By Ed Weiss
During my teaching career, I always had a true affinity for the use of authentic materials. All the research indicates that student proficiency increases with exposure to a variety of authentic materials. Perhaps even more compelling than the research, is the memory of my secondary education. My teachers were well trained and had clearly mastered the language, but those were the days of grammar-centric world language classes. Verb conjugations and vocabulary lists were featured aspects of instruction. My only memories of authentic materials were posters from Air France and SNCF and the weekly arrival of Paris Match magazine. The tasks that we were assigned were essentially decontextualized sentences accompanied by verb form drills. The curriculum was primarily based on mastery of forms with minimal real life applications of language skills. From a student perspective, we didn’t know any better. We couldn’t envision an intercultural, multimedia course with internet access to enrich and connect with students. Our teachers were limited by their lack of resources and the pedagogical philosophy of that era.
Living life like a local
My linguistic awakening took place two years into my college career when I participated in our study abroad program in France. In my case, I did not suffer from culture shock—I was rather in a state of cultural bedazzlement. I was instantly enchanted by practically everything from the morning hot chocolate and baguettes to the impressive architecture. Even the most common, everyday items fascinated me—from billboards to magazine covers to radio broadcasts. For the first time in my life, French had a true meaning—there was a reason to learn the language, there was a need to learn the language. The authentic materials and encounters that were part of my everyday routine helped pave my way to proficiency.
Some of my favorite rituals included those that dealt with my favorite aspect of French culture: food. Most mornings featured a stop at the local boulangerie/patisserie for a petit pain au chocolat. In addition to the intoxicating aromas that I still love to this day, the bakery was where I first learned how to interact with people in France with the appropriate terms of politeness. “I’ll have one of those” would no longer cut it. “Bonjour madame” “merci” and “bonne journée” became part of my linguistic regime. Checking the schedule for the bus that would take us to class and back meant interpreting what 8h00 and 16h15 meant. Reading billboards and all of the posters that were attached to buildings and bus stops were preferable to my text books as they allowed me to build language skills daily, if not hourly. All of these interactions took place by about eight in the morning and I still had another twelve hours of interactions left that day and every day. The non-stop flow of authentic language exposure was how I attained the level of comfort and proficiency that gave me the confidence to accelerate my French studies and follow my passion for French language and culture.
Real materials, real tasks, real purpose
As a teacher, I always tried to stay true to what I discovered was the most effective way to learn language: having constant exposure to authentic materials for my students. This exposure begins day one in French Level 1 and never abates. My first year students have a busy first week as they watch movie trailers and ads for amusement parks, listen to songs and pick out a film from an online movie schedule. When there is a real task involving real materials for a real purpose, students discover the purpose and need for learning a language and subsequently staying with that language throughout their secondary years.
Empowering and motivating students
I found that students were genuinely motivated as the percentage of authentic materials increased throughout the curriculum. Some of my most rewarding moments in teaching occurred when students came to class with a song they had discovered and wanted to share with the class or had read a story or article that resonated with them. Including a variety of songs, podcasts, online articles, newscasts, public service announcements, movie scenes, menus and print ads (just to name a few) enriches your curriculum and interests and motivates students. Whether you are using a text series or you are designing your own curriculum, the inclusion of authentic materials is a key factor in making language learning come alive and providing students with the incentive to immerse themselves into a course that has true meaning and purpose.
I remember reading a quote concerning our profession that has always resonated with me: “Without the study of culture, world language instruction is inaccurate and incomplete”. This quote makes me appreciate my high school French teachers even more because I believe that culture is best revealed via authentic resources. Whereas I couldn’t imagine my classroom without an online computer connected to a projector and speakers, my earliest teachers managed to spark what would become a lifelong passion that inspired my professional life with their limited resources and unlimited devotion to the language.
Edward Weiss is the curriculum specialist for world languages at Delaware County Intermediate Unit in suburban Philadelphia. He served as teacher and department chair at Haverford Township School District for 35 years where he was named teacher of the year. He is a recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Grant and a three-time recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ed has presented at the ACTFL national conference, at the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, at AATF local and national conferences, at the Advanced Placement National Conference. He is the co-author EntreCultures.