Reflections on authenticity in teaching and learning

First lessons

I love first lessons with students.  The buzz you get before you go in, the thrill of seeing people getting on with each other and forging friendships that can sometimes last way past the course.

The idea of being authentic in the classroom, being yourself, is very noticeable for me in the first lesson.  It’s when you tell the students the most about yourself, when they are keen to ask and when you are encouraging them to share with you and each other.

There are so many actitivities for first lessons, but I come back to some time and again…

The name game:  think of an adjective that begins with the first letter of your first name and introduce yourself: I’m Emma and I’m enthusiastic.  The rationale behind this is that:

  • you get to see what words students know and may be able to gauge linguistic level (who is stronger/weaker)
  • you get to see how creative/adaptive students are  – if they don’t come up with an adjective, they sometimes come up with a noun or an adverb or even a set phrase, “I’m Mohammed and I’m always in a good mood”
  • you see the personalities of the group “I’m Sanako and I’m shy”, “I’m Danyang and I’m dangerous”  (the students in this group called her ‘dangerous Danyang’ the whole term… and beyond!)
  • it lightens the mood, helping students nervous in the first lesson to relax
  • it helps students and teachers learn names, which for affective reasons and rapport is very important – I remember a student saying the teacher was okay but would be better if they could remember his name!
  • it involves movement – moving aids learning according to TPR
  • it allows people to be individuals and represent their identity
  • its a chance to show that mistakes are learning opportunities – the teacher struggling to pronounce a name and how you correct and try again and then get it right fosters a more relaxed attitude to learning and errors.
  • it can become collaborative – helping students remember each others’ names becomes a group activity and foster cooperation…

The list goes on…

This is a real activity in that it reflects what happens in many first lessons, and perhaps many company ice-breaking sessions.  The clasroom can be ‘a real social context’ in itself (Littlewood, 1981: 44). It is also real in terms of its aims – for parties to feel at ease with each other, establishing a rapport amongst themselves (See Harmer, 2007: 114).  Also, Guy Cook notes in Language play, Language learning (2000) that language play has always been central to how we learn languages and is connected to the process of how we become social animals.

But my focus is on real in terms of everyday life.  Upon meeting someone for the first time, when have I ever stood in a circle and introduced myself as ‘Enthuastic Emma’?  Littlewood would challenge this with:

” the usefulness of language learning does not depend only on what specific pieces of language the learner encounters. Still more, it depends on whether he masters the more general principles which underlie them. Language structures and communicative functions are not bound to specific situations: once they have been mastered so that they can be used creatively, they can be transferred to contexts other than the one where they were initially acquired.” (Littlewood, 1981:44)

In this respect, the elements of rapport building, taking risks (with language choice), making mistakes without being embarrassed, feeling you can be secure in your identity, accepted/respected are intrinsic to all successful lessons and further, life itself.  Maybe this is why the activity works so well.

More to come on the question:  Is ‘authentic’ for one, ‘authentic’ for another?


  • Guy Cook, Language Learning, Language Play (OUP, 2000)
  • Jeremy Harmer, The Practice of English Language Teaching , 4th ed. (Longman, 2007)
  • William Littlewood, Communicative Language Teaching: An Introduction (CUP, 1981)

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This entry was posted on 18/04/2012 by in Uncategorized.

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