Adapting Authentic Materials from the Web

This post is all about resources which are invaluable to language teachers – authentic materials. There are so many authentic resources which can be adapted for use in the classroom that it may seem daunting to know where to start, or what the best way to go about altering the materials is to get them class-room ready. In this post I will introduce a few examples and tools which make this job easy, and some general ideas about how to reduce the work on the teacher without decreasing the personalisation factor of adapting materials for the classroom.

Structure

If you look at any good coursebook or set of learning materials, you will notice that they have a strong structure with clearly labelled sections which the students and teachers can both identify straight away. Although the content in these sections changes from unit to unit, the section are laid out in the same way and offer a similar range of tasks and activities. This has obvious benefits, especially when you are designing teaching materials which you will use in the future for other classes or even for other teachers to use. This principle of having a strong and clear structure should also help you to speed up the adapting process. A good example of adapted authentic materials are the ones provided by onestopenglish.com based on articles from the British newspaper The Guardian. Below is an example:

Link to the original page

Straight away you can see that there are clear sections and each one contains a specific task. Also note that from week to week these activities vary only in content, for the most part the type of tasks change very little. This makes the writing process a lot easier, it means you know already what will go in your worksheet and the same is true for your students. Of course, variation of task types is a good thing, but this can be achieved with different worksheets and lessons, if you are writing a series of such materials it is best to have a strong structure, but also don’t be too rigid about it as this will make the worksheets become stale.

Elaboration Theory

Research such as that into the Involvement Load Hypothesis or Cognitive Load Theory have suggested that by increasing the difficulty and required ‘brain power’ used by a task helps with remembering the content and can lead to longer-term retention of the target language. Elaboration Theory utilises this by making tasks in a learning interaction or worksheet become gradually more complicated, thus increasing the chances that the learner will acquire the target language. These theories are easy to incorporate into your worksheets.

Source Material

No matter how good your tasks and activities, they are only ever as good as the source material. When choosing the source material which you are going to adapt, there are a few things you might want to consider before making the final selection. These are authenticity, relevance, curriculum fit and potential for further learning. Peacock (1997) found that authentic materials were more motivating for students, even lower level students, than unauthentic materials. However, there have been a lot of debates over what constitutes as authentic and what doesn’t. Henry Widdowson (1990) makes the distinction between ‘authentic’ materials and ‘genuine’ materials. Here, authentic materials are originally written for non-learners of the language (proficient speakers or L1) and used in the same way in the class with the learners. Genuine materials have been adapted from authentic materials in order to emphasise linguistic components for learning. Both of these are good things, but obviously when choosing the source material we must also consider the difficulty it may pose to our learners. There are a number of ways of doing this, but one quick and easy way is to use the Flesch–Kincaid readability test, which is built into Microsoft Word and can be used on any text you have in there. A score will be produced which you can use to roughly guess how hard the text will be, based on a number of criteria derived from corpus linguistics, such as word frequency, length, etc.

I will expand on this idea further in a later article, but please feel free to contact or use the comments below to discuss.

For me, the main thing I look for when choosing materials to adapt for class is whether they interest me or not. If they do, I am more likely to be able to get my class interested. At the end of the day, you may have to use a number of objective criteria to fine tune your choices, but the main decision will be subjective based on your own teaching preferences and this is a good thing. Teaching and adapting materials for you class are highly personal, and if they are not the lessons you do will fail because of this.

Further Reading

Widdowson, H. (1990),  Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Peacock, M. (1997)  The Effect of Authentic Materials on the Motivation of EFL Learners in English Language Teaching Journal 51

Social Networking for language acquisition

Blogs, Wikis, micro-blogs, virtual worlds and social networks seem to dominate much of our time these days, especially with new technologies on mobile applications allowing us access from anywhere at almost any time. People are checking facebook from their smartphones and updating followers on Twitter while attending conferences and meetings, or during the commute. Many of the posts that appear on this site are composed on my Blackberry and published via 3G. Social networks take up a lot of people’s time these days, and love them or hate them they are a rich source of language input. When I was conducting research for my dissertation one of the questionnaire participants commented that they felt social networks would be very useful for the students in terms of meeting and communicating with people in the target language, especially because they taught in a Foreign Language context (meaning that the students all live in a country where the first language is not the language being studied) but because this teacher felt inexperienced about using social networks in their own personal life they were not comfortable recommending it to their students.

This seems perfectly reasonable. If you are not comfortable with something it is almost imposible to stand up and teach someone it, even if you can appreciate the value. For this reason I thought this post would be useful in providing a few ideas about how to incorporate social networks into your language teaching while avoiding the pitfalls.

To make this more digestible, I have composed a list of bullet points to illustrate what I think are the dos and don’ts, followed by a list of ideas and links to try out.

Let’s start with the warnings first.

All social networks work by having users enter personal information about themselves, which is then searchable by other users. All this personal information is stored in a database and much of the information provided is available for anyone to see and search. I’ve had experiences where I’ve clicked on a friend’s facebook profile, been able to learn who they are in a relationship, view pictures of their partner, gain phone numbers and addresses, birth dates and even find out where people are going to be at a particular time. Creepy though this sounds, this is all by simply looking at the information that comes up when you view someone’s profile. This is very dangerous, and I recommend you take this quick privacy report test before reading any further. The test is available at www.reclaimprivacy.org. You can also view recommendations there about how to improve your privacy settings. Once you are happy with this, you can also recommend it to your students. If you are planning to use social networks with your students it is highly recommended that you make your profile as private as possible as your students and your friends will get mixed together and that can lead to issues. A way around this is to have two accounts, or if you are uncomfortable having your students as ‘friends’ on facebook then I suggest you simply don’t allow them. You can still utilise social networks in your class without adding your students as friends.

Don’ts

  • recommend your students to make contact with people they don’t know or have never had previous contact with.
  • allow your students to post offensive materials or comments which may offend other users or result in them being banned from the site
  • add students as friends if your own personal profile has deeply private content on it (such as photos of you drunk, which your friends have posted up).
  • if you do have private or embarrassing content of yourself on the site, request that it be removed or remove it yourself – this is good general pracice. Alternatively, you could avoid getting into these situations in the first place, whichever is easier…
  • plan a lesson involving the use of a site such as facebook, only to find on the day of class that it has been blocked from the student machines. Always check out sites you intend to visit from the students’ machines and preferably using a student login

Dos

  • create a group or page which is specially for your class, so you can keep members organised and together. If you create a group, you can also connect with students without having to add them as friends, thus ensuring privacy for you and for them.
  • go over the rules of Netiquette, that is polite conventions and rules which students should abide by when posting on public online forums and sites. This should include being wary of anyone they don’t know adding them as a friend or requesting details.
  • encourage students to reply to other people’s public posts about topics which are of interest to them, even if they don’t know the person this is ok. For example, if you are fans of a celebrity who has a public fan page, or members of a particular group online, it is fine to chat and respond to people’s posts on these public areas because the nature of the discussion is open. This is not the same as sending a friend request to someone you don’t know.
  • encourage students to check back on the site in their free time and see if someone has responded to their post

There are many more of these and I will be compiling a more comprehensive list and adding it to a permanent page soon. Below are a few lesson plan ideas which you may wish to use.

Agony Aunt / Problem Page Lesson

You have been learning about giving advice in class and you would like to give your students some authentic, meaningful interaction with real speakers. Although you may need to screen the sites you use carefully, you could take your students to a site which allows people to write in with probelms or asking for advice. First your students could create their own posts asking for advice (make sure they only write about something they are comfortable sharing with the class, such as the feeling that they are not learning fast enough or have no one to practice with. If they can’t think of anything they could write it on behalf of an imaginary friend). After that they should follow the thread and also try to reply to some other people who are having a problem which they think they can help with. Although it may sound risky, I have done this lesson a few times with mature classes and students always get a lot out of it. If you explain that the class will be sharing the posts then people generally don’t post up anything too personal or that they are uncomfortable sharing, and my students are always respectful of other people. The real advantage of this lesson is that it goes beyond authenticity and is actual real world use of the target language. This really gives such a class the edge over any contrived language practice lessons from grammar books. A lot of rich, real language also comes out of these lessons, which students can ask about and share in class later.

Facebook Group

There are lots of groups on facebook and other social networks which are specifically for language learning. For example, the BBC has a learning English facebook page which allows wall comments and photos. This is a great place to get your students commenting on things and replying to posts. They could ask questions about something specific on the wall or post a link to something they found useful. Although this might not take a whole lesson, it could be treated as a homework or used as a study suggestion. Alternatively, you could have students go and post something on the wall and search other posts for something interesting to share with the class.

Twitter Contest

If your class enjoys a bit of competition, why not ask students to create a new twitter account and to see who has the most followers after a week, who can manage the highest number of tweets in a week, and who can manage to get a famous person to follow them. There could be a running narration going on over the course of the week and the final lesson where the winners are announced should be quite exciting.

These are just a few ideas but as you can see, there is no need for privacy to be invaded or personal space encroached on just because you are using social networks with students. The key is to try a few of these things out yourself (preferably in a language you are learning yourself) and then get the students to have a go. If students don’t wish to create profiles with their real names they can always create a generic or anonymous profile, as long as it is not used to offend or insult people.

If you have any further ideas or comments, please add them below.