Reading. Everything we know about reading suggests that doing reading of comprehensible and interesting texts is a major booster of language acquisition. But what kind of reading?
Well, the traditionalist will say something like this: “in order to acquire, practice and maintain decoding skills, and to learn about the culture where the target language is spoken, it is necessary and best for all language learners to read authentic documents written by and for native speakers.” So the kids get menus and airport directions, they set their social media platforms to Chinese or Spanish or whatever, and if Monsieur Tabernac does a good job with his five years of French “communicative teaching,” by Year Six his students will be able to hack through some of Le Petit Prince.
A corollary of this– to teachers– is the standard advice “modify the task, not the text.” In other words, teaching and “practising” decoding strategies, metacognition etc etc is what you are allegedly supposed to do, rather than making the text itself more comprehensible.
This is recommended practice from ACTFL, an awful lot of language bloggers, various Canadian educational ministries, most American state Education departments, etc. It’s also generally totally wrong.
Today’s question: should we use “authentic documents” in the language classroom?
My answer: generally, NO.
There are three basic arguments against using most “authentic documents,” called #authres on Twitter, in most second language classrooms.
1. Most #authres are low frequency vocabulary. The top 1500 most-used words in any language are about 85% of spoken language, and suprisingly few are numbers, colours, clothing, body parts, food, animals etc. Seems counterintuitive, but most of what is taught in at least levels 1-4 (in any textbook I have ever seen) is in fact low-frequency vocab. So, the seemingly useful– the menu, the clothing store website or Twitter account, the unit on sports where we learn body parts and injuries– are actually not that useful.
Much the same goes for more “advanced” stuff– short stories, newspaper articles, blogs etc– where there is a LOT of low-frequency vocabulary. If we want to make people fluent, we must start with high-frequency vocabulary, and most #authres does not supply that.
2. We know that people need to hear and read the words (and grammar etc) they are learning over and over, and that they have what Bill VanPatten has called “constraints on working memory.” This basically means that, in order to acquire language, people need to hear a limited variety of it over and over because “too much stuff” is hard to both “keep in the head” and remember, and therefore process.
And this is the second problem with “authentic documents”: they don’t repeat the new stuff enough. People generally won’t remember things that they only see/hear once in a blue moon.
If you want to see how little “authentic documents” repeat high-frequency vocabulary, check this out.
Suppose you were teaching English to non-English speaking kids and you want to use an “authentic resource,” in this case a kids’ book. Dogs are interesting, right? So maybe you use this book. Say you avoid spending tons of time on the dog-specific and you focus on “easy” and generally useful vocab. Here’s a page:
It seems pretty obvious that the words ears, funny and confused are important. According to Wiktionary, however, “funny” is the 486th most-used word in English, while “ear” and “confused” are not in the top 1000. Ironically, of course, the words “fuck” and “sex” show up in the 605th and 640th spots 😜.
I went through the book and found that “ear” and “confused” show up exactly once each, and both “funny” and “fun” make one appearance each.
I then took a look at El Nuevo Houdini (a first-year C.I. novel by Carol Gaab, which is also available in English). In one chapter, I counted the word beso (kiss) twenty-two times, and I found it a few more times in subsequent chapters.
So…if you want to do two essential things necessary for acquisition–restricting vocab variety and repeating that vocab a lot– which is going to help your kids more? That’s right: it’s not the “authentic resource.”
3. The most compelling “anti-#authres” argument, however, is their unreadability.
We know that people will read if three conditions are met:
- they can choose the reading
- the reading is interesting
- the text is 98% comprehensible
Most of our kids can’t choose most of their reading (although Bryce Hedstrom has amazing suggestions for making and using a free voluntary reading library in his class). So if we assign reading, the choice factor is out. That means that the assigned reading MUST be compelling and comprehensible, unless you want rebellion in class and/or kids not doing reading at home.
So, compelling…in my experience with both legacy authentic texts and modern, TPRS-friendly books from Karen Rowan, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab et al, the modern stuff wins hands down. They are kid-friendly, they use high-frequency vocabulary, they recycle vocab and they have characters and plots that range from funny to moving.
Now, comprehensibility? Here is where it gets interesting. Let’s see how “easy” reading is in English, with a text that goes from being 98% comprehensible to 95%, then 90%, then lower.
Have a look at Marco Benvenides’ short readability presentation.
What did you notice? Yup. And you’re a competent English speaker!
The lesson: if you assign reading which is less than 98% comprehensible, meaning starts to break down very quickly. Most kids tune out under these conditions.
And this is the main argument against “authentic documents”: if even one word in twenty is incomprehensible (and/or requires the dictionary), we are wasting our time.
The traditionalist here says “but what about culture”? Well, unless you are using music– which repeats loads of vocab and is easy to remember– you are going to be struggling with making culture non-banal. So I do it in L1.
Linguist Russel Simonsen has proposed the term “learner-centered resource” for texts (audio or written) which foreground what a learner needs: repetition, comprehensibility, high interest. For what we call “authentic resources,” he proposes the term “non-learner-centered resources.” The word “authentic” is itself loaded: it implies that things which are not “authentic” are inauthentic, ie somehow less valuable. (This is an idiotic argument: Joseph Conrad was Polish and Vladimir Nabokov Russian. Both wrote in English. Are their novels not “authentic”?)
So, to sum up: most #authres have too much low-freq vocabulary, too little repetition, and– for most students– are unreadable. As it turns out, my conclusions are echoed by research (thanks, Diane Neubauer).
Anyway…as usual, comments are welcome.