;

Ÿ non-authentic texts – those which have been “written especially for language students” (Harmer, 1991:185), in other words, they have been changed, most often simplified, to suit the requirements of a foreign language curriculum.

Let us discuss what reading in a foreign language is, how it differs from reading in one’s mother-tongue. If the foreign language learners are poor readers in their mother-tongue, we can’t expect them to read efficiently in the foreign language. But if they are good readers in their mother-tongue, we expect them to transfer their reading strategies to the foreign language automatically. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Automatic transfer of reading strategies from L1 to L2 is difficult or never occurs. Good readers use top-down and bottom-up strategies to make predictions about the meaning of the text and check them. They vary their reading speed and strategies according to the purpose for their reading and the type of the text. When the same students read a text in the foreign language, they tend to use bottom-up strategies, i.e. their linguistic knowledge, but they rarely dare to use top-down strategies, i.e. their knowledge about the world. Appropriate reading strategies are rarely used and even some faulty reading habits, e.g. subvocalizing, regressive eye movements, etc., can be observed. So, foreign language students usually need more reading practice in order to become efficient readers in the foreign language.

The use of authentic materials is an important principle of Communicative Language Teaching. In real life we read because we are interested in the communicative purpose of the text, in the ideas that the writer has expressed or the effect that the text is supposed to produce on the reader. The language in an authentic text is varied, whereas in a non-authentic one there is often one single structure that is repeated. The use of truly authentic texts is an important means of teaching students to communicate effectively.

Unfortunately, most textbooks make use of non-authentic texts. They are supposed to be easier than authentic ones and to be better suited to the students’ language proficiency level. However, this is not true because:

  • non-authentic texts are usually over-explicit: they say too much because they lack the natural redundancy of authentic ones, they abound with details, so, the students are not given the chance to make any inferences;
  • textbook reading materials usually deal with over-familiar topics. This can hardly be avoided at beginner level but at the higher levels the reading texts can be more informative, enjoyable and interesting;
  • there is often a noticeable emphasis on the product of the activity, i.e. on the answers to the comprehension questions, over the process, i.e. the appropriate use of reading skills and strategies in order to understand the text.

We can overcome these shortcomings quite successfully if we provide supplementary authentic texts. Thus the language learners will become better readers, confident in their ability to cope with reading in real life situations.

So, why do we read? In our daily lives we read for two basic reasons: for pleasure and for information (Grellet, 1981:4). We read for information because we want to find out something, to learn something from the text, or for instruction, in order to do something with the information we get, to find out how to act. These reasons for reading are authentic. An authentic reason for reading can be defined in the following way:

“We use the term authentic to mean reasons that are concerned not with language learning but with the uses to which we put reading in our daily lives outside the classroom.” (Nuttal, 1982:3)

However, in most foreign language textbooks reading is primarily used to teach the language itself, which is not an authentic reason for reading.

The reasons for reading determine the aims of a reading programme, which can be defined as follows: “To enable students to read without help unfamiliar authentic texts, at appropriate speed, silently and with adequate understanding.” (Nuttal, 1982:21). These aims point to certain issues, which are essential in a reading programme. First, students should read silently. In real life one seldom has to read aloud, so, it is not “natural” or authentic to do it in a foreign language class. Another point is the flexibility in choosing the right speed or the degree of understanding. These can vary according to the type of the text and the purpose for reading it. Very often one doesn’t need to read fast or to understand every single word in a text. Next, one should learn to read texts that are authentic and not familiar. In real life people read authentic texts for authentic purposes and they rarely have to read the same text again and again. Last but not least, students should acquire the ability to read without help in order to become independent autonomous learners, and readers in particular. In other words, they should read as efficiently in the foreign language as they do in their mother-tongue.

When should authentic materials be used? This question has always been a tricky one to answer. On the one hand, there is a general agreement that at advanced level or at intermediate level foreign language students are able to read authentic texts. Beginners might be frustrated if they have to tackle an authentic text because it might turn out to be far more difficult than the ones they can understand properly, so “the use of “authentic” texts with less proficient learners is often frustrating and counter- productive” (Ur, 1996:150). On the other hand,

“Getting the students accustomed to reading authentic texts from the very beginning does not necessarily mean a much more difficult task on their part. […] one should grade exercises rather than texts.” (Grellet 1981:7,8)

Reading authentic texts efficiently is a sure way of building up beginners’ confidence. If the teacher grades the tasks carefully, provided the text remains within the students’ general competence, the reading activity will be success-oriented and quite motivating. If the students know that they have read a difficult text but they have managed to understand it adequately, they will feel confident in their own ability to read in the foreign language and will be more willing to take charge of their own learning.

Having mentioned the major drawbacks of textbook reading materials, let’s now consider the guidelines for selecting a text to supplement them or even replace them. These are the readability, the suitability of content and the exploitability of the authentic text (Nuttal, 1982:25).

Ÿ Readability means that the text should be at the right level. When we try to find a readable text, we have to assess the level of its structural and lexical difficulty. Still, we should not forget that the students can deal with more difficult texts, provided the task is not too difficult.

Ÿ Suitability of content means that the text should be interesting and informative. The students’ preferences should not be neglected and a survey of their tastes might help the teacher quite a lot.

Ÿ Exploitability means that the text should facilitate the development of reading skills in order to help the students become competent and independent readers.

However, we shouldn’t forget the fact that language classes are not entirely homogeneous: the level of the students is not the same, their tastes may vary and it is virtually impossible to create an ideal reader who could tackle all existing texts successfully. So, our goals and criteria should be realistic.

As was mentioned earlier, the tasks that teacher designs should be suited to the texts and to one’s reasons for reading them. They should also be success-oriented and should correspond to the students’ language proficiency level. Different texts lend themselves to different activities and it is only in relation to the text that we can decide whether an activity is good or bad.

In a language class students usually read a text to answer comprehension questions but this is not an authentic reason for reading. In order to make it authentic or near-authentic, we have to take into account why we read such texts in real life. For instance, we usually read the TV programme in order to choose something interesting to watch. If we ask our students to complete such a task in the foreign language, the purpose for reading will be an authentic one.

We can divide the reading activities in three groups. These are pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading activities.

Ÿ Pre-reading activities are used to prepare the students for the more detailed understanding of the meaning in the text that is necessary for the following stages. They are important at all levels of language proficiency but at the lower levels students need more instruction and help. Students at advanced level need less guided pre-reading activities. As a pre-reading activity, we can, for instance, ask the students to use the visual support they have (like pictures, maps, whatever there is) to make predictions about the content of the text or they can skim the text in order to find the main idea.

Ÿ The choice of while-reading activities depends on the purpose for reading because it determines the appropriate level of comprehension. The aim of the exercises should be clearly defined; the tasks should be flexible and varied.

Ÿ Post-reading activities give the students the opportunity to do something with the information they have learned from the text and again the choice of the tasks depends on the purpose for reading. Text-related tasks such as discussion, writing an essay or a summary are authentic and stimulate the students’ creative powers.

Another aspect of a reading session is assessment. The assessment of one’s reading ability should correlate with the purpose for reading. Of course we can use comprehension questions. If the purpose for reading is, for example, to find specific information or to understand what the opinion of the writer is and to find supporting arguments in the text, comprehension questions can be used to test understanding. Authentic text-related tasks can also be used for assessment. In order to provide such a task, the teacher needs to consider the purposes for which such a text could be read in real life: for example, the students might be given a menu in order to decide what they would like to have for lunch. When we design assessment tasks, we should bear in mind that assessment involves more accuracy-type activities compared with the activities that aim at the development of reading skills.

At beginner level it is inevitable that the teacher should control the choice of texts and the reading activities; s/he should also determine the purposes for a reading programme. By making the students aware of what they are doing in a reading session, the teacher can help them develop their reading skills consciously and at the higher levels his/her influence should decrease gradually. This transition from a teacher-centered approach to a learner-centered one should help the students become competent readers; they will be able to select the texts they need and to use appropriate strategies according to the type of the text they have chosen to read, i.e. they will be able to take responsibility for their own reading.

Traditionally, teachers look for authentic materials in books, in magazine or newspaper articles. Nowadays they increasingly use the Internet as a powerful tool to enhance reading in the foreign language. Internet-based reading materials have a number of advantages but they also have certain disadvantages that have to be taken into consideration. The Internet abounds in all kinds of texts on virtually every topic that is being explored at present. Authentic reading materials are easy to find, provided the students possess or have free access to the necessary equipment. What is more, multimedia technologies make reading a more interesting and satisfying experience. The animation of the texts on the Internet and the pictures give the students plenty of opportunities to use non-linguistic visual support, for example, they can use it to predict what the text is about. However, there are some limitations that have to be taken into account. First, the teacher has no control over the quality and accuracy of the information on the Internet. At beginner level, when the teacher is in control of the reading material, he can choose particular sites and demand that the students read only the information they can find there. But that can’t last forever. Since our task as teachers is to support our students on their way to becoming autonomous learners, we have to face the fact that as our students become better and better at reading they will feel the urge to choose their reading materials themselves; and the Internet provides ample opportunities for that. Second, in order to read texts on the Internet, one has to feel comfortable with multimedia technologies. Most young people are at ease with them but, unfortunately, not all of them are. And we can’t really expect much of those adults who feel under pressure because they cannot cope with the hyper-linked presentation of information on the Internet. This might even be their first experience with such authentic materials. The lack of computer skills may hamper the reading process and the effect on the students may be demoralizing. To sum up, the teacher should choose the texts with greater care and be more sensitive to the problems that some students may have when they work in a computerized setting. If used properly, the Internet can trigger the interest to explore all kinds of texts and we shouldn’t forget that we learn to read by reading.

What should be pointed out in conclusion is the vital importance of using authentic texts as supplements to textbook reading materials in order to prepare students for real life reading. Authentic texts foster the development of their reading skills thus helping them gain confidence in their reading ability in the foreign language. They become autonomous readers, who can take responsibility for their own reading.

References:

  1. Grellet F. 1981, Developing Reading Skills. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  2. Harmer, J. 1991. The Practice of English Language Teaching. London and New York: Longman.
  3. Nuttal, C. 1982. Teaching Reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Heinemann
  4. Ur, P. 1996, A Course in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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