Using Authentic Texts to Improve the Understanding of Texts in English with First Year Students of Biology

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Middlebury College
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Dissertation chapter
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The challenges of studying a subject in a second or third language can never be overestimated. Right from having problems with phonetics, to a lack of understanding of texts, to lost details in an attempt to translate text are among the setbacks that most Mexican students who are only proficient in Spanish have to face when studying certain subjects in English. This is the unfortunate scenario in a Mexican University, where first-year Biology students have to study in English, a language that they are barely proficient in, both in reading and writing. This research project aims to explore the possibility of using authentic texts to guide the students in their coursework, rather than relying on translated and altered texts. It will also highlight challenges that students face when interacting with a second or third language, and focus on what can be done to address the challenges. Studies and research that has been done regarding the topic, in Mexico and other parts of the world will also be highlighted.



1.1: Background to the study

Bilingualism is close to the norm in todays world. The globalization of English and its role as a key instrument for world understanding and regulation is obvious. It is a fundamental language that has seen the successful running of international organizations such as the UN and Interpol; has seen the running of international events and has enabled communications between billions of people across the world. In the education sector, English is the main lingua franca for teaching subjects such as science, mathematics and technological studies. Most countries, therefore, require their students to study these and other internationally recognized courses in English, so that they can compete on a global scale (Pasi, 2013). Thus said, many subjects taught across academic institutions globally are subject to lots of language modification, in an attempt to ensure that students gain adequate knowledge in the fields during their years of study. It is obvious that learning another language is quite complicated and so is the expectation to understand a subject, pass exams and apply lessons learned in future practice. In Mexico, there is an exponentially growing demand for learning English among both students and the general working population, with a current 24 million citizens studying the language. The country has been ranked as the 18th biggest market for English study abroad, with most citizens moving to neighbouring US and Canada to develop their proficiency in the language. The government has undertaken measures to increase English proficiency, such as the launch of PNIEB in 2009, whose aim is to introduce the language in pre-primary to secondary levels of education. In institutions of higher education, both private and public universities have become internationalized, with administrators beginning to use English in the classroom so as to enable students to reach their potential and meet international standards as well (ICEF, 2016).

Cross-Linguistic interference (CLI) is a term that is used to define the adverse influence that a learners first language has on their understanding of their second or third language. Hence most learners using a foreign language have difficulties internalize new grammatical rules and their applications, vocalizing the different phonetics and even understanding most words. For instance, this interference is observed in Dutch students who are learning English as their second language. Rather than compose sentences such as I went to school yesterday, they are likely to say I go yesterday to school. This showcases that they are unable to completely adapt English structures, and are liable to direct translations in most situations. However, some learners are able to use the language skills adapted from their native language, to understand and internalize new grammatical structures quite easily. This is the case especially when the two languages are related in terms of phonetics and structuring (Rejimers, 2011).

Learning instructors, therefore, have several roles to play in ensuring that their students have correct foundations and hence better probabilities at adopting English or any other language successfully. First, they ought to be aware of the native language of the students, and in this case Spanish, from the beginning of the course teaching. They are also obligated to interact with learners and understand what works for them in working with a foreign language-what their preferences are. They should avoid comparing any two languages in their teaching, as this only confuses learners and makes them lose their confidence. Finally, instructors need to eliminate and discourage the use of translated texts as much as possible and have learners adapt to using authentic texts instead.

Authentic texts refer to any forms of written material that has been written for various purposes such as education, entertainment, guidance, documentation or convincing, for the public. Most importantly, they are neither processed, adapted nor simplified, but are rather maintained in their original forms. Authentic texts also maintain their raw nature of tasks and practical contexts, and even the fonts and graphics. Therefore, learners who use authentic texts for study or research purposes are bound to benefit from gaining skills first hand, instead of reading from works that have been altered through translation, editing, and even omissions. Further, if the learners are bilingual or multilingual, they are guaranteed to benefit from exposure to unaltered phonetics, grammatical structures, and vocabulary among other aspects of a language. They, therefore, have a lower probability of getting confused or suffering from CIL, once they understand basic language requirements. In concrete and universal subjects such as science, mathematics, and religion, students benefit most from authentic texts, as they learn the exact material that other students learn across the globe, and are hence equipped with skills and knowledge to enable them to work in any location worldwide (Oxford, 2017).

1.2: Problem Statement

In Mexico, students generally study using Spanish. In my university, however, students are obligated to pursue a major that is often taught in English. In this particular scenario, biology major students take their courses in English. Their understanding and proficiency in the language are therefore of paramount importance, to assure their success at the end, and ability to apply skills they have gained in their practice around the world. Biology is an international subject, that apart from being taught in Latin, its original Franca, is primarily taught in English, as that is the main lingua franca globally. Additionally, it is widely considered a practical subject that is taught using experiments. For this reason, language is necessary for teachers who must explain the procedures and goals of the experiment, plus other Biology specific words that cannot be exactly translated such as photosynthesis and genes (Oyoo, 2015). This research study aims at investigating the impact and role of authentic texts in enabling Biology students to understand their coursework.

1.3: Justification for the study

With the existence of Millennium Development Goals, education is a major pillar for most countries. Mexico in particular aims at producing world-class educated citizens, who can compete on global platforms. Thus said, institutions of higher education are objects of major focus by education stakeholders with the aim to ensure that standards are set and maintained. Therefore, the assurance that Biology major students, among other speciality learners, attain the best comprehension and are able to practice a subject that is taught in a foreign language is a major goal. The existence of authentic texts as a means of assisting students to learn a subject using a foreign language is hence a solid matter that needs to be studied so as to establish its efficiency and effectiveness.

1.4: Research Questions

a) What is the availability of authentic texts for use by Biology major students?

b) What factors influence instructors to use authentic texts in the classroom?

c) How effective are authentic texts in improving the performance of Biology major students in the institution?

1.5: Hypothesis

Authentic texts have no impact on the understanding of texts in English with first-year Biology students.

1.6: Objectives

General objective: the primary objective of the research study is to determine the impact that authentic texts have on improving the understanding of Biology among first-year students in the university

Specific objectives:

To determine the level of motivation of both students and instructors in using authentic texts for study.

To determine the changes in performances of students after using authentic texts compared to after using artificial texts.

1.7: Significance of the study

A stellar performance of students in institutions of higher learning of a given country has a huge bearing on its development and progression. Education has always been considered as the pillar of change in any society, and ignorance the root of poverty. Although Biology might be regarded as simply a sole subject that has no direct or major bearing on the countrys state of affairs and future, this is far from true. Biology major students end up pursuing courses such as medicine, dentistry, biotechnology, agriculture and industrial biology among hundreds of other sectors that heavily influence the Mexican economy (Jacqueline & Larissa, 1990). It, therefore, goes without saying, that when Biology students in the country are exposed to the material, and in this case authentic texts that would propel their world ranking to greater heights, the education sector and the country as a whole are put on the map. The study is therefore important in assisting education stakeholders to make informed decisions regarding the modes of study for Biology students who have to use a foreign language to study.

1.8: Limitations and Delimitations


Since the research methodology is going to rely on self-reported data, there exists a possibility of bias. However, to ensure that students and instructors are comfortable enough to share their thoughts and experiences, the investigator will ensure confidentiality and privacy in the absence of a third party. Secondly, research subjects might be unwilling to provide information about their use of authentic texts. To minimize this, the investigator will ensure that rapports are established before kicking off the study. Also, data may be collected at unfavourable times, such as when subjects are occupied with schoolwork or extracurricular activities, hence causing omission of certain aspects of the study either due to unavailability or a lack of concentration. This will be addressed by ensuring that the investigator laisse with the administration to guarantee optimal times for gathering data.


The research study will seek to examine the use of authentic texts to improve understanding of texts in English with first-year Biology students at a Mexican university. The study will include all first-year biology students at the institution and will focus on all forms of authentic texts used by the students, and instructors, and their attitudes towards them.


2.1 Introduction

The section looks into the theories and past studies that support the topic. The chapter will discuss the definition of authentic text, authentic materials, reasons and problems of using authentic texts in general English courses to improve understanding of English text in first-year students studying biology in Mexican universities. It will give the past studies done on English as a foreign language and its contribution to the learning of other languages. The review will major of the input of authentic English in Mexico and other countries using it as a foreign language in the teaching of other subjects.

2.2 Definition of Authentic Texts

Authentic texts are defined in different ways throughout literature. However, there is a commonality in the definition which is the exposure to real language in the language community. According to Bulotsky-Shearer, Fantuzzo, and McDermott (2008), authentic texts are texts written in articles and journals which have the original grammar and vocabulary (p. 141). Authentic texts are unprocessed, and no texts have been cut from them. Similarly, Renandya & Widodo (2016) and Stojkovic (2015) define an authentic text as a text that was created to produce and achieve social purpose in a language community (p. 77). According to Westbrook (2012), an authentic text is a stretch of real words from a real writer for a real audience (p. 571). Further he highlights that authentic texts are usually not produced specifically for language teaching purposes. O'Rourke and Carson (2010) argued that authentic texts are the real samples of how individuals use language in their day to day life and not specifically how it is taught (p. 125). According to Galenko (2008), authentic texts are good for conveying meaning and not necessarily grammar (p. 155). Shirai (2013) says students do not learn languages by being exposed to rules but by critically looking at the language. Meinardi (2009) has a similar view when he says that use of authentic text in classes produces English speakers whose English is modeled on an exclusive written version of English. Stojkovic (2015) shares the same opinion when he says that authentic texts enable learners to interact with the real language rather than the form (p. 265). According to Belaid and Murray (2015), authentic English texts are texts that are used by native English speakers when communicating to other first language English speakers (p. 26). Belaid and Murray (2015) further observe that authentic texts use phrases and vocabulary that is relatively hard for second language speakers and foreigners (p. 33).

2.3 Arguments for Using Authentic Texts

Most researchers in the world agree that authentic texts are helpful in the process of learning a language and developing other life skills like analysis. For instance, Galenko (2008) says that the use of authentic texts is more beneficial than the use of converted materials (p. 155). Similarly, Shirai (2013) elaborates that authentic texts make the students relate effectively with the real world and be more creative. Bulotsky-Shearer, Fantuzzo, and McDermott (2008) further say that authentic materials relate more closely to the student needs and interest and support a creative teaching method (p. 142). Widowati, Nurohman, and Anjarsari (2017) maintain that authentic texts expose the students to real discourse and keep the learners updated on what is happening in the world, so they have an intrinsic educational value (p. 33). Ciornei and Dina (2015) add that authentic texts can add a sense of achievement because the learner feels that they have advanced in knowledge of English when they can understand the language of the natives (p. 279...

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