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Concourse 2



Authentic = of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine (Google)

Authentic adj = the degree to which language teaching materials have the qualities of natural speech and writing
(Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 27 [emphasis added])

In 'normal' use, the word is an either-or, on-off adjective.  There are no degrees of genuine or undisputed.  You can't have a painting which is a bit genuine and that is either a genuine Stradivarius violin you are playing or it isn't.
On the other hand, in English language teaching, the term is used somewhat differently.  In our profession, material can be judged on a scale from truly inauthentic to truly authentic.  Like this:

What follows is one take on trying to classify and make sense of this.  The terms one should use to describe materials in this area are disputed.


Two types of authenticity

In most cases 'authentic' simply describes materials used for teaching which were not originally intended for that purpose.  So authentic material is

  1. Designed for native speakers to hear or read.
  2. Written or spoken for a real communicative purpose by people who have a message to impart to an audience.

Even this simple definition has a problem insofar as there are materials out here on the web and certainly on the radio which are written for a truly communicative purpose but also simplified to appeal to and be accessible to non-native speakers of English.
A common written example is material published by a language-training institution to provide information, (e.g., a prospectus), set out policies (e.g., school rules, codes of conduct, payment terms and so on).  All of these documents may be simplified bearing the non-native-speaking audience in mind but all have a real communicative purpose.  They are authentic in purpose but may still appear contrived and unauthentic to a native speaker.
Spoken materials may also be simplified for a non-native-speaking audience, too, as the BBC World Service's programmes often were.

In what follows we are following Lee (1995) in distinguishing between text authenticity and learner authenticity.  In Lee's words:

‘text authenticity’ is defined in terms of the origin of the materials, while ‘learner authenticity’ refers to the learner’s interaction with them, in terms of appropriate responses and positive psychological reaction
(Lee, 1995: 323)

Lee goes on (op cit.):

Looking at authenticity in this way, we can conclude that textually authentic non-textbook materials will not necessarily be learner authentic, and that textually unauthentic textbook materials will not necessarily be learner unauthentic.


In what follows, we are looking at the two types of authenticity separately but the close relationship between them should be borne in mind.


Text authenticity

The origin and purpose of the text

Here are some examples.  Think about the differences between the text types in terms of authenticity and then click on the table when you have some way of describing them.


To qualify as truly authentic material, the source and the use must be authentic.  We have, therefore, 4 degrees of authenticity:

Authentic materials
These are sourced authentically and used for their original purposes.  They are quite rare.  Examples might include:
A learning styles questionnaire
Materials used on an academic, scientific or occupational English course
A TV guide (see above)
Fire drill instruction in a school
Class excursion planning materials taken from websites advertising local attractions
Texts on how to study and remember facts
Quasi-authentic materials
These are materials originally intended for communicative purposes but whose use is changed.  They are very common.  Examples might include:
Texts taken from various genres for analysis of their structure, staging and language content in the classroom.  These could be narratives, reports, procedures, recipes, letters etc.
Texts taken from published sources as the basis of examination tasks
Other sources of texts are: advertisements, visitor guides, social website posts, notices, packaging, menus, blogs, T-shirts, maps, political slogans and a host more.
Audio materials are less commonly available but will include radio and TV broadcasts, YouTube and other internet-based video sources, on-line lectures and presentations, voice mails, recorded messages and so on.
Semi-authentic materials
These are based on authentic materials but are simplified in some way to make them accessible, especially to lower-level learners.  These are usually written because it is so much more difficult and often impossible to simplify audio and video recordings.  Examples might include:
Graded readers
Texts based on magazine and newspaper articles
Teacher-written texts based on other information (often a compilation of some sort)
Contrived, unauthentic materials
Even when these make an effort to appear authentic, they are recognisably not authentic and they might include:
Tests for students
Language exercises
Texts, both spoken and written, intended to exemplify certain language features (structures, lexis, discourse etc.)
Spoken dialogues, telephone conversations, interviews etc. intended to exemplify communicative acts and functions
Emails purporting to be from a friend
Most examination materials
A lot of coursebook materials
Task instructions

We can now refine our diagram a little and have:

cline 2


Learner / application authenticity

The nature of the user's interaction with the text

In addition to deciding how authentic a text actually is there are other considerations:

For whom is it authentic?
To have much learner authenticity, the text needs to be directed at the sorts of people the learners actually are.  There's little point in using irrelevant materials, however authentic they are.
For example, a text written to help parents in the UK decide which school to send their children to may be wholly authentic and, given some imagination, may provide an interesting basis for some classroom discussion and collaboration.  However, for most learners of English worldwide, the text is unlikely to have much real utility.
In other words, the material lacks application authenticity because the learners cannot, and do not wish, to apply the material to their own lives.
What are the text's purposes?
The tasks that learners are set need to match the text's purposes to be truly authentic in terms of their use.
For example, if a questionnaire is used simply to analyse question structures, then its application is not authentic to the learners, who may well be interested in answering the questions.

In addition to those two factors, the same considerations apply to authentic texts, of whatever degree of text authenticity, as apply to all classroom materials choice.  Briefly:

  1. Does it appeal?
    1. Is it relevant to the learners now?
    2. Is it relevant to the learners' future needs for language?
    3. Does it look / sound interesting and engaging?
  2. Is it centred on these learners?
    1. Is it accessible, given the learners' current level of skills?
    2. Does it really do what we think it does?
    3. Does it lead to real communication?
    4. Is there potential for extending its communicative use?
    5. Are the sorts of communicative acts the text stimulates ones which the learners actually need?
  3. Does it contribute to learning?
    1. Is it compatible with the syllabus?
    2. Is it compatible with the course objectives?


The supposed advantages of authentic material



Many writers in the field point to the fact that authentic materials are positively viewed by learners.

Learners find it extremely motivating to hear something that has not been simplified: they feel that they are getting to grips with real language.
(Field, 1997, p49)

Motivation is usually measured or judged in terms of

and, anecdotally at least, many assume or assert that authentic materials contribute to motivation.  One study (Peacock, 1997) showed that motivation did increase but learners found authentic materials actually less interesting than contrived ones.
As there is almost certainly a link between motivational levels and achievement, then the use of authentic material has to be A Good Thing ...

... but ...

Click eye open when you have thought of a couple of buts.



It is often asserted that authentic materials are better than contrived materials at reflecting real language used by real speakers and writers.  This is seen as positive because

... but ...

Click eye open when you have thought of a couple of buts.


Nothing in the foregoing is intended to dissuade you from using authentic materials.  It is, however, important to know what they are, how to select them and how to use them.
Here's a summary of this guide's main points with some examples and explanation.

authenticity summary

Field, J, 1997, Notes on Listening; Authenticity, Modern English Teacher, Vol. 6. No. 3, pp. 19-51
Lee, WY, 1995, Authenticity revisited: text authenticity and learner authenticity, English Language Teaching Journal, 49/4, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Peacock, M, 1997, The effect of authentic materials on the motivation of EFL learners, English Language Teaching Journal, 51/2, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Richards, J, Platt, J & Platt, H, 1992, Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2nd Ed.), Harlow: Longman