Authenticity – what does it mean to say a listening is authentic?

Reflecting on what counts as authentic listening in online teaching

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?

  1. An audio recording of a group of students participating in a postgraduate seminar
  2. 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.
  3. A video recording of a TED talk or an inaugural lecture delivered by a new university professor.
  4. 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.
  5. An audio recording of four separate focus groups of lecturers from different disciplines discussing approaches to research in their discipline.
  6. 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.

Image by Claus Norgaard from Pixabay 

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.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

7 thoughts on “Authenticity – what does it mean to say a listening is authentic?”

  1. Interesting discussion to think about. I probably agree in that both have their place depending in an EAP curriculum. Using authentic listening for the sake of it is also not pedagogical. What I’m curious about is the rationale for your program’s online iteration sticking more closely to coursebook material. It seems like most of those previous listening types (e.g. guest lectures) are actually more practical in an online environment.

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    1. Thanks Tyson, you say: > It seems like most of those previous listening types (e.g. guest lectures) are actually more practical in an online environment.< but my point is that these lectures were actually inauthentic in pedagogical terms in the on-campus original, even the live ones. They were topic based and the topics were random and not always of particular interest or relevance to students. The tasks felt more like tests. I always feel when people use the word 'coursebook' they do so in a pejorative fashion. I agree that a random collection of listenings and readings selected by topic isn't particualrly pedagogically sound. However, if the coursebook is Access EAP: Frameworks, written to enact the principles set out in EAP Essentials (2018) and based on the authors' experiences of the challenges students face in the particular institution wherethe book is used, then I believe coursebook is actually a better option than random selection of topic-based listenings.

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      1. Interesting. Perhaps the underlying question to address then is why an EAP program is structured so that the live lectures topics are “random and not always of particular interest or relevance to students.” Why do pre-sessionals tend to be devoid of cohesive content? Why can’t they include a steady discipline-specific course(s) from which our tasks derive?

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      2. Because the content is not our job. We would never be able to cater for the wide variety of different degree subjects so we shouldn’t try. Instead we set up a simulation of the assessment genres students will likely meet. Then THEY choose the concepts (topics) they want to write/speak about within the frameworks of the genres we specify. So instead of essays on global warming we get annotated bibliographies on green logistics – much more relevant and interesting. The student chooses the topic and hence takes responsibility for the subject vocabulary.

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      3. No we shouldn’t try to cater to all disciplines but we can include disciplinary content in our programs even if it isn’t the EAP practitioner who does so (though I don’t think I wholly agree that it content has to be solely outside our role either). It doesn’t have to be any specific one from the students’ disciplines but one that highlights how learners can transfer skills from one genre/discipline to another. In our case we use History as common discipline, which has the added bonus of fulfilling their breadth requirement should they choose to use it that way.

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      4. Also: apologies that while I enjoy this convo it’s drifted away from the original point of your post so we can stop and carry on another time elsewhere. Thanks for the post. 🙂

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  2. I do find that getting one’s knickers in a twist over “inauthentic listenings” is a waste of time. Very effective, as you say Olwyn, to give students “tools and strategies” to be able to get what they need from a talk/lecture – authentic or otherwise is kinda missin’ da point!

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