I think that authentic resources are overrated.

This is coming from the lady that just presented at ACTFL on the importance of authentic resources, or ‘ #authres ‘, and how to use them in novice language classes… kind of a contradiction?

How important are authentic resources in a language curriculum?

#authres are important, but they are not everything. I was able to eek out two or three tweets on Saturday morning before taking off for errands, and after reading @SraSpanglish’s fascinating Storify story on the topic, I wish that I had stayed home with a cup of coffee and tweeted all afternoon–not just because running errands with two babies is the pits, but because I missed out! Great conversation–and thanks to Laura Sexton for taking the time to narrate it in Storify!

What is an authentic resource?

An authentic resource is, by definition, any product that was created BY a native speaker FOR a native speaker. As Mira Canion once described it, the definition is incredibly narrow: too narrow, I would say, for using it as the criterion for which we include or exclude any given resource in class.

Who would use the resource, and why?

If we want to remain true to the definition, we end up splitting hairs. Take this infographic for example. It was created by the website http://www.speakinglatino.com, whose target audience is English speakers trying to learn Spanish. (I’m not sure whether the creator was a native speaker or not, but for the purpose of this example, it is irrelevant.) So. #authres? Nope. It was created (maybe) by a native speaker for a non-native speaker. However, I would not be surprised if there were native Spanish speakers out there that pinned this infographic and studied it because, for them, they could use it to learn the character names in English. So even though it was not created for native speakers of Spanish, it is useful and interesting to native speakers of Spanish to the same degree that it is to native speakers of English. But if we’re being snooty pants with our narrow definition of #authres, then no, it is not. But is that to say that its value is any less?

Is the perspective authentic?

Another example is The Immigrant Archive Project, which I discovered when teaching the novel Esperanza by Fluency Matters because it was included as an activity in the Teacher’s Guide. The creators appear to be primarily native speakers of Spanish, and the target audience appears to be native speakers of English. Most of the interviewees are speaking in Spanish, but they know that this is for a project that will be documenting their stories with subtitles in English. So even though their language is authentic, none of the interviews on the website are truly authentic resources. Does that make them any less valuable?

Leveled readers are authentic to the classroom context

The conversation on the Storify story revolved around leveled readers by companies like Fluency Readers. I think that I love those novels more than just about anyone out there and would argue their value to the death because I have seen what they have done for my students’ language acquisition and for the building of our community and their understanding of the world outside of Anchorage.

Unfortunately, the narrow definition of authentic resources excludes these novels. Most of the novels are not written by native speakers, and they are not written for native speakers. However, each novel is reviewed by at least three native speakers that confirm that the language is authentic. Furthermore, the novels are increasingly being used to improve Spanish language literacy and proficiency of native and heritage speakers of Spanish. So shall we ignore their usefulness simply because they do not fit our narrow definition?

What are the benefits of using authentic resources in class?

The reasons for examining authentic resources in language classes are numerous, and the research resonates with my experience. Here are some research-based reasons to work with #authres:

The reasons for examining authentic resources in language classes are numerous, and the research resonates with my experience. Here are some research-based reasons to work with #authres:

Here’s the deal, folks. If you attended my ACTFL presentation, you heard me say that authentic resources are only as valuable as the communication that they foster. There is some value in trying to interpret a text that is completely incomprehensible to a student, since that is a real-world skill that they will encounter if and when they find themselves in the target culture, but there is great value in taking the time to make the products, practices, and perspectives found in the resource comprehensible to your students. In doing so, you are spurring your students on toward linguistic proficiency and intercultural competency. The two must go together.

Should students practice real world survival skills in class?

Instead of spending my class time giving “hunt and peck” or “make a guess” tasks to students that perhaps mimic the experience of being in the real world, I want to use the majority of our precious class time to increase their fluency.

Even in Comprehension-based courses, students practice problem solving as they encounter new language; however, they are solving problems that are actually solvable to them. This is the point of providing input at i+1; not i+8. The task of understanding the text well enough to facilitate communication in the target language is doable.

What are the benefits of using resources created for learners?

If we look at the slide from my presentation that lists ten research-supported reasons for the use of authentic resources in language classes, it is quite apparent that many of those benefits are achieved by non-authentic resources. #4 and #9 for example–that has Immigrant Archive Project written all over it! #10 is true of any text that is compelling!

When I was reading La Calaca Alegre, a Fluency Matters novel by Carrie Toth, I literally could not put it down! I wanted to  know what happened! And the whole time I was learning about the target culture through the murals of Hector Duarte and life in the Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen, outside of Chicago. The same is true of my students as we read Esperanza and El Nuevo Houdini–the kids were not hung up in the least on the fact that Esperanza was written from the first person perspective or that we read El Nuevo Houdini in the past tense before we studied past tenses, because they were so focused on what was happening to the characters!

Reason #7 is true of anything that is interesting in life, period! It doesn’t matter who created it or for whom it was created–you could talk about Miley freaking Cyrus sitting naked on a wrecking ball in Spanish! That will inspire some heated discussion! But it is certainly not authentic! And #3–motivate the learner??? Hellooooo don’t we try to do that with any lesson? I could go on, but I think that you can see for yourself that all 10 benefits can be provided by selected non-authentic resources (with the exception of #8, which I think is silly anyway. I mean, come on. That’s like saying “A circle is circular”. Not helpful.)

The benefits of #authres are not exclusive to #authres

My point is that it is true that these are all benefits to using authentic resources in your classes, but they are not benefits that are exclusive to authentic resources. It would be foolish to ignore the challenges that authentic resources bring simply because we see that they have an impressive list of rewards.

How should we balance authentic resources and learner resources?

I guess I have three summarizing thoughts on the topic:

  1. It is not best practice to exclude a resource from use in your classroom simply because it is not, by narrow definition, an authentic resource, when it may in fact provide students with most or all of the benefits attributed to authentic resources.
  2. It is equally poor practice to include a resource simply because it is, by narrow definition, authentic, when it will not further your students’ language acquisition and will surely frustrate and confound them. If they are frustrated and confounded, they will not access any of its benefits.
  3. It is not best practice to include an authentic resource without comprehensify-ing it–turning it into comprehensible input. (On that note–if you want to learn how to do this, then you should fly me out of cold Alaska to come visit your school and teach you about it ;-))

That’s my summary… what’s yours?

27 replies on “#authres are overrated

  1. HMMM, I am a native speaker. I learned English here in USA with authentic resources, watching t.v., reading, etc, so I understand the importance and the need of presenting authentic resources in our classrooms. But I don’t see why it has to be the only method. As a teacher my goal is that my students become fluent, how I get there, is up to my class, my students, and how I use my resources.
    I guess what I want to say is that as a teacher I can use a variety of resources and methods to help me reach our goal.

    1. Yes…I suppose I should reiterate that I completely agree that authentic resources have great value to our students; however, that does not mean that non-authentic resources do not!

  2. Great post. So thoughtful and, hopefully, helpful to teachers who second guess themselves before using a good resource that fails the #authres litmus test. The infographic refers to Culture but I think it’s important to emphasize that in addition to being a great hook to engage students, Culture is one of our standards that authentic resources support. While it is a huge win to discover these resources complete with comprehensible input, I think students are often able to make strides in the Culture standard even if the resources lack language they will find comprehensible.

    1. I was about to write, “Yes, I agree!”, but actually I am not sure that I do (and by “not sure”, I mean that I am actually not sure–not trying to disagree in a meek way, haha!). If a student does not understand a resource, is it possible for him or her to make strides in the Culture standard? Some resources have little or no language, and so they are comprehensible. But if the language of a resource is truly incomprehensible to students, can we say with certainty that they are making strides in the Culture standard? How can we guarantee that they are not misinterpreting whatever cultural practice, product, or perspective we are trying to teach? It reminds me of Terry Waltz talking about gestures. Gestures are helpful, but they are not accurate. If we have a better (read: more fast and accurate) tool to use, such as quick translation, why wouldn’t we? If we CAN present authentic resources to students through comprehensible input, why wouldn’t we? We know that students will walk away with a more accurate and more profound understanding on the topic if it is presented through comprehensible input. What do you think?

  3. As a student teacher finishing up my certification/M.Ed, I really appreciate this post! It is so daunting to think of using only authentic resources in the classroom, especially when there are effective resources that aren’t necessarily “authentic.” I think the key is just learning how to select appropriate materials and to properly incorporate them into the classroom. There’s a big difference (in my opinion) between well-written resources that are technically not authentic and just poor resources in general. Thanks so much for this post!

  4. Thank you for sharing our “Cartoon Character Names in Spanish” infographic. I am Diana, a native Spanish-speaker from Puerto Rico, and that infographic came up after I sat down with my sister remembering our childhood TV programs. She helped me make the list to write the original blog post.

    1. Thank you for the list Diana. As it relates to the topic above, we now know that the infographic was written by a native speaker (check). Now I am wondering if you intended audience was for native speakers or non-native speakers of Spanish. Or was it intended for both?

  5. This echoed my thoughts exactly. If we limit ourselves to ONLY using “authentic resources” aren’t we in fact saying that language produced by an L2 speaker is less valuable? And aren’t we communicating that message to our language learners also?

  6. Thanks for the post Martina – the reasons that you outline for #authres not being the ‘end all be all’ are particularly relevant to me as an Asian language teacher. I’d been mulling this post for a long time before I wrote it – and your blog post spurred me on to do it. http://bit.ly/1hOAaam

  7. Martina I would love to know the name of the speaker from ACTFL that you mention. This is SUCH and important topic in our field. I have been talking about this for the past 15 years and yet it can be SACRILEGE in some WL circles. Truly authentic sources in early stages will almost NEVER be a source of sufficient CI for language acquisition in and of themselves. As you suggest, adapting them so that they are comprehensible certainly increases the language acquisition….but then they are no longer “authentic.” Thanks for this post and kudos on your great website. – Jason Fritze

    1. Oh my, I just had a mini heart attack. Thanks for being Jason Fritze. It was the video tape from one of your NTPRS sessions that got me started in TPRS back in the day! I would rather not share the name of the speaker, because I am certain that it was an innocent oversight and I would hate to have people think badly of me for one of my many innocent oversights! The point is that the activity that this person derived from the resource was not influenced by its lack of authenticity; it was a great activity because it was an interesting resource that was also comprehensible to students. I suppose that the only bummer was that audience members were led to believe that its value was in its authenticity, when it was not in fact authentic, and not its comprehensibility or compelling nature.

  8. So, this post was exactly what I needed today. I have been debating whether or not to join a Spanish-teaching master’s program offered here locally. And my biggest hang-up with this program is that the professors abide by this rigid definition of authentic resources. They practically demand that students and teachers in their program only use truly authentic resources in their classrooms, otherwise those teachers are not effective. Here is my support/regurgitation of your post on my blog. I just can’t say it better than you. I agree 100% with you on this.

    Preach woman!

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