Authentic Material: How to Teach English Using Radio or Podcasts

By Margaret Hurley. Co-writer You Can Teach Grammar

Podcasts and radio in the ESL classroom - Authentic Material TESOLThe benefits of using authentic material in the TESOL classroom are many. They generate interest, they are certainly more varied in range than the material embedded in textbooks, they can be extremely practical, they can be fun and they can be very current. Especially for teachers who are not in an English-speaking country, authentic material are an excellent way to bring the English-speaking world into the classroom. In this series, different specific ways of using authentic materials will be covered. This inaugural issue covers some tips for using (non-musical) radio or podcasts in the classroom.

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Using Authentic Material to Motivate Students

Since the advent of podcasting, a rich variety of authentic listening material is now widely available. This enables focus on just about any subject that a teacher might deem appropriate for any particular class. Whether the class is keen on hip-hop fashion, nuclear physics, vegetable gardening or ancient Greek philosophers, there is authentic listening material readily available. In this way, the first step in a meaningful and memorable lesson is already taken care of: almost by definition, students have an interest in the content of the class. This is a huge motivator for students, and can often encourage students to reach beyond their ostensible level of comprehension: if they are genuinely interested in the content, they are much more likely to push themselves and to use all the tools they have to increase their comprehension.

Read: The Importance of Teaching Integrated Skills with Authentic Material

How to Choose the Right Podcast

This means that choosing a suitable podcast is quite important. With a new class, it can be difficult to gauge subjects of interest, so generic topics (the kind typically found in textbooks, such as food, travel, movies and home life) are safest. Once a more specific set of interests is established, and suitable subjects are clear, the next step in choosing appropriate listening material is the length and style. A great many podcasts are under five minutes in length, and this is really a good upper limit. If a chosen passage is longer than that, it really is necessary to cut it into more consumable segments. For lower levels, the five-minute time limit is almost certainly too long. The typical length of the listening exercises in the textbooks appropriate for your students’ level is a good guide.

The style of the recording can greatly influence its suitability as well. Does it have many constituent parts (musical element, introductory passage, background scene-setting sounds, question-and-answer segment), or is it more of a monologue? The more constituent parts the passage has, the easier it is for the teacher to set distinct tasks for repeat listening. Remember, each time a piece is played in the classroom – no matter the source – there must be a clear purpose to the listening: what should students be listening for? Consider also attributes such as speed, accents, ambient noise and sound quality.

Read: Context is King in TESOL

Listening Exercises

Regardless of the length and style of a piece, there are a few basic requirements of any listening exercise. It will usually be appropriate to have at least one listening be for the broad meaning: listening for the gist. This is deliciously easy for the teacher to prepare for: give students a broad question about the general meaning of the listening. (What is the main point? What are the speakers arguing about? Who is speaking and why? Where and when is this happening?) Then play the recording and elicit responses to the preparatory question. Depending on the focus of the class and the content of the material, it will probably be appropriate to have a subsequent listening that focuses on specific language: listening for details such as vocabulary or use of a certain grammatical form. After that, the real work (for the teacher!) begins. The deeper exploitation of authentic listening material is simultaneously more difficult and more rewarding.

The main techniques and benefits of listening exercises should be generally apparent for anyone who uses professionally-developed material from textbooks. The lines of questioning are typically related to the subject matter for which the listening was designed: if the textbook is covering language associated with health, or interrogative grammar forms, then these will be the things that students will be asked to listen for. Authentic material, of course, is not designed to fit a teacher’s lesson planning, and so invariably requires some filtering, pre-teaching or directed instruction on the part of the teacher in order to be used successfully. (If students find the tasks too difficult, then one of the major benefits of authentic material – motivation – will be wiped out).

Read: Are You Teaching Or Testing Listening Skills?

Pre-Teaching Language

With authentic listening material, the teacher must pluck out the nuggets of useful language. In addition, the teacher must anticipate language that could hinder students’ success in completing tasks. If the passage contains vocabulary, pronunciation or grammar that students are likely to find impenetrable on their own, then the simplest solution is to pre-teach these elements. Students will start the listening exercise with this knowledge and it will not interfere with the target language. Another simple way to deal with probable problematic language is to get students to use their deduction skills to approximate the meaning, with directed questioning such as, “Is it positive or negative? Higher or lower? Better or worse?” If this is sufficient to get the gist, then leave it at that and move on to the target language.

Read: Giving Clear Instructions When Using Authentic Material

Teaching Vocabulary, Grammar, and Pronunciation

Having dealt with the inevitable problematic language, the real value of authentic listening material can be extracted. If the material has been wisely chosen, it will contain target elements. Vocabulary and grammar are the most obvious. But authentic listening material is a particularly rich source for language elements that are less frequently given focus in the classroom. Pronunciation is at the top of the list. In addition to the basic vowel and consonant sounds, authentic listening material is an outstanding resource for teaching intonation stress in context, both syllable stress within words, and word stress within sentences.

A further permutation of pronunciation that can be exploited with authentic listening material is the intonation associated with register. If a passage is clearly specific to a situation (a protester complaining about government policy; a lottery winner; a company spokesperson answering questions about criminal accusations), then a set of words – “I can’t believe it,” for example – would be intoned in a fairly predictable and specific way. Students could even be given part of the script beforehand and asked to say it in a normal way, then listen to the words in their context and compare that intonation to their original attempt.

Authentic listening material is a wonderful source of paralanguage: that in-between world of sounds that are specific to English speakers, but are not fully-fledged words. Mmm, hmmm, huh, eh, ow, ssshh, ungh, aargh, and others fall into this category. The vast majority of this paralanguage never makes it into the classroom, in spite of its very frequent occurrence in the English speaking world.

Properly chosen and designed, lessons featuring authentic listening material can be among the most memorable for students.

Free Video on How to Teach English Using Authentic Material


Find more articles on using authentic material in the ESL classroom:

Using Comics

Teaching English with Movies and TV Shows

Teaching English with Songs