Authentic and non-authentic video

Written in 1997 for JALT, and much of the materials discussed are no longer obtainable. I decided to post this as it is, because the points are still valid.

In the last few years, I have spent hours talking about the use of video in the classroom. One question that seems to come up again and again is the question of authentic materials. Somehow, the word ‘authentic’ has attained a magical status in English language teaching. People always assume that ‘authentic’ means good. It is seen automatically as a sign of approval. In this article I want to look at the reasons for AVOIDING authentic material on video, at least at the earlier stages. In the article,

I take ‘authentic’ to mean originally designed for showing to a native-speaker audience. (Although in some senses, television drama has a dynamic, pace and repetition factor which makes it very different from ‘authentic’ dialogue in ‘real’ situations, and purists might argue that television drama was not authentically authentic – if you see what I mean!)

In  my early years of using video, I was often desperate to use the medium and devoid of materials. I had to use authentic materials, and I did. I used the news, old silent films, sporting events (with the soundtracks removed), situation comedies – anything in fact that I could lay my hands on. Several things emerge when you are using authentic materials:

*             You have to review hours of tape in order to find a few minutes of useable material.

*            You have to spend hours more in planning how to use it.

*            You will probably have to design support materials yourself. (Though not always. There are collections of authentic materials which have print backup available, such as Central News.)

*            Activities will almost inevitably have a strong bias towards comprehension tasks. I like video materials which lend themselves to active participation by the students. Silent movies are an exception, active work will dominate over comprehension work when using silent movies. However, there is a limit to the number of times you can play Charlie Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy, and of course the backgrounds do not portray an English speaking country today. Mr Bean is a universally popular equivalent.

I have seen brilliant comprehension activities being used with authentic materials – but in the end the lesson seemed to revolve around explanation of vocabulary and phrases. To me, this is a non-dynamic lesson, and video is not being used in the most effective way. With all English language teaching, there are a limited number of hours available. You have to ask yourself constantly whether you are making the best use of them.

*            The news and current affairs are only interesting ONCE – the day after you record them. You can’t store the 9 o’clock news from Saturday May 14th 1998 and use it again in the future.

*            The material will nearly always be much too long. A 30 minute sit -com can only be used for broad comprehension in its entirety. A film may take weeks or months of work – by which time interest will almost certainly have dissipated.

*            Activities (such as silent viewing, sound only etc) can be imposed on any material, but only with classroom designed material will  someone have considered the duration of tasks, and built them in to the script.

*            You are stuck with all sorts of things which can be explained, but are really not worth the time and effort involved. For example, one beginner level video of authentic extracts from TV has this sequence:

There’s  (sic) twenty milk bottles in the crate, and there are twelve eggs here.

It seems inappropriate to deal with this while you are introducing the concept of ‘There is …’ / ‘There are …’ for the first time. The same video had (as redundant language): What would the elephant do if its ears were to shrink? The trouble with such redundant items is that they end up being explained. Time is wasted at best; at worst the students are confused and disheartened.

*             It follows that authentic material will only work well at the higher levels.

*            It will be difficult, if not impossible, to integrate the material with the syllabus your students are following.

*   It’s often illegal to use off-air material, or to play a feature film to a class. You may be ‘stealing’ someone’s copyright material.

*            Sometimes authentic material is used because the teacher loves it. This does not mean that the students will. Fawlty Towers is my favourite TV sitcom. I have often seen it used in the classroom. It is very funny, but the amount of time spent in explaining the verbal jokes was excessive. (Incidentally, Bob Spiers who directed some episodes of Fawlty Towers also directed Grapevine One. I point this out for lovers of trivia, rather than as a claim of comparable quality!)

So, let’s be positive. Why use non-authentic materials? First of all, modern ELT videos are very different from the materials of twenty years ago. At that time most non-authentic video material had originally been designed for broadcast on television. The episodes were longer than needed for classroom use and the dialogue and action were slowed to accomodate the needs of the student studying alone at home.

Nowadays, there is a good range of non-authentic videos designed for classroom use. Some have been designed as free standing video material. Others are designed to supplement existing courses, and some (e.g. Grapevine One, Two & Three ) are designed so that they can be used as part of an integrated course. Recent videos employ  excellent, professional actors and directors, and use  real settings. You can choose from sit-coms ( A Weekend Away, A Week By the Sea), mysteries (Mystery Tour), a sketch format (Grapevine One, Two, Three, English Channel), family drama, animation (The Wrong Trousers ), American English (Only in America), or documentary style materials ( Project Video ). There are materials for businesss ( Business Assignments, Creating Opportunities ) and technology.

(2010 note: virtually all of it is now out-of-print!)

You can expect to find support materials (such as Video Activity Books), as well as Teacher’s Guides. These materials will include pre- and post-viewing tasks, as well as useful photo stills from the story. The Teacher’s Guides can suggest a number of ways of handling the same piece of video material. Mystery Tour, for example, gives alternative lesson plans for one, two or more than two lessons spent on an episode. A modern ELT video should prove effective and efficient. The vocabulary loading should have been planned, so that you avoid the endless explanation demanded by so much authentic material. Parts of the video may have been specifically designed for silent viewing, or freeze frame activities, or in the case of ‘Radio Plays’ (from Grapevine Two ) sound only work preceding the viewing of the video.

The most important point has been kept until last. A few years ago, video was definitely a supplementary activity, so comprehension-biased activities could be justified. Video was not the whole course.  I see video as an integral and basic part of any course, therefore it has to be part of the syllabus and of the progression of the materials. It is no longer be possible to patch a course together from scraps of authentic material. Specially designed material will dominate, at least up to Cambridge First Certificate level. There will always be a place for authentic materials, and for comprehension biased activities. There’s nothing like the authentic news the day after a major event  to spark active discussion. Student interest will get the discussion rolling before the lesson gets bogged down in explanation of odd vocabulary items and unusual constructions. Most days the news just isn’t that interesting!  I would suggest that you try teaching from some ‘non-authentic’ videos. You and your students will soon feel the difference.

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