Preparing for the reading portion of an upcoming workshop, Mary writes:

“One question that I know will pop up is the use of authentic texts in
our classrooms–it’s in our standards and we have to assess it–that will be the main focus of our work this year. Any insight or suggestions would be appreciated.”

My Response:

The authentic texts issue always comes up. It is a legitimate concern and we need to address it.

When authentic texts are defined as written by natives for natives and that is the only thing we feel we can use, we put ourselves in a straight jacket. It is possible to use maps, menus and bus schedules comprehensibly with lower levels, but it is hard to sustain their attention with only those materials. Students connect much better with stories, especially longer stories and when we are talking about reading, that means novels. Most “authentic texts” are not comprehensible and therefore are not engaging to lower level students (levels 1-3).

To satisfy myself intellectually, I use a different definition of authentic: texts that are understandable, engaging and deal with target language culture (big C and little c) and settings. We use these until the students have enough language to handle authentic texts.

An example of how “authentic texts” narrowly defined, can be overly constricting is language learner literature (LLL), texts written for learners that is engaging, but simplified. Here is an example of this idea in English:

These books are accessible to slower readers, but still interesting to them so that they will read. They are defined as high interest, low readability and they have counterparts in our target languages. LLL texts fit into the category of authentic texts in English. The same logic should be applied to our second language learners. If we use texts that they can read and they like, we will bring students along much more quickly than if we had them struggle with authentic texts that were too hard for them. We will get more TL words to pass before the students’ eyeballs with language learner literature in the TL.

We often put higher expectations on ourselves as teachers and on the students in our classes than we do in “real life.” When I was young, I read almost every book in the Reader’s Digest Classics for Children that my parents so wonderfully provided for us. Those were shortened and simplified versions of the classics, such as The Jungle Book, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, etc. I got a lot out of those level adjusted readings. They made me a better reader as a middle schooler so that I could read the real stuff when I was in high school and beyond. I also read plenty of comic books, cereal boxes and bubble gum wrappers–all simplified, but with messages that appealed to me. We can do something similar with our students in the TL.

Every year many level 1 students in my classes read 5 or more novels on their own and voluntarily because I give them access to fun, comprehensible novels in the TL. Last year 5 level 1 students read 15 novels on their own outside of class for no credit. Those kids read tens of thousands of words in the TL, all on their own. That just did not happen when all I supplied them with was menus and weather reports. Those students will be ready to read what is normally defined as “authentic” when the time comes and they will do it easily and enthusiastically–not like the pulling teeth it used to be in my classes.

Many other teachers I know and model my practices after have had similar positive experiences. I can put you in touch with them, if you like.

There are more and more TL novels with good story lines and simplified vocabulary coming out and they are getting better and better. I will show examples in the workshop.