Selecting and Exploiting Authentic Written Texts

Charles Harper, Living Hell English Language Services, Fujisawa


  • Key Words: Materials Design, Integrated Four Skills
  • Learner English Level: All (in Japan)
  • Learner Maturity Level: Young Adult, Adult
  • Preparation Time: 2 hours first time; minimal in subsequent uses
  • Activity Time: Highly adaptable

To stimulate communication an EFL teacher often turns to newspapers and magazines for authentic texts of current interest. She scans the paper, finds a piece that she considers intriguing, clips and copies it for her class, and with that, the newer teacher considers her preparation complete. Her lesson plan is "read and discuss." Often, however, reading and discussing the article with the class is a disappointment; it proves to be an unfocussed and relatively barren exercise. The material is too long and discursive, the vocabulary is daunting, and in the end, very little discussion (the hoped-for goal of the activity) is generated. So the unsuccessful text is abandoned.

Authenticity itself does not assure a valid learning experience: A text requires considered development in order to achieve direction and focus. But with a little foresight and preparation, very involving and effective educational materials can be created.

Material selection is the first step. However, the topic of the material is not an important aspect of the selection. Interest is of course critical for learning--the student must be able to identify with the topic--but it need not, indeed should not, be completely familiar and comprehensible. Generally, a well--chosen piece is an article of general interest interestingly dealt with. For me, the most promising materials seem to be the short anecdotal or novelty pieces often employed as fillers. Some are general interest, while others are, for instance, business shorts or international shorts. But do not neglect any section of a publication; likely material can be found anywhere, often among advertisements and the comics.

One important guideline is that the selection must be quite brief--an article of a paragraph or two is long enough to stimulate discussion and offer pedagogical possibilities, and short enough to insure focus and thorough treatment. Brevity will permit you to develop your theme clearly and maintain a sense of impact, even of wonder, creating a very positive environment for language intake. I seldom use material longer than 30 or so lines of standard newspaper column, so scanning a publication for suitable articles requires very little initial reading of the articles themselves. Portions of longer articles can sometimes work well, but a sense of semantic completeness, one characteristic of authenticity is missing from these.

Secondly, and more importantly, the piece must contain an interesting teaching angle--perhaps a functional or structural anomaly for your students, a semantic point, or a lexical problem--to build a lesson plan upon. I cannot emphasize enough that an article's topic or viewpoint alone is not sufficient to effectively generate discussion that is potent for language acquisition. Content must have a conceptual handle, a pathway must be perceived through the expanse of intellectual interchange that native speakers can indulge in, but that often stymie learners of English. Teaching text is often composed by educators specifically to incorporate a language point, and this is what we see in most textbooks; its weakness is artificiality, unrealness. Found texts, on the other hand, may be either more or less rich in exemplification. They are written as real communication among native speakers and not as language lessons. It is, therefore, your task to search out the richer texts, the real texts that most clearly reveal how our language works.

What this means is examining a lot of raw material instead of clipping the first article whose topic appeals to you. However, careful search actually requires less work in the long run: the recognition process becomes much more efficient with experience, and these well-prepared materials accumulate, because the lessons are highly recyclable.

Once a promising piece is found, the second step is the creative one of rereading, envisioning and formulating the approach you will take, and designing the activities. Remember, initially it is just material, something must now be made of it. The process is something akin to a sculptor searching for incipient form in his marble block: the teacher is looking for the language angle to emerge, for a coherent set of activities to appear that will build upon each other and make up an effective lesson. The best-chosen materials give birth to the most versatile and productive sets of activities. The results of this step are unique to each piece and I can do little better than give you an example which has succeeded in my classes. I present this activity in detail, not so that you can duplicate this particular lesson (though you are welcome to do so, of course), but so that you can get a feeling for the depth to which such short pieces can be utilized.

Take for example the following article from The Japan Times, 13 March, 1995:


Stores to sell standardized coupons


Department stores will begin selling vouchers in June that can be used at any member firm of the Japan Department Stores Association, according to industry sources.

The department store industry decided to start selling the coupons after sales of similar products by credit card companies increased sharply, they said.

The \1,000 vouchers can be used at all 112 members stores of the association. Each voucher will be uniform in design and carry the name of the department store that sold the coupon.

This little piece reveals a lovely hierarchical lexical field which can be exploited in a simple but thought-and-discussion-provoking activity, to wit:

Activity: Re-order the following organizational entities (listed at the left) from smaller to larger (from less to more encompassing) according to the content of the text, by writing them in the blank spaces provided. The first has been done for you.



industry firm





In working this out with the class, there will be opportunity to discuss, among other things, (a) Japanese depaato vs. English "department store," (b) the meaning of "department" in stores and in companies, (c) the differences among "company," "firm," and corporation," (d) what entities can be "members," and (e) synonyms, especially when the class discovers that "firm," "company," and "member" are all equivalent in this piece, leaving two blank lines.

This small article can easily and fruitfully occupy 45 minutes of a class (I teach primarily corporate classes of 6 to 12 students), and can be manipulated to involve all four basic skills. Lesson steps for this material might include:

  1. Remind students of gift certificate system in department stores, and solicit anecdotes.
  2. New vocabulary ("voucher" is often the only word that needs definition). Don't highlight the activity words until the students have a chance to associate them in context.
  3. Teacher or student reads the text.
  4. Teacher asks for summary or its general points.
  5. Students complete the word-field activity (in pairs, groups, or singly depending on class level, size, and atmosphere).
  6. The answers are discussed as a group. N.B. This is where real, active conversation covering the topic of the article will appear. In this case, it grows out of the word-field activity: The uses of the words, their relationships, their ranges, and coverage of meaning produce a discussion that moves through the topic of department stores and usually far beyond.
  7. After full discussion, a wrap-up cloze activity (white out from the text the same hierarchical words) will reinforce associations.

This example, I hope, suggests the sort of short authentic texts that should be searched out, and the sorts of activities that can be developed to exploit them. Gapping, sequencing, scatter sheets, discourse chains and other activities and their purposes are described in many ESL works, like Jeremy Harmer's The Practice of English Language Teaching (Longman, 1991). Authentic text development requires extra effort, but is necessary if you wish to make these materials effective. Well-designed activities stimulate the student's personal consideration and public practice of both language point and topic. It is the activities that give the student the tools to talk about the topic. Take heart in the knowledge that a well-developed text will endure, and that the lesson will continue to gain in polish and efficacy with use. Needless to say, a good lesson gives the teacher a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in the classroom. And exploiting a text thoroughly would logically seem to contribute to teaching the English language most effectively.



Stores to sell standardized coupons. (1995, March 13). The Japan Times

Harmer, J. (1991). The Practice of English Language Teaching . Essex, England: Longman.




I would like to thank Damian Lucantonio, TEFL Coordinator for The Japan Times teacher training programs, for his inspiration.