George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

The Power of Authentic Texts in World Language Instruction

When students comment on social media posts in their target language, they develop greater comprehension and interact with native speakers.

December 19, 2019
Glyn Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

How many times have you heard someone say, “I took Spanish (or French or German) in high school, but I don’t remember any of it”? Many of us recall high school language classes filled with endless verb conjugations, random vocabulary lists, and stilted dialogue from workbooks.

This method of language learning didn’t inspire many of us to continue our learning into college and beyond. Even today, total enrollments in undergraduate and graduate foreign language programs dropped 9.2 percent between 2013 and 2016. At the K–12 level, only 11 states have foreign language graduation requirements. 

Teachers can bring fresh and interesting perspectives into their classes by using authentic texts: texts written by and/or for speakers of that language. 

Enliven classes by showing students how language is actually used by native speakers in different countries and cultures. “Authentic texts pull students into the target culture and allow them to learn vocabulary in a way that mimics how the brain acquires one’s first language,” says Jon Baker, world language instructional coach and chair of the World Languages department at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas ISD. 

Choosing Appropriate Works

Choose authentic texts that are age- and contextually appropriate. Select authentic texts that include rich visuals to help students who are visual learners to infer the meaning of the texts. 

Encourage students to use background knowledge and context clues to make meaning of the text. Rather than a word-to-word translation of the text, ask students these questions: 
    •    What is this text mostly about?
    •    Who is the audience?
    •    What is the author’s main idea?
    •    What are supporting details?

The same text can be used for all levels of students, and teachers need only adjust their questions to the proficiency level of their students. For example, beginning language students can respond in the target language to simple recall questions such as, “Who are the main characters in this text?” or “What is the setting of this text?” More advanced students can speak or write in the target language to compare and contrast elements of the text or make inferences and draw conclusions about the text.

Deciphering Infographics

Infographics are charts or diagrams that present information or data visually. Often with bold, creative images, infographics give a quick overview of a topic in a visually appealing, easy-to-digest manner. For language learners, the combination of words and visuals helps students organize and retain new vocabulary and ideas. This infographic from the American Heart Association, for example, is looking at “The Six Salty” foods. Novice learners can learn basic vocabulary words about food, while more advanced learners can explore the details of the text. Students can write a summary in Spanish of the key information in the infographic, or they can categorize new food vocabulary words into cognates/noncognates. More advanced learners can work in groups to create a new infographic giving alternatives to each of the listed foods.

Expanding Social Media Tools

The photo-sharing social media platform Instagram is already popular with many students. Students can search for photos and captions with specific hashtags (#paris or #barcelona, for example) or look for a specific organization’s Instagram account (like the Real Madrid soccer team). The captions and comments will often be written in the target language as well as in English. 

Students explore the meaning of the captions and responses by translating them or by writing their own. For example, if students are looking at the Real Madrid Instagram account, they can compose text congratulating a player or describe the action in a video clip. They can also practice using adjectives to write a brief paragraph describing a player. If students are looking at pictures found by searching “#Paris,” they can write their own descriptions in French or compare and contrast two different pictures. To practice speaking, students can follow a hashtag, choose a photo that appeals to them, and then describe it to the class in the target language.

Working from the Headlines

Foreign-language newspapers are a great source of learning about the culture and news of various countries. Skimming the headlines of newspapers like Le Monde, El Pais, and Der Spiegel allows students to learn new vocabulary words and make meaning of the text, while more advanced learners can delve into the articles themselves. 

If the amount of text is overwhelming for novice and intermediate language learners, many of the newspapers maintain Facebook and Instagram accounts where they link photos and a few paragraphs of text. Looking at social media accounts also lets students view comments in the target language and see how native speakers respond to news in their own countries.

Interpreting Exhibitions

For texts that juxtapose rich descriptions with stunning works of art, have students explore the websites of world-famous museums. Exploring what’s on display at the Louvre or the Museo Nacional del Prado gives students insights into language, history, and culture. For example, students can explore photos of the exhibitions, choose an artwork, and write a description of it in the target language. Artists’ biographies are another possibility for exploration. Many museums offer information in English as well as their local language, so students can check their understanding of the texts.

A virtual tour can be a fun way for beginning language students to use a museum as a springboard for learning. They can describe how they would plan their visit, including two or three famous works they would see. Then they can write two or three questions they would ask a guide—a real-world application of the target language. To practice speaking, students can work in pairs role-playing the parts of guide and visitor looking at a piece of art on display. 

Using authentic texts in a world language classroom brings the target language’s culture to life. Students interact with the living, vibrant language—a rich gift to all students of another language and one that will help them become truly global citizens.

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