ELT materials part 1: Encouraging genuine communication

There have been numerous discussions on the usefulness coursebooks over the past few years. If you’re interested in that have a look at one of Steve Brown’s articles on the topic, which raises a number of interesting questions. (The comments section is also worth a read.) I am not trying to solve all the problems using a coursebook may bring. However, I will talk about qualities I like in course materials, which help minimise them. These qualities are not an exhaustive list to critique materials. I won’t be talking about such things as visual appeal, which generally appear in evaluative checklists. There are three main qualities which I find help me use materials in a variety of contexts. The one I’m talking about today is related to how authentic conversations are.

Genuinely communicative

We are united across teaching contexts in the need to teach English for communication. Our students need to be able to understand and/or be understood. The need might be immediate or a long time in the future. However, all our learners want to speak or write and be understood, or listen or read and understand. Therefore our classes should be communicative.

Modern coursebooks all have a communicative focus, as do many other types of materials. However, while the type of conversations in some materials may be communicative, they are anything but genuine. An example of this is with the questions you might see being used to practise the second conditional. For anyone over twelve, do you ever think about what superpower you’d like or what animal you’d be? It’s not something that takes up a lot of my day. And I’d never go straight from wondering about superpowers into discussing changes I’d make as the next American president! The hotchpotch of contexts makes any conversation far from genuine.

Having a single context, or setting, which naturally draws out this language is far more useful. An example of this can be found on the Disabled Access Friendly website, which has a selection of English language materials. The second conditional is needed in a setting which things about the needs of wheelchair users. This, for me, is a much better way of doing it.

Problems with authenticity are not solely linked to topic selection. Activity type can also play a part. A favourite in ELT is the ‘find someone who’ activity. (Click  here for a description). Students have a number of statements and need to find a person to match each one. The example given in the link includes find someone who has been abroad, eaten something strange and done a bungee jump. While it’s possible for these to be part of the same context – holidays, it could create a discussion unlike any I’ve ever had on the topic. Here’s a made up example, based on things I’ve seen as an observer:

Student A walks up to student B.

Student A: Have you ever eaten something strange?

Student B: Yes.

Student A: What’s your name?

Student B: David. Have you ever done a bungee jump?

Student A: No.

Teacher: Good.

Student B tuts and then asks student C the same question. Student A stands nervously and looks for someone to speak to.

The teacher has a role to play in activities, so problems in conversations like this are not solely due to the materials. The teacher here is more focused on the accuracy of the language, rather than the authenticity of the conversation. Through demonstrating and prompting teachers can make this more genuine. However, the role of the materials is to  make this as easy as possible, by encouraging more of a conversation rather than just a series of random two-line dialogues which follow one another.  The ‘find someone who’ activity focuses on the ‘yes’ answer and not on the details. Simply changing its name to a ‘find out about’ activity would suddenly make conversations much more realistic. For example, find out about a country someone has been to, a strange food someone has eaten on holiday and an interesting experience someone has had on holiday. In this activity students need to talk more and give details about their experiences, as we do in real life. There may still be some strange conversations, but at least we are taking a large step in the right direction.

There is a simple question to ask with conversations generated from class materials. Do they replicate conversations outside the classroom? In my opinion the answer needs to be yes for the materials to be beneficial.

What do you think? What’s important for you with ELT materials?

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6 thoughts on “ELT materials part 1: Encouraging genuine communication

  1. Interesting post David and one very much worth discussing. This issue of authenticity is broad, and I think you could write multiple posts on this regarding authenticity of tasks and activities, of listening and reading texts, etc, these are separate issues I think. I agree that the teacher has an important part to play when it comes to task setup and encouraging natural conversation. Regarding the second conditional, your examples sound like quite typical pub talk for me and I’ve answered similar questions many times, so I’d say they’re authentic for sure!
    I try my best to use authentic materials in class, and I work hard to include activities that prime learners for difficult language that might hinder comprehension. At the very least I work on building a priming glossary for authentic texts before learners encounter the text. However, these are not skills I need in my current teaching context as most of the texts my students encounter are heavily graded and rarely authentic. I do however use one textbook which has relatively authentic texts in it, and as a result we can do a lot of work In class not only on comprehension but on pronunciation, particularly connected speech… A major benefit of using authentic materials.

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    1. Thanks for the comments Peter. I was trying to think of situations we’d use the second condition sentences and thought of pub games or perhaps (unsuccessful?) speed dating. Though it brings up the question of relevance to our learners, as it’s not usually what I expect of them to need.
      Authenticity and comprehensibility are eternal problems for ELT materials. Materials are graded, and therefore viewed as less authentic, but speakers familiar with dealing with those less proficient also have strategies. I don’t think grading means something is inauthentic, it just depends on how and why it’s done.

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  2. In my opinion, anything can be a text, but the text might not contain anything you expect the learners to produce (but it might).

    Mostly we don’t parrot back bits of texts unless we’re quoting, summarizing or reporting, so using texts (spoken or written) as a stimulus for discussion or response is authentic, in my opinion.

    A lot of BE texts in coursebooks are truncated so slightly inauthentic but it allows for meaningful grading. A lot of texts in general courses are stupid, boring or exercises in shoehorning grammar and lexical sets into a 150-word, three paragraph passage. I ditch these and supplement with something based on the topic of I’m supposed to use a book, then use the book only for form focus.

    Anyway, ta for a cracking post.

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    1. Choosing a text is a really hard job. Thinking about written news articles, I’ve found the newer the better, generally speaking. I’ve brought some into class, but never with anything that old. Perhaps I feel a lot of the interest comes from it being current. However, I’m not so strict with other sources. A YouTube video could be a few years old and still be a great text. For coursebooks there is that problem. It’s impossible to be current, so where does the interest come from? Most have written texts, or recordings with characters our students don’t know or care about. Unless a conversation is on the phone or radio we have visual clues. Not having them makes audio inauthentic. Video beats audio, but it’s more expensive and harder to bring into all teaching contexts. There’s already more being used with new coursebooks, and it’s a trend I expect to see more of.

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