In migrating Pre-sessional English (PSE) online, we’ve come up against the notion of authenticity and in particular what it means to say a listening is authentic. In the on-campus version of the programme, we had regular live lectures, delivered by PhD students sharing their research, together with a number of lessons formed around a video-recorded lecture, perhaps a TED Talk or an inaugural lecture given by a newly ‘enobled’ professor. In the online version of the programme, we’ve adhered more closely to the coursebook, Access EAP: Frameworks, which contains a variety of scripted audio lessons (no video), often divided into short preparatory extracts before a longer (5-10 minute) stretch of uninterrupted speech. To what extent can any of these listenings be considered to be authentic?
What are your criteria for saying something is authentic? For example, which of the following would you label as authentic, for use in an EAP classroom, and what would your criteria for authenticity include?
- An audio recording of a group of students participating in a postgraduate seminar
- A scripted audio recording of a group of fictional students holding a meeting of a student-staff liaison committee presenting a case for change in the way feedback on exams is given to students.
- A video recording of a TED talk or an inaugural lecture delivered by a new university professor.
- A scripted audio recording based on a real lecture series, in which pairs of lecturers from different disciplines discussed their research with a view to seeking common ground and developing cross-disciplinary projects.
- An audio recording of four separate focus groups of lecturers from different disciplines discussing approaches to research in their discipline.
- A scripted audio recording sourced from the same four focus group discussions but with the lecturers interacting as if they were in one mixed-discipline focus group
If you said 1, 3 and 5 are the authentic ones, it is likely that your criteria are based on a simulation of the target academic situation in which students attend seminars, lecturers deliver talks to large audiences and researchers collect data in focus groups. Simulations are a great way to develop skills and competencies to use in the real world. For example, simulators are used by airline pilots in their training and are designed to do everything a complex modern aircraft can do except actually take off and land. They can be used to test new software to control the flight or to introduce emergencies into the flight deck to train pilots to respond to them. However, they are not authentic in the way I conceptualise that term because their purpose is educational.
Similarly, so-called ‘authentic listenings’ are also not authentic because they are not live performances but video or audio-recorded and used for a different (educational) purpose from the original. So why not use specially scripted versions as in 2, 4 and 6 in the above list, which have been specifically adapted for teaching, in the same way that flight simulators have been specially adapted for flight training? I think the desire for authenticity stems from the early days of the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach, which tried to introduce real purposes and replicate interaction processes in the classroom. I remember, in my early training, being introduced to the concept of ‘realia’ i.e. stuff brought into the classroom from the real world for students to respond to. It didn’t really matter what this stuff was, tourist brochures, letters to the Council about electricity bills, household objects or fruit and veg; what mattered was that it had a real purpose in the real world.
But how useful is an ‘authentic listening’, which originally had a real purpose in the real world, even if, in a classroom setting, it is several degrees removed from that original purpose? I wrote about this in EAP Essentials (2018, pp 234-6) where I suggested, following (Macdonald, Badger & White, 2000), that authenticity could be considered in terms of goals, materials, interaction, processes and tasks. The problem I’ve always had with ‘authentic listenings’ is that they are almost always accompanied by tasks that are inauthentic in pedagogical terms. These tasks usually test the students by getting them to listen once to a longish talk, take notes and then contribute to a discussion about what they heard, i.e. a topic focus and a CLT approach. Instead, I would prefer to see a procedural EAP approach, in which students are introduced to strategies for managing lectures such as pre-reading and note-taking onto Powerpoint slides, provided in advance. If the focus is procedural, then I see no reason why the material needs to be ‘authentic’ in the way it might be conceived by a teacher with a CLT background.
Our authentic purpose as EAP teachers is to prepare students with tools and strategies for managing the real academic situation, using simulations of that experience. But rather than making each listening a test, we need to stage and scaffold the performance so that students experience the real situation in slow-motion and develop strategies for listening beyond their current level of competence. You don’t need ‘authentic listenings’ to do that.
Macdonald, M., Badger, R. & White, G. (2000) The real thing? Authenticity and academic listening. English for Specific Purposes, 19(3), pp. 253-267.