Authentic Learning: Boosting ELL Language and Academic Proficiency Development

By Zwahlen, Cassandra Petrakis | The International Schools Journal, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Authentic Learning: Boosting ELL Language and Academic Proficiency Development


Zwahlen, Cassandra Petrakis, The International Schools Journal


Science teachers have long employed authentic learning experiences to engage students and help them develop real-world scientific skills. Yet what about language skills - could authentic learning contribute to the language and academic development of English language learners (ELLs)? This article explores approaches to authentic learning that can assist ELLs in developing language and academic proficiency.

At its core, authentic learning is student work that addresses real issues, or student production of real products that can be assessed by real-world standards (Knight, 2013). Grace and Lee said authentic learning "must begin with solving problems ... as people explore real life situations for answers" (2014, p. 43). Authentic learning is sometimes called project-based learning (PBL) or task-based learning (TBL), though projects and tasks are not automatically authentic. Gottlieb said authentic projects and tasks should represent real-world experiences that are connected to students' lives and cultures (2006). Wiggins said "a real-world task requires students to deal with the messiness of real or simulated settings, purposes, and audience" (2014, para. 15). Both Muller and Lam identified student reflection as a vital ingredient of authenticity (n.d.; 2014). In fact, Mueller called reflection one "of the most authentic skills students need to develop to successfully manage in the real world" (n.d., para. 4).

There is a paucity of literature on authentic learning for ELL language and literacy development (Roessingh, 2014; Seunarinesingh, 2010). Nevertheless, in those articles found, Seunarinesingh noted that authenticity centered on communicating based on the needs of a live audience - whether reading, writing or speaking (2010). Thus, regardless of label or context, authentic learning features a set of fundamental characteristics: student work that is linked to the real world, seeks genuine answers, is assessed per real-world standards or audiences, and often includes student reflection.

Benefits of authentic learning

According to proponents, authentic learning increases student engagement. Students who are engaged are more motivated and empowered (Grace & Lee, 2014; Knight, 2013). When work has a purpose, is meaningful and personally relevant, "students are much more likely to remember what they have learned" (Knight, 2013, p. 231). Gottlieb agreed. "Having students produce original work around major themes, ideas or issues encourages deep learning and supports in-depth teaching. Incorporating higher-order thinking into performance tasks encountered in the 'real world' enables students to develop and demonstrate abilities to use in school and life" (2006, p. 123-124).

Authentic learning is more than one-size-fits-all

Authentic learning can range from small-scale to large. It can be based on authentic materials, tasks, projects, outings or off-campus service learning. In the case of authentic materials, "a book that fosters an emotional link between the student and the written word is an authentic text" (Lenski, Ehlers-Zavala, Daniel, & Sun-Irminger, 2006, p. 31). Thomas suggested using cooking recipes, restaurant menus, newspaper and magazine articles, and blogs (2014, p. 15). Lenski et al. suggested using comics and biographies by writers who share cultural backgrounds with ELLs to help build connections. With authentic materials, educators can generate discussion and reflection about real issues or daily aspects of their students' lives. At the same time, ELLs can use the target language in realistic ways, within the safety of the classroom.

Real-world examples

In a case study with primary school students in Trinidad and Tobago, one teacher used newspaper articles about hurricanes to help Caribbean Creole students build standard English language proficiency since "authentic texts ... are more meaningful to learners" (Seunarinesingh, 2010, p. 41). While a hurricane was brewing, students read about an earlier storm that had devastated a neighboring island. …

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