‘Authenticity’ is a good place for a blog on common sense in ELT to start. It is one of many concepts in our field that involve a good deal of faulty reasoning, yet this is largely unrecognised. At the same time, there is also an almost religious degree of agreement that the normal understanding of the term makes sound pedagogical sense.
The typical meaning given to the term ‘authentic(ity)’ in ELT = ‘of the “real world”‘. In other words, it is usually used to refer to a ‘text’ which was originally devised for a purpose other than English language teaching, but which has been brought into the classroom in order to exploit its potential for language learning purposes. Examples of such texts are newspaper or magazine articles, letters, television or radio broadcasts, web-pages and so on. Such ‘naturally-occurring’ texts are in contrast to the other main type to be found in ELT, i.e., ‘specially-written’ ones. These, although frequently ‘life-like’, have had no prior existence outside the classroom, i.e., they have been constructed solely for language teaching use.
Both types of text are of potential pedagogical value, of course (Hutchinson and Waters, 1987: 158-60). For example, if the teacher’s aim is to boost learners’ confidence by showing them how much they can understand of ‘real-life’ language, despite knowing the meaning of only some of it, then a ‘naturally-occurring’ text will be the obvious choice. However, if the aim is to provide learners with plentiful examples of the use of a particular language structure, it is likely that a ‘specially-written’ text will be more appropriate. In other words, both kinds of texts have their place in pedagogy, with neither kind being inherently superior to the other, i.e., they are in a complementary relationship.
However, within much of the ELT professional discourse the overall ‘message’ is that the emphasis in pedagogy should be on the naturally-occurring rather than the specially- written type of text (see, e.g. Simpson, 2009), i.e. a replacement strategy. This view is strongly reinforced by the use of the term ‘authentic’ to stand for ‘naturally-occurring’. Such usage carries with it positive overtones of ‘genuine’, ‘real’, ‘natural’, and so on. On the other hand, the other main kind of text, instead of being referred to as ‘specially-written’, tends to be described in the same discourse in more negative terms, such as ‘artificial’, ‘contrived’, ‘unnatural’ (see, e.g. Tomlinson, 2010).
But in reality, of course, contrary to such perspectives, it is the so- called ‘authentic’ text which is actually ‘artificial’. This is the case because such a text, once used for language teaching, cannot be regarded as truly ‘authentic’ any longer, since both its purpose and context of use are no longer the same as they were originally. At the same time, the other, ‘specially-written’ type of text can be regarded as potentially more truly ‘authentic’, in the sense that its context of use and its function are consistent with its original (pedagogic) purpose of construction (cf. Seedhouse, 1996).
However, the tenor of much of the professional discourse on this matter has had the effect of reversing such a perspective, resulting in a lop-sided view, one in which an implicit preference is expressed for ‘naturally-occurring’ over ‘specially-written’ texts, despite the benefits inherent in both kinds. As a result, the value for pedagogy of the specially-written text tends to be downplayed, on the one hand, and, on the other, that of ‘authentic’ texts exaggerated, and an unrepresentative kind of professional discussion created – a very unfortunate state of affairs. Instead of such a dichotomising perspective, it ought to be recognised a good deal more often that ‘the ultimate criterion for judging the usefulness of language activity in the classroom is not whether it is communication but whether it helps people to learn to communicate’ (Littlewood 1992: 83, original emphasis).
Hutchinson T, Waters A (1987) English for Specific Purposes: a Learning-centred Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Littlewood, William T. (1992). Teaching oral communication : a methodological framework. Oxford: Blackwell.
Seedhouse P (1996) Classroom interaction: possibilities and impossibilities. ELT Journal 50(1): 16–24.
Simpson J (2009) A critical stance in language education: a reply to Alan Waters. Applied Linguistics 30(3): 428–34.
Tomlinson B (2010) Principles of effective materials development. In: Harwood N (ed.) English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 81–108.
 Or ‘task’ – the points being made in this blog apply equally to both.
 In reality, of course, several sub-types of texts/activities can also be distinguished, but the picture has been deliberately simplified here, in the interests of clarifying the main focus.