#authres: a Sweater for the Hippo?


Authentic resources are great. They’re what our students will probably need to deal with…some day.

High-speed speech is also great. It’s also what our students will probably need to deal with…some day.

There are many things that are great and authentic and native-like and designed for native speakers. But they don’t really benefit beginners without extensive scaffolding and tweaking and so on — in which case we really do have to ask whether the experience of dealing with them is authentic, even if the resource itself is. I talk about beginners because that’s what we all teach. Some of us have more “advanced” students — which for K-12 means maybe up to Intermediate High or Advanced Low with a really talented and far-reading kid – but mostly we are dealing with kids who don’t yet have the structure of the language.

Structure is what you need to deal with authentic resources — structure, PLUS a knowledge of the shorthand collocations and usage that native speakers use among themselves. That’s a lot of knowledge. I realize most people setting these goals have never actually worked solely using their languages (most are in academe or teachers, or only do “language administration” type stuff), but even people who are professionals in their languages still have problems with authentic resources. Why in the world would we focus on those as the best input for beginners, unless there is some belief that “practice makes perfect” (which we as TPRS people do not hold)?

In my view, we have so few classroom minutes that we need to constantly ask ourselves: what is my goal in doing this? How will this build language? Is this use of this five minutes the most acquisition I can get for it, and if not, is there a legitimate reason for not doing something that would get more acquisition? There are legitimate reasons to do other things. But we owe it to our kids to be able to really understand what those reasons are and choose our activities accordingly.

I can get a Chinese 1 kid to read 200 characters fluently in a year (not just this whole “I memorized them” stuff) while acquiring much of the structure of Chinese. But I can’t do that using “authentic resources”. Novices do NOT get structure from authentic resources. They can’t. We make fluent readers using purpose-written texts that have the characteristics of TPRS — high levels of repetition, limited vocabulary, and high interest — and those readers can then deal with authentic resources over time. And another thing — I kinda hate to say it, but authentic resources are of the most interest to the intended audience — native speakers. In many cases, they are only truly of interest to people who need the information contained in the resource (many novice-level authres exercises are based on the whole “What time does the train to Nanjing leave?” thing, which is not really compelling unless you are stuck in Zhengzhou really wanting to get out). 

Too much focus on authentic resources, IMO, leads to a poor use of teacher time in prepping them (remember too that Chinese teachers commonly have five preps and/or travel) and bog readers down at the novice “pick out isolated bits of information” point. Now, using authentic resources might be easier if you’re teaching a language with an alphabet that is reasonably phonetic. But not all languages are like that. And I still cannot see why having a kid deal with a text that is largely incomprehensible to him, just to use something “authentic”, is a good thing. Using comprehensible texts, students gain both structure and the ability to pick out bits of information. Using authentic resources, they might gain the ability to pick out information, but at the loss of large amounts of structure that is gained through extensive reading of connected texts — which at the levels most of us teach at means purpose-written texts, not authentic ones.

I see this as an offshoot of the whole “if they don’t have 20 college credits before graduating from high school, what’s going on?” thing. I believe the time spent allowing beginners to be beginners, and soak up highly comprehensible language in speech and in writing really pays off. What’s the rush to “authentic”, when the price can be losing students for the long run?

Insisting on #authres just for the sake of meeting a checkbox objective on someone’s clipboard is knitting a sweater for the hippo.

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