Voices, with Executive Editor Sean Bermingham

How do English language learners benefit from learning materials made from authentic content? Executive Editor Sean Bermingham explains how we use real content to make learning meaningful and memorable.



I grew up in England, and at school I studied French. And I remember my first textbook was called À la Page, or To the Page. There were some dialogues with Chantal or Philippe, but we all knew it wasn't real, and because of that, the language itself didn't feel real.

But learning a language can be much more if it means something to the learner. And to make English real for our learners, one of the keys is using authentic content.

We have a few criteria for selecting the content. First of all, our course books should be global. For over 100 years, National Geographic has covered the world and all that is in it, and that's an important part of our approach and our mission too. The world is an amazing place, and we want to convey that richness, that excitement, and that variety. So using global content is interesting, but it also develops important skills. To be able to use English involves more than just a knowledge of the language. Students also need some cultural awareness, or global competence. Being able to see global topics from different perspectives – that's a vital skill in the 21st century workplace. After all, most students will at some point have to collaborate and communicate with people from many other cultures.

The second criteria we use is that content should be relatable. So even if the lesson is about a big global topic like the world’s oceans, the students should be able to relate to it at a local level, and as individuals. So, for example, we look at how the choices we make about the seafood that we eat affects the environment. Students can then see how their own choices really do matter, and hopefully they're inspired to learn more.

Just as important is making the content accessible for language learners. And there are a couple of ways that we do that. Firstly, adjusting the input – a National Geographic magazine article may be 3000 words or more, and that's a lot for an English learner. So we work with our own authors to reduce the length, adjust the complexity, simplify, recycle key vocabulary and so on, while still keeping the writer’s main points. And secondly, we adjust the tasks that go with the content. For example, with National Geographic videos, or with TED Talks, we have a lot of previewing activities so students can better understand the language and the main points of the video.

[audio from video clip:]

“...declined significantly over the last decade, largely due to overfishing. Masuma's solution: to breed them in captivity.”

So authentic content that's global, relatable, accessible – those are really the foundations for all our English language teaching materials, because we believe that learning and teaching English shouldn't just be about going to the page and doing the exercises. It can be a real journey of discovery, and we invite everyone to join us on this journey

Pathways, for academic success