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The Place of Authentic Materials in Language Teaching:

A Historical Perspective

Edgar Alirio Insuasty

Universidad Surcolombiana

Neiva, Colombia





The use of authentic materials in language teaching has strongly been associated with the advent of the so called Communicative Approach or Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) in the 1970s. So it is shown in an overview of approaches and methods made by Nunan (qtd. in Brown 71), adapted by Brown (71) and reproduced by González (103). Larsen Freeman (132) says that adherents to CLT advocate the use of language materials authentic to native speakers of the target language. However, search for authenticity in language learning can neither be seen as recent as one could imagine today, nor can it be exclusively associated with CLT.  In order to support these claims, this brief literature-review paper is, therefore, intended to unearth the historical background of authentic materials in language teaching.


Several precedents of authenticity in language learning can be traced and dated back to long before the twentieth century. Mishan contends that much of the early language learning and teaching in colonial contexts may be said to have been authentic in spirit, in that the language was usually acquired in non-classroom situations and without specially prepared language materials, via direct contact with native speakers (18).The historical explanation for this is the encounter of civilizations out of the different invasions like Persian invasion of Greece, Macedonian conquest of the Persian Empire, Roman invasion of Britain, among many others. It was precisely in the context of the Roman conquest of Macedonia and Greece, that the Greek language was commonly adopted by Roman society and education. Musumeci said that:


“By the beginning of the 3rd century B.C., Greek was the language of prestige and culture among educated and upper-social class Romans, existing alongside Latin in a bilingual society” (627)


        Quintilian, a well-known and influential educator in Rome, recommended that children learn Greek first and Latin second, as the latter would be learned in the context of daily life. He claimed that learning derives from instruction; therefore, children should be exposed only to excellent and accurate models of language use through their caregivers and the texts they read. (Howatt 628). 

By the Medieval times, it was through Latin that Christianity was spread. This language was taught by means of the “scholastic method” which consisted of breaking down words into their constituent parts. The alphabet had to be learnt prior to reading and memorizing sections of the so called “primers”. The materials used at this time were authentic texts like basic prayer books and scripture passages ( Mishan 19: Musumeci 629). Agustine, a Church father, claimed that language developed out of a need to communicate and that he learned his native language by associating sounds and gestures with objects (Howatt 630).


In the 9th-century England, Latin was the international (European ) language of communication. According to Pugh (qtd. in Mishan 163) an authentic material approach is said to have been used to spread Latin by means of the translation of books into the vernaculars Old English and Anglo-Saxon. Some of those translations have been attributed to King Alfred himself.


A more liberal implementation of authentic texts in language learning was proposed by Roger Ascham in the mid-16th century (Mishan 19). He developed a “double translation” method, i.e., the target  language text was rendered into the mother tongue and then it was re-translated into the target language. Ascham used simple but authentic texts in this rendering process. For Latin teaching purposes, he used texts by Cicero by means of an “inductive approach”, whereby readers infer grammar rules out of the texts.

In reaction to the rote-learning which pervaded the learning of Latin and Greek during the 16th century, Comenius (qtd. in Misham 21) advocated an “intuitive approach”, based on sensory experience, to language learning. He said that every language must be learned by practice rather than by rules, especially by reading, repeating, copying, and by written and oral attempt at imitation.


Henry Sweet also used  an “inductive approach” as a basis to put forward a theory of language pedagogy in 1899 (Mishan 19). In his theory, he favored language study by means of connected texts, rather than detached sentences. Sweet advocated that those connected texts made the best context in order for learners to establish and strengthen the correct associations between words, their contexts and meanings. According to Mishan (19),  the arguments that Sweet made for the use of authentic texts at that time have been recaptured in modern teaching practices. This is what Sweet then claimed:


“If we try to make our texts embody certain definite grammatical categories, the texts cease to be natural: they become either trivial, tedious and long-winded, or else they become more or less monstrosities” (qtd. in Mishan 19).

The 20th century was dominated by materials-focused approaches albeit embodying many different theories of language acquisition (Mishan: 20). Teaching methods like the Oral Method, the Situational Approach, the Direct Method and the Audiolingual Method relied on carefully structured materials. According to Howatt, these methods developed a “cult of materials” (26), that is, the authority of the teaching approach resided in the material themselves. Since then, most of the language teachers have been subservient to textbooks as the only source of teaching ideas. Even though the materials used in these teaching methods were not claimed to be authentic, they served the purpose of developing a continuum from form-based approaches to meaning-based approaches in language teaching.


In the second half of the 20th-century, a group of humanistic approaches to language teaching emerged in reaction to the conventional mechanistic teaching methods (Mishan 21). Suggestopedia, Total Physical Response, The Silent Way and Neuro-Linguistic Programming all exploited the whole sensory repertoire of the brain during the language learning experience, instead of getting stuck to the cognitive learning operations. They used the learner’s “whole brain” (left and right hemispheres)  as a realistic and authentic interaction with input (Mishan 21).


Voice of language teaching tradition still echoes in contemporary practice (Musumeci 634). Whereas Latin learning was encouraged for evangelization purposes (globalization of Christianity) in the Medieval Age and authentic materials like prayers and scripture passages were then used to the effect, English is being likewise spread in the 21st century as the language of another sense of globalization, one having to do with international economic and cultural cooperation or competition. However, today’s language learning authenticity is shaped by what is currently at stake in the field, namely, the growing influence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) (Mishan 25), Whole Language, content-based instruction (Richards & Rodgers 215), task-based language teaching (Richards & Rodgers 237).


The Whole Language Approach has as one of its major principles the use of authentic literature rather than artificial, specially prepared texts and exercises designed to practice individual reading skills (Richards & Rodgers 110). Whole Language Proposals are seen as anti-direct teaching, anti-skills, and anti-materials, assuming that authentic texts are sufficient to support second language learning (Aaron: 127).


Richards & Rodgers contend that Content-Based Instruction (CBI) uses authentic texts as way to address students’ needs (210). It is through written and/or spoken texts students can encounter in the real world that a relevant syllabus can be developed. Real world in this case embraces not only social life but also academic life. In the latter case, CBI favors cross-curricular connections between English and other subject matter like social studies, science, math, or so. Authenticity in this type of instruction arises from the subject matter texts which are like the ones used in native language instruction and the way of accordingly approaching them.


Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) proponents also favor the use of authentic tasks supported by authentic materials (Richards & Rodgers 237). These materials come from different sources like newspapers, television and internet. The new ICTs are contributing a good stock of authentic materials for language teaching. But the authentic input on its own cannot generate authentic interaction and authentic language learning, unless authentic tasks are strategically designed to exploit the authentic text. By authentic task is meant the sort of things people usually do with the authentic material. For example, newspapers in everyday life are read with different purposes: information, entertainment, etc. Therefore, it would be quite inauthentic to come with English newspapers to the class just to practice some lexical or structural issues.

Underlying the latest approaches to language learning there is a new linguistic assumption, the interactional view of language, which adds weight to authenticity in contemporary language learning. Unlike the structural and functional views of language, “the interactional view” sees language as a vehicle for the realization of interpersonal relations and for the performance of social transactions between individuals” (Richards & Rodgers: 21). In this respect, Wilga Rivers suggested that students achieve facility in using a language when their attention is focused on conveying and receiving authentic messages (4); that is, relevant and appealing information for both the speaker and the listener.


To sum up, what the different episodes mentioned throughout this paper reveal is that both authenticity and communicativeness have always been underway in language teaching

history. Therefore, these two tenets of human language learning cannot be claimed as the exclusivity of any particular teaching method, regardless of how contemporary or communicational it claims to be.  However, the crucial difference between the conventional authenticity and today’s authenticity in language teaching seems to lie not in the authentic text itself, but in the authentic task that is carried out with that type of text.


Works cited


Aaron, P. “Is there a hole in Whole language?” Contemporary Education 62 (1991): 167.

Brown, Douglas. Teaching by Principles. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents, 1994.

Gilmore, Alex. “The Times They are a-Changin’ : Strategies for exploiting authentic

materials in the language classroom.” E mail to the author. 28 May 2008

Gilmore, Alex. “Authentic Materials and Authenticity in Language Learning”. E-mail to the

author. 29 May 2008.

González, Adriana. “On Material Use Training in EFL Teacher Education: Some

Reflections.” Profile 7 (2006): 101-115.

Howatt, A. P. R. Language Teaching: History. Edinburg: Elsevier, 2006.

Larsen-Freeman Diane. Techniques and principles in language teaching. Oxford University

Press, 2000.

Mishan, Freda. Designing Authenticity into Language Learning Materials. Great Britain:

Intellect Books, 2004.

Musumeci, D. Language Teaching Traditions: Second Language. Champaign: University of

Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2006

Richards, Jack & Theodore, Rodgers. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. New

York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Rivers, W. M. (ed.). 1987. Interactive Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.



(c)  2008 by Edgar Alirio Insuasty