Tag Archives: Henry Widdowson

Dissing Dogme Part Four: The 36 chambers (or the authenticity trap)

I have a friend in Japan called Rika. She’s a sales rep for the company that distributes our books out there and is a wonderful, outspoken, funny, rude individual. Now, one day, whilst I was lucky enough to be in the middle of an author tour of Japan, we went for a drink in Osaka. We ordered our beers (Asahi Super Dry. Highly recommended) and sat down. Next thing I knew, some random guy approached our table, bowed profusely and whipped out a pen and piece of paper. Rika made her mark and then turned back to the conversation, looking slightly bashful. I was just about to ask what was going on when it happened all over again – same scenario, different random guy. These were clearly autographs Rika was signing. When I finally found time to ask what was going on, Rika admitted these guys had seen her on TV the week before in a judo competition. After much interrogation, I finally managed to find out that this had actually been the women’s national finals and that Rika had come fourth. She seemed to want to keep her two divergent worlds very separate and was quite embarrassed to have been ‘found out’ – and also bemused as to why I was interested. We spent the next hour discussing how this incredible achievement had come to pass and during the course of the conversation I learned that she’d been doing judo for years, had been through three main schools (or ‘dojos‘) and passed through twelve levels in each dojo, a path that mirrors the mythical thirty-six chambers of Shaolin. You may well be wondering why on earth I’m telling you all of this, of course, but bear with me here.

I asked what happened at each level, and in essence it was a series of graded skills that the student mastered before passing on to the next level. I asked Rika when she had her first real – or if you prefer, ‘authentic’ – fight. Was it after twelve levels? Or twenty-four? She looked at me like I was mad and said “You’re joking! If I’d taken on a real fighter at that stage, they would’ve destroyed me and I would’ve lost all my motivation! We’re only allowed to fight for real once we’ve passed through all thirty-six levels.” Intrigued, I pushed this further and asked how much of what she’d learned did she think she actually used in her first fight. She laughed and replied “Maybe 5%. I won in about thirty seconds flat. I used my two best moves and the other girl was down and out!”

The more perceptive among you may have realised that I’m talking metaphors here – and then some! Whilst being able to handle so-called ‘authentic material’ – whether that be films, TV shows, YouTube clips, articles from The Guardian or New Scientist, novels or whatever – is perhaps the ultimate end point we want to help our students reach, the destination is NOT the road. It was in, I think, 1980, at the height of their fetishization by the CLT pioneers, that Henry Widdowson said pretty much all you’d think needs to be said on the question of authentic materials (I’m too lazy to endlessly add the scare quotes, but imagine them there if you will!) by stating the bleeding obvious: materials are not ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’ in and of themselves; authentic materials written for particular audiences with particular sets of cultural, stylistic, linguistic and intellectual backgrounds may well have no authenticity whatsoever in the classroom. For a text to become authentic in the classroom it essentially has to be authenticated through the interaction of the students. And a text written for language learners is just as likely to be authenticated as anything else, if not more so!

What Widdowson did was at least make folk sit up and think twice before bandying terms like ‘authentic’ around as if they were manna from heaven. However, there are other reasons to be very wary of so-called ‘authentic’ materials in the classroom. Foremost among these is the grading of language. Used at anything below Advanced level, most authentic texts contain language way outside of students’ current abilities; frequently, it’s very low frequency language, language that may be being used in an odd or creative way or that may even be a unique coning. We may try to get round this unpleasant truth by grading the task not the text (personally, I think doing the opposite – grade the text and not the task makes way more sense in a classroom!) or telling students not to worry if they don’t understand every word, but this is to willfully ignore why students think they’re reading or listening in a classroom – which is to learn new language! All we end up doing in this situation is encouraging by default a kind of self-reliance on dictionaries and the accumulation of countless random words encountered, in the desperate hope that this way will lie competence.

It gets worse of course: courses which rely heavily on authentic texts rarely, if ever, have the kind of inbuilt recycling of language that good coursebooks do. Language comes and goes on the wind – and in essence this is because the teachers who rely on such materials aren’t first and foremost interested in language per se; they’re interested in the texts as a springboard for discussion or debate. This is just plain old-fashioned wrong imho! Whilst I have no problem with the idea of texts leading into interesting discussions (indeed, I think you could very easily argue that texts written specifically for use in the language classroom often encourage more of this than many so-called ‘authentic texts’ do!) I believe that the main reason for having texts in the classroom must be to teach language. Texts, therefore, need to be rich in re-useable language in the form of common collocations or chunks – and graded at (or just above) the students’ level.

Where all this connects to Dogme is that, in its frenzy to rid the classroom of the curse of published materials, it has ushered in a whole new era of authentic materials gone mad. This particularly occurs at the nexus between Dogme evangelism and tech evangelism, one of my least favourite street corners in the known universe. iPads and hi-tech classrooms are used to zap content – apparently often student-selected content – in from the Web and we’re sold visions of students becoming hyper-motivated as a result. The material from the so-called ‘real world’ is presented to us as by definition more motivating or relevant and thus more likely to engage.

Yet all of this fails to recognise that our fundamental role in the classroom is to teach language – and that we can best do this if we take responsibility for selecting and sifting the language we expose our students to (thinking, if you like, about the thirty-six levels we want them to master before they can fight the language for real), if we ensure we don’t kill them softly with material too far beyond their current range of competence (throwing them into the ring after their first dojo!) and if we help them OVER-learn lexis so that when they finally do have to deal with authentic texts, they’ll know far more than they encounter and will emerge relatively unscathed from the encounter. This can only be achieved by careful selection of material – and that may well, of course, mean careful selection of coursebooks!