Get Real!: Cultural Literacy through Authenticity – Part One: The Whys


“Culture is an abstraction; it cannot actually be seen or touched…. We see people acting in agreed-upon ways in the face of similar situations…we notice people moving their bodies in certain ways – making choices in their lives about where to live, what to eat, how to learn, how to work and love – in response to similar events and experiences, and  say: “oh, these people belong to the same culture”.  (H. Ned Seeyle)

Our recent #langchat inspired me to blog about something which I am truly passionate, using authentic texts in the world language classroom.  We discussed the definition of culture and how to teach it.  Because culture is fluid and amorphous, it is difficult to define.  The website expands upon culture as a skill.

I like the term “cultural literacy” which includes:
  • The ability to perceive and recognize cultural differences.
  • The ability to accept cultural differences.
  • The ability to appreciate and value cultural differences.
In my experience, the most effective way to teach culture is through the use of authentic texts.  They can teach cultural literacy because they contain authentic cultural information and give students exposure to real language.  Ned Seelye writes: “Learning a language in isolation of its cultural roots prevents one from becoming socialized into its contextual use. Knowledge of linguistic structure alone does not carry with it any special insight into the political, social, religious, or economic system.”

What is an authentic text?
A “text” isn’t limited to something written down. A text can be a film, an artifact, anything in a language and culture that conveys meaning.  Authentic texts are print, audio, and visual documents created and used by native speakers. Examples include books, web sites, articles, artwork, films, folktales, music, advertisements, videos, posters, news, songs, food, commercials.  Think of any experience you go through during a normal day in a foreign country.
Authentic texts are an alternative to outdated textbooks. As I said in my tweet: “RT @lelises: @profeguerita exactly! We don’t need a textbook when we have the world! TL exists everywhere. Web gives easy access. #langchat

How do authentic texts promote language learning?
Authentic texts takes the learner out of a traditional setting, incorporating current methodologies to include the learner in contextualized real world learning.  They have a positive effect on learner motivation, support a more creative approach to learning and relate more closely to actual learners’ needs.
In addition to teaching cultural literacy, authentic texts can advance a learner’s proficiency by giving them opportunities to analyze a wide range of materials rather than be limited to restrictive grammar points.  It allows learners to self discover patterns in language and make inferences about applications in new circumstances, making generalizations based on past experiences.  Discuss this openly with your students, so they may be intentional about their learning.  For example, the technology verbs save a document, turn on the computer, put in the USB all have uses in other contexts.
There is not just one way of saying something, and native speakers do not always answer in complete sentences.  Similarly, we do not want our students to be automatons.  The self-discovery process of language acquisition involved in using authentic texts gives learners a clear picture on varied ways of communicating the same idea.
Authentic texts often provide more than is necessary, therefore differentiating.  This is especially important in classes of varied learners, a familiar portrait of today’s language classrooms.
Now that we’ve covered the “whys”, in my next blog post, I will cover the “hows” of using an authentic text.  The answer rests in properly scaffolding!

A preview….

Many teachers struggle with ways to expose novice learners to authentic texts.  If you scaffold appropriately, novice learners can be exposed to a variety of materials.

Here are some that I have used in my classroom:

Level one:
Greetings and leave takings from films or TV
Class schedules and school websites
Café menus
Children’s stories
Photos Photos Photos!!!
Map guides of theme parks and cities
Food labels
Pop culture websites like MTV espana
Transportation websites, like TGV websites
Youtube tutorials


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