Selecting authentic materials to promote language learning

What are the key benefits of using materials designed for real life purposes in a foreign language lesson?

Here are 6 tips on selecting authentic materials for the EFL classroom and on combining them with suitable activities that promote learner creativity

     In many EFL teaching environments, students have limited exposure to L2 input outside the language classroom. For effective learning to take place, it is therefore important to ‘feed’ our learners with useful, meaningful, authentic input and not just stick to coursebook material. When we enrich our lesson with authentic materials we do not only expose our learners to real life language use, but we also expand their knowledge on the target culture, the people, their lifestyles, beliefs and values. When carefully selected to match our students’ level and needs, such materials can add variety to the lesson and trigger learner interest. Below are some key points to consider when selecting authentic texts/videos/ songs/realia etc. for classroom use in order to promote language learning and help us in successfully achieving our lesson aims.

  1. Carefully selecting the materials:

            Will the materials support our teaching objectives?

     What do we want to achieve with the authentic materials we introduce our students to? Do we want to focus on a specific topic? Do we want to direct their attention to a particular grammar structure or to introduce new lexis? Or do we simply want to provide extra input and promote reading for pleasure?

    When selecting authentic materials to include in our EFL lesson we always need to take into account the authenticity of the language used and whether or not the lexis and grammar included match our students’ level and specific needs. Our learners need to receive input from a variety of L2 sources and to read/listen to and explore a variety of different genres (newspaper articles, train timetables, authentic brochures, abstracts from books/plays, poems, interviews, news broadcasts, podcasts, YouTube clips, etc.).

     As Nuttall (1996:179) points out, when selecting authentic materials for our EFL classroom we should mainly focus on whether or not they support our “overall teaching purpose and learning objectives”. We should be able not only to achieve our lesson’s goals but also to transfer knowledge to our students, to introduce them to new ideas, to widen their knowledge of the target culture and at the same time foster critical thinking.

2. Comprehensible input

Is the lexis/grammar included in the materials too challenging for our learners?                 

 How much vocabulary should we pre teach?

    When selecting authentic materials for our language lessons we should always check whether they match our learners’ level and specific needs. We first of all need to examine whether the information they contain is up to date and is going to enrich our students’ knowledge of the TL culture. Our students do not only need to find the material motivating and interesting, but they also need to extract linguistic information that will be useful for the development of their interlanguage.

    With regard to authentic texts, we always need to check whether there will be comprehension issues and whether we are making unreasonable demands on our students’  knowledge of the language. Our learners need to be able to extract all the information they need using contextual clues and not feel frustrated and demotivated by the overwhelming amount of unknown lexis and grammar. If we believe that they may not be able to figure out the meaning of certain vocabulary items from context, we might have to do some pre-teaching and at the same time activate our learners’ schemata on the topic covered in the materials. As Watkins (2014: 58) points out, reading texts need to be “challenging” for learners while still “allowing them a good chance to understand the main points”. We also need to ask ourselves whether our learners are familiar with the particular type of register used.

3. Rehearsal for real-life situations

    The language in the texts/audio/video should reflect written or spoken usage (i.e. examples of ‘natural’ English, with a variety of genres, idioms etc.). We must verify that the materials provide examples of common, natural language use and that they serve real life communicative purposes in the target language. With listening texts, too many different accents can be confusing for our students. We also need to check whether the new lexis our students will encounter in the texts will be useful for their future and whether they will be able to incorporate it in their active vocabulary and use it in real life situations.

4. Promoting cultural awareness

            By introducing our students to a variety of authentic materials we are boosting their knowledge of the TL culture. Our learners get a closer look to the foreign culture and are exposed to examples real life language use. Our focus should be on extending their knowledge of the world and on motivating our learners to find out more about the target culture and the people that use the language they are learning. We need to verify, however, whether the information included in the materials is up to date and whether it is too culture specific or overly biased.

5. Boosting intrinsic motivation

     We should never forget the role that motivation plays in successful language learning. If our students do not feel the need or the enthusiasm to pick up new knowledge then language acquisition will be too hard to be achieved. Teachers need to find ways to transfer their love for languages in the classroom and to be raw models for their students. Diversity and authenticity in the tasks, using topics that are relevant, meaningful and interesting to our learners and giving them the opportunity to freely express themselves and participate in the lesson play a key role in boosting our learners’ motivation levels.

    When selecting authentic materials we should always ask ourselves whether they will trigger learner interest. Our students find the topic interesting, meaningful and relevant to their age and preferences. Nobody wants to read or listen to something they do not find interesting. Harmer (2001) emphasizes the “need” for our students to be “engaged with what they are reading”. We need to trigger their curiosity and build interest in the topic. The challenge will be to make our students want to explore the authentic materials for themselves, not because they have to, but because they want to.

6. Accompanying the ‘authentic’ TL input with suitable tasks

          Focus on learner creativity

Our main aim should not be for our students to merely notice new lexis or grammar through the linguistic input of the authentic materials. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking. The tasks that we will decide to accompany the materials need to be carefully selected in order to satisfy our learners’ needs and different learning styles. It is also important to always remember the effectiveness of accompanying real life TL materials with authentic, communicative tasks that promote learner involvement and boost their creativity. The more opportunities our learners have for language production, the more they will begin to notice and try to produce certain structures in order to negotiate meaning in the TL. Students become more conscious with regard to particular language features and this promotes language awareness and acquisition.

    Our students also need to receive adequate practice in order to be able to read/listen to authentic language usage both for gist and for specific information. We need to train them not only on the skimming and scanning techniques but also on making accurate predictions about the information they need to extract. They need to be able to get the general picture, to successfully grasp the main points and to be able to effectively deduce meaning from context. They also need to be able to ‘interpret’ the language, to read between the lines and use a variety of clues in order to find out what the writer/speaker is suggesting/implying.


Guariento W. & Morley J. (2001) Text and task authenticity in the EFL classroom. ELT Journal Vol 55/4, October 2001. Oxford University Press

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language Heinemann

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Watkins, P. (2008). Learning to teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Delta Publishing.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

2 thoughts on “Selecting authentic materials to promote language learning

  1. So interesting…and this what Alan Cummingsworth and Brian Tomlinson recommend in 1984…Realea

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    Liked by 1 person

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