Authenticity in the FL classroom

How can we offer an “authentic” experience to second language learners in a foreign context?  Is authentic language use at all possible for secondary school pupils in France, for example, who share French as a native language and have no special need to learn English beyond its presence in the curriculum?


I have talked about differences between pedagogical exercises and communicative tasks elsewhere.  But here are three other ideas worth considering:

Spontaneous language use

Authenticity can come from using language in an unplanned, spontaneous way.  Instead of practising language forms, memorising rules or words in isolation, simply using the language to communicate meaning can be a more natural, and so authentic approach.  Gavin Lamb discusses this in relation to language and then to music on his Leaky Grammar blog.  He has this quote:

“Improvisation can be considered the fifth skill — the skill which follows reading, listening, speaking, and writing. In many ways, it is the most important because it is the real test of whether students can use what they have learned without being told exactly what to do or say.” (Maurer, 1997)

Read more from here.

Content and language integrated instruction

If the meaning communicated by teachers and learners relates to learning new information in a particular discipline, then we are in the domain of CLIL, sometimes called CBI (Content-Based Instruction).  This type of teaching and learning brings its own problems, notably how to articulate the presentation and evaluation of new content and new language at the same time.  The advantage, however, is in providing a ready-made context for learning: learner needs, resources and activities related to the discipline in question.

I’m happy to see these Dutch Kennisnet CLIL videos are still accessible online: try this short video on pair and group work, for example.

Authentic texts

Finally, Genevieve White has an example of authentic texts and tasks for lower-level proficiency EFL learners.  She has the advantage of working with second language learners who need survival English to live in the UK, rather than the foreign language, school population learning English for No Obvious Reason (Medgyes, 1986).

FL teachers are used to adapting such tasks by simply pretending: planning a possible trip/visit/application … The authenticity here lies in the resources, not written specially for language learners, and in the design, implementation and evaluation of the activities.  It’s easy to trip up here and end up with exercises to practice language forms rather than communicative activities, so some caveats are worth mentioning.

I suggest the following: activities should be

  • worth doing in the native language,
  • set up to model and encourage actual collaboration (as opposed to minimal, unsupervised cooperation)
  • evaluated in terms of content, not just language accuracy.

Easier said than done, on the whole, but worth a try.

Going further

Erkan Kulekci’s blog has a good bibliography for this topic, and led me to Peacock (1997) and an impressive empirical study in Language Learning by Alex Gilmore, who conducted a 10-month study with some 60 Japanese university EFL learners, half of whom were taught from textbooks and half using authentic materials.

The results of this study strongly suggest that the authentic materials used with the experimental group in the investigation were better able to develop a range of communicative competencies in the learners than the two EFL textbooks used with the control group. This finding was predicted on the grounds that the authentic materials, with their associated tasks and activities, provided richer input for learners to work with in the classroom, which, in turn, allowed them to notice and then acquire a wider variety of linguistic, pragmatic, strategic, and discourse features. The consciousness-raising was therefore facilitated by (a) providing participants with rich input and (b) drawing learners’ attention to useful features through careful task design and follow-up practice activities

Gilmore used a battery of tests to measure subjects’ communicative competence and includes a very interesting discussion of each to tease out the effects of authentic materials on different aspects of language learning.  His conclusion, unsurprisingly, favours the use authentic materials, but is very sanguine about the difficulties of this approach.


Gilmore, A. (2011). “I Prefer Not Text”: Developing Japanese Learners’ Communicative Competence with Authentic Materials. Language Learning, 61(3), 786-819.

Kulekci, E. Relatively authentic. WordPress blog.

Maurer, Jay. (1997). Presentation, Practice, and Production in the EFL Class. The Language Teacher Online, 21 (9), 42-45.

Medgyes, P. (1986). Queries from a communicative teacher. ELT journal, 40(2), 107-112. PDF

Peacock, M. (1997). The effect of authentic materials on the motivation of EFL learners. ELT Journal, 51 (2), pp. 144–156. PDF

Whyte, S., & Alexander, J. (2014). Implementing tasks with interactive technologies in classroom CALL: towards a developmental framework. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 40 (1), 1-26. PDF


4 thoughts on “Authenticity in the FL classroom

  1. Sandy Millin has a great summary of a very recent ELT chat on exploiting authentic materials

    In addition to ideas for both teaching resources and ideas for activities, there is much good sense in the discussion of the pros and cons of aiming for authenticity.

    Two other references stand out for me – Mike Griffin’s list of resources ( and Rachael Roberts’ downloadable lessons (

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