IATEFL Hungary: Steve Oakes on using authentic material at lower levels (Plenary and workshop)

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In the second plenary of the day, Steve Oakes invited us to consider whether or not teachers and learners had ‘boxed themselves in’ when it came to attitudes towards the use of authentic materials in the classroom. It was apparent that this session would get us thinking out of the box in terms of difficulty levels and what it means to understand an authentic text.

Steve set the situation by asking participants to reflect on how they felt in different situations in the early days of learning a new language and when they didn’t understand what was being said around them. With show of hands he neatly demonstrated that individuals have a different tolerance of ambiguity, and that this might also vary according to context.

Ambiguity Tolerance (AT) tends to be low in the language classroom, with students expecting to be able to understand most of what they hear. Students often protest loudly if the audio is too difficult or “fast”. This makes the use of authentic materials a no-no at lower levels, with the consequence that when learners are confronted with the “real world”, they are totally unprepared. Steve urged that it was the teacher’s job to help the learners feel comfortable with being exposed to authentic materials, these being a rich source of language and a motivational bridge to the real world. In other words, we should be building up AT, and this would allow the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, i.e. a kind of reward often left for language learners at higher levels, to be made accessible to learners at lower levels.

Steve posed question, with regard to using authentic material, How low can you go? In an simple, yet illuminating experiment, participants were divided into two groups. Group A were asked to imagine that, as teachers, their goal was get students understanding most of the language in an authentic text. The goal of those in Group B was to provide enjoyment and a broad understanding. We watched a video and were to position it on a scale to indicate the level of learners we thought it suitable for. I’ll let you guess for yourself which group pitched the materials as being suitable for lower level learners.

Steve pointed out that much of the research into AT equates a higher tolerance level with the qualities of a good language learner; greater persistence,  a more openness to new language, a willingness to take risks, one who embraces strategies to deal with challenges and even scores more highly in some types of reading and listening tests. He went on to explain that, to develop increased AT, we need to raise our learners’ awareness to the notion, cultivate a risk-friendly atmosphere and select suitable, motivating materials. By doing so, we will be making that pot of gold accessible at lower levels, and simultaneously helping our learners develop good learning traits that will stand them in good stead for their future endeavours.

The next day, Steve delivered a workshop partially on the same theme – using authentic video at lower levels. He began by suggesting criteria for selecting suitable material: 1. Videos should attract their attention and engage them; 2. There must be at least some words and phrases that they will be able to pick up on; 3. The first task should be very low-demand – for example “Watch and enjoy”; 4. The second task should be well-scaffolded and designed in such a way that it doesn’t force the students to take their eyes away from the video. All of these points were illustrated using material from a coursebook which Steve has been working on (“Speak Out” – Pearson).

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