If we’re looking for positives from this year’s enforced move to online lessons, then surely one is that authentic material is easier to incorporate!
Unlike coursebooks which, as good as they are, often employ language graded to the level of the students, authentic materials give students the chance to experience language through natural means and with a real-world purpose. Additionally, they can provide an insight into the target language culture and if introduced well, can be motivational.
Working online opens up a wealth of material that can easily be shared with our students. If we are teaching synchronously then it can be shown through screen sharing and posting the link in the chatbox. Asynchronously we can either share the link or embed the materials directly into our site. If you’re not sure of the difference, linking means when students click on the link they are taken away to a different website, while something that has been embedded can be viewed directly within your site. The advantage of embedding is that it keeps students on your site and stops them from getting distracted.
Considerations for choosing
When choosing authentic material, think about how accessible the material is in terms of language, relevance and overall content. With online materials you should also consider:
- Distraction – When showing students something online, be wary of other factors such as the type of advertising and appropriateness of other links that might appear on a website.
- Copyright – It is one thing to show the site, it is another to download or take things off websites without permission. This is a useful area to discuss with students to raise their digital literacy.
- Be authentic – Try and use the material in a real-life way.
Using authentic texts
A simple way to share an online text is to copy the link and share it in the chatbox. However, bear in mind:
- Online reading tends to make use of strategies such as skimming and scanning.
- Reading in detail would be a waste of time if we find out the web page is not relevant.
- Online texts are often nonlinear. Unlike a printed text, you don’t start at the top and read to the bottom. You’re often presented with additional video, audio, reader comments, along with texts full of hyperlinks that drag you off to other websites.
- When using online texts get the students to read it authentically, to both practise these skills and build their confidence in independent learning. For example, one digital literacy task is to get the students to consider the impact of the hyperlinks in the text. Get them to click on each hyperlink and discuss where it takes them. This does not stop you exploiting the material later for focus on language work.
Using authentic video
An obvious goldmine of authentic material is online video. YouTube, for example, has everything from songs, stories, and videos to contextualise most coursebook situations.
One of my favourite activities is based on the Facebook idea of the watch party, where people watch and interact with video content at the same time. Incorporating this idea into your online lessons means you’re using the video in a more authentic way, as opposed to creating a worksheet to accompany the students’ viewing.
- Before the lesson, open a browser and find the video you want to use.
- In online lessons, ‘share your screen’ and show the browser so everyone can see the video.
- Before pressing play ask the students to type into the chat box ideas about what they’re going to watch based on the still image.
- As you play, encourage the students to react in the chatbox. The first time you do this you might need to prompt them with questions i.e. ‘What do you think of…?’
- After viewing use the chatbox entries to prompt post-watching discussion. Depending on video type, exploit further by putting students into breakout rooms and get them to work together to retell what they watched.
This concept can be used for most video types. For example, if you choose a video of someone being interviewed, then get the students to react to what is being said. If you’ve chosen a song, get the student to type lyrics they hear. After they’ve done this you can then go to a site like lyrics.com and show the lyrics on the screen.
Other types of authentic material
Not all the texts online are stories. There are restaurant menus, advice sites, and blogs! So, in a year when travel has become difficult, then we can bring the world into our online lessons.
- Plan a group trip or holiday. Using break out rooms each group plans their trips and collects information. Students put it together to share with the class using collaborative tools such as Jamboard, Padlet, or Google Docs.
- Encourage students to use free image and sound sites such as pixabay.com or freesfx.co.uk for enhancing storytelling activities.
- Employ the same sites to create guessing games to practise language i.e. practising modals by showing an image or playing a sound and eliciting language such as “it might be a car engine, it could be a cat.”
Student engagement with authentic material
In the online classroom, everyone has the same access to materials. Don’t ignore the fact that students could choose the materials for online lessons! Instead of you choosing the YouTube video, why don’t they?
- Build motivation and improve class dynamics by letting each student show the class one of their favourite websites/videos. Additionally, this provides a neat brain break between all the online learning the students have to do during your lesson.
Finally, remember that not all authentic material in our online classrooms needs to be online. At home, students have access to plenty of authentic materials that can be exploited. Over the course of lockdown, I’ve had students creating Lego models, showing their favourite possessions and even cooking and showing their favourite food. So, to go back to where we started, while the online classroom is seen by many as a poor substitute for the bricks and mortar one, there is a certain irony in that it many ways it can lead us to more authentic language learning.
Are you ready to explore digital tools for teaching and learning?
Do you need help getting started with the digital tools in your Oxford course?
Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP. He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group. He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.