Authentic Content And Classroom Practice

Waters raises the question of ‘authenticity’ versus ‘artificiality’ (the scare quotes are well placed: authentic for whom? and in what situations?). I would argue more strongly than he does for the centrality of authentic content and in particular for student-generated content in language teaching.
Waters rehearses the view that there are sound reasons for supplementing artificial texts with naturally occurring ones (increasing students’ motivation and confidence, enabling the learning of language as it is actually used). Implicit in his argument against the widespread introduction of authentic texts into classroom practice, however, is the suggestion that applied linguists advocate, and teachers use, authentic texts for Jewelry On Sale politically rather than pedagogically motivated reasons. To support this position, he quotes Richards’ dismissal of authentic content in language learning: ‘how native-speakers ask for and give directions is largely irrelevant.

My goal is to give them the resources to have successful experiences using English for simple classroom activities. Whether or not they employ native-speaker-like language to do so is irrelevant’ (2006: 22). Richards’ stance caricatures authenticity in language pedagogy. It also smacks of what Freire (1970) calls the ‘banking’ notion of education, whereby knowledge is a gift to be conferred by those who have it (teachers) upon those who do not (students). Likewise Waters, countering Carter and McCarthy (1996), maintains that there are pedagogical grounds for withholding language knowledge, for example: ‘when it is too confusing or daunting for the learner to cope with…’ (2009: 139). As Cook (2000) and others have convincingly argued, language learning does not and indeed should not always have to relate to the immediate concerns of students’ lives. But to hold back potentially confusing language knowledge points both to a distortion of the teacher role and to a denial of the tight relationship between languages taught in class and language knowledge required for daily life.

This is not to say that a pedagogy based on controlled language use cannot work, as long as it ensures that pedagogical processes align optimally with students’ life-world concerns. As Roberts and Cooke (forthcoming) say, invented or Tiffany Jewelry over-simplified functional materials which ‘flatten out interactional complexity’ do not meet the needs of (in their case) adult migrant students, who must ‘develop authentic voices in their new second language both for social and interpersonal encounters’. Drawing on research into interactional practices in institutional settings (Roberts and Campbell 2006), they use the example of job interviews to show that the language practices of real interviews are very different to those that are taught in classrooms. To address this concern, they advocate the use of research-informed materials that reflect what happens in everyday and institutional interactions. Such an approach is suitable not only for language learners in migration contexts, but also for those studying language for business or academic purposes. It does not, however, fully resolve the more difficult argument, sidestepped by Waters, about imbalances in power and knowledge, about how forms of education might induct students into powerful uses of language, and about the way access to knowledge works.

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