How should teachers use 'authentic' texts in class? Author, trainer and teacher Rachael Roberts gives valuable advice on the example of newspapers. She will also be delivering a live-streamed presentation from Belfast on writing effective classroom materials, 11 March 2014.
Back in 1981, Vivian Cook wrote:
‘One of the words that has been creeping into English teaching in the past few years is 'authentic'. It has a kind of magic ring to it: who after all would want to be inauthentic?’
Teachers and students are naturally attracted to authentic texts (by which I mean any text which has not been produced for the purpose of language learning). Finding that you can read something designed for a native speaker is motivating, and developing strategies to deal with ‘real’ texts enables students to read more confidently and extensively outside the classroom.
But, as Cook goes on to say, we also need to consider just how helpful the authentic text we choose actually is for our students. Many of the features of authentic texts, especially newspaper texts, are far more complex than we might realise at first glance.
First challenge: Text organisation
For example, how clearly is the text organised? This can be a real headache with newspaper texts, which often have very short paragraphs, not necessarily linked clearly to the surrounding text. I remember an activity where the students had to order the paragraphs of a newspaper article. It was virtually impossible, because the links weren’t clear enough and because the students weren’t made aware that the first paragraph of a newspaper article usually sums up the whole story.
Second challenge: Headlines
Newspaper headlines can also be hard to decipher. They often use puns or cultural references. This is particularly true of tabloid newspapers, which you might think would use simpler language, but are in fact about the hardest to decipher. Look at this headline, for example, which appeared on the Mirror website not long ago:
It's Bradley Zoo-per! LEMUR grabs keeper's camera to join the selfie craze
To understand this headline we need cultural knowledge - to know that someone called Bradley Cooper took a ‘selfie’ (a popular form of self-portrait using a camera, often a mobile phone) at the Oscars (film awards) recently. We also need to know what a keeper is (a zoo-keeper, who looks after the animals) and we need to be able to understand the syntax of the headline. (A lemur took his keeper’s camera and used it to take a self-portrait).
Understanding the genre
If we are going to work with news articles, students need some help and training in understanding the features of the genre. For example, the headline is frequently confusing, but there is often a subheadline which makes things clearer, e.g.:
After actor Bradley Cooper's Oscars snap went viral, London Zoo's lemur Bekily gets in on the act
And then the first paragraph usually summarises the story:
This ring-tailed lemur didn't want to miss out on the selfie craze – so he snatched his keeper's camera and took his own.
This first paragraph nearly always contains what journalists call the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where and why). Getting students to try and find the 5 Ws (or as many as possible), just using the headline and first paragraph, is a way of leading them into the rest of the text, which usually just adds detail to these main points.
Third challenge: Identifying what certain words refer to
Another common feature is the use of reference devices. Obviously, we find these in all texts, but because of the concise way newspaper texts are written, it can be particularly hard to follow the chain of reference. For example:
Bekily, 12, was watching Tegan McPhail photograph animals at London Zoo at feeding time. Perhaps inspired by Bradley Cooper's mega-selfie with fellow stars at the Oscars he decided he wanted to pose for one himself.
I think a lot of students would assume that the highlighted ‘he’ referred to Bradley Cooper, because he has just been mentioned (or even Tegan McPhail, mentioned in the previous sentence) when it actually refers right back to ‘Bekily’. To help students with this we could ask them to underline the reference words and then draw arrows to what they refer to.
Fourth challenge: Idioms
And, as you will have noticed, there are also a lot of idioms, especially in the tabloids. With a short article like this one, you can ask students to underline any idioms they find (go viral, get in on the act, mega-selfie) and look them up. They could then try and rewrite the article (or a section of it) without any idioms, putting the original idioms in a list below. If the students have read different texts, they could then swap and ask their partner to try and rewrite the article using the list of idioms given.
Either of these activities could be used with any authentic news text, thus saving preparation time. But what about comprehension questions? Teachers often spend a lot of time thinking up exercises to exploit news articles. And, because they date, the material can rarely be used again.
One solution is to provide a generic task, such as the 5Ws task outlined above. Other possibilities:
- Ask learners to choose, say, no more than five sentences that seem to carry the main points of the article. This can then be checked by a peer (while you monitor).
- Ask learners to rewrite a short article, changing some of the information to make it a lie (as outrageous as they wish. For example, Bekily might take photos of the keeper... A partner then reads it and spots the lies.
- Ask learners to write their own headlines, and talk together to decide on the best one (which will involve discussing the content of the text).
While there are certainly some pitfalls, up-to-date and topical news items can be very motivating for learners, and ways of helping learners to deal with them are a useful tool in any teacher’s toolkit.