What are authentic materials?

Some language programs emphasize using authentic materials in class. They are reading materials written for an audience of native speakers. Authentic materials have been a trend at language teaching conferences in recent years. They can be pictures of billboards from countries where the target language is spoken, a poem by a well-known author, or even a restaurant menu. Many teachers support using these kinds of materials in class. After all, isn’t the point of learning a new language ultimately to navigate the countries and cultures where it is spoken?

What are the important considerations for using authentic materials?

While navigating the language environment is important, using authentic materials is not necessarily the most effective way to help learners acquire a language. Learning a language requires input that learners can understand, called comprehensible input. Too often, especially for beginner or intermediate students authentic materials are too difficult. An excerpt out of a book in Chinese, or a picture of an advertisement in the subway contain too many words they don’t know. Language acquisition depends on the repetition of input that learners can understand.

So where does that leave authentic materials? Is there a use for, say Chinese-language story books in class? Yes! Remember, it is important that the input that children receive be something comprehensible. Take a look at this children’s song below. It is about China’s Dragon Boat Festival. Between the illustration and the words, there is a lot of content that children would have to grasp in order to understand the song. Students would need to know the name of the holiday in Chinese. They would have to know that zongzi is a leaf-wrapped rice dumpling. They would also need to that Qu Yuan is the poet in whose honor the holiday exists. With all these culturally specific words, this song is likely not comprehensible to young beginner students of Chinese in America.

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This is not to say that class content should not include culture. Culture is part of language learning and eventual communication with native speakers of the target language. So what can we use instead?

What are some good authentic materials for beginners?

No, David by David Shannon is an incredibly popular children’s book. It is available in Chinese(as 大卫,不可以). The story is not originally from China of course, but the translation is by a native speaker and the book is widely available in China. The text is highly repetitive, the illustrations show scenes that would be familiar to American children, and it is very likely that they have already read/listened to the story in English. This combination of repetition, context clues and prior knowledge means that this story book is very likely comprehensible to young learners of Chinese and therefore a good resource for teaching them.

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The phrase “不可以” (not okay) appears on nearly every page, helping children map the meaning of the phrase to the sounds and the written characters. The above pages illustrate and show the phrase “玩食物” (play with food). If students have snack or lunch during their Chinese class, this phrase should be familiar and they will be able to map it to the written characters and read those words.

大卫,不可以  (No, David) is one of many authentic texts that can be used in the classroom. Simply using Chinese-language teaching materials from China is not enough. Using authentic materials may be in vogue now, but teachers must take care to use materials which actually provide the comprehensible input that children need to learn a language.

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