In the world of modern language teaching much emphasis is often put on the use of authentic materials. While the benefits of authentic materials are undeniably excellent it might be daunting for teachers to interpret what constitutes a worthy piece of authentic materials.

“Don’t worry too much about that. So long as it’s authentic it can be made relevant to the class if you design the appropriate task to go with it”, a teacher trainer might advise. There is some truth in that in the sense that a good material developer should know how to exploit a piece. However it is also true that many materials are selected on the basis of their cultural value and relevance. In a French language class for example, you may choose to show pictures of famous sights in Paris in order to elicit descriptions of tourists’ attractions or make the students read about the life of Louis XIV. It will undoubtedly provide students with information relating to French architecture and history and in that respect it will tick the “culture” box. One might argue that it combines the authentic and cultural elements which are to be included in a good lesson plan. It is perhaps natural for teachers to predict that the students will engage with any materials that are seen as authentically French. What might also be considered is the relevance of the materials with regards to the students’ personal knowledge and experience of the world. Will throwing something French at them automatically make them engage and trigger comments?

In an intermediate French class I used visuals and a text describing the university system in France. After completing a reading comprehension and a discussion about the way the system works in France, students were asked to comment on the materials and activities. While they enjoyed finding out about the French university system they felt they had little to contribute as they were not familiar with it.

In another intermediate class I used similar visuals but the text was an extract from a French student’s blog describing life in a London university. She highlighted the differences between the French and British systems. After completing the same tasks as the other class, the students gave feedback which was emphatically more positive than the first one. The description of an experience so close to theirs triggered many comments and responses, and this felt, from my point of view at least, like a more successful lesson.

In both cases, authentic materials were used, identical tasks were carried out and very similar content was discussed. The fact that students responded more enthusiastically may be an indication that when developing our own lessons based on authentic materials we need to keep their immediate environment in mind.

The students ‘”daily reality” should be the first authentic element to base our material selection on.