Creating Authentic Learning Experiences in the Literacy Classroom


When students are able to have a say in their education and explore topics of interest to which they feel a personal connection, they are excited to spend time learning. Creative teachers are harnessing that excitement by integrating authentic learning into their classroom instruction.

Authentic learning is an instructional approach that places students at the heart of real-life experiences. Armed with a challenge to address, a task to be handled, or content to explore, students develop academic and problem-solving skills in a context that is relevant to the learner.

Based on the idea that students learn best when actively engaged in something that piques their interest, authentic learning can take many shapes—project based-learning, community connections, and experiential learning opportunities, to name a few. The important part is that this is student-driven and applicable to the real world.


Four themes of authentic learning

Though authentic learning can vary in its approach, SUNY researcher Aubrey Rule has identified four themes common among the different definitions:

  1. The activity involves real-world problems similar to the work of professionals and includes presentation of findings.

  2. Projects include open-ended inquiry, development of thinking skills, and metacognition.

  3. Students engage in discourse as part of the learning, as well as social learning in a community format.

  4. Students direct their own learning through choice in the scope of the project.


What does authentic learning look like in the classroom?

Students engaged in authentic learning are not memorizing content and demonstrating understanding through a multiple-choice test. Rather, under the umbrella of authentic learning, they take the lead in identifying questions and problems, brainstorming solutions, and responding and adapting to failure until they are successful in addressing a need or creating a final product. These project-based learning experiences can be initially formulated by the teacher or may happen more organically.

For instance, New Hampshire-based instructional coach Jaclyn Karabinas took advantage of her students' interest during a discussion and developed this into an authentic learning experience. After a classmate shared his personal journey with cystic fibrosis, Karabinas capitalized on the other students' questions and encouraged them to learn more, which organically grew into a community awareness project while meeting standards in reading, writing, and other subjects.

According to Karabinas, the project helped her see that “the personalization of goals and connections to learning … truly make a task or project authentic, not the size or scope of it.”


How to instill authentic learning opportunities in the literacy classroom

Given the need to meet myriad standardized assessments and curriculum requirements, educators may believe that allotting generous amounts of time and resources to large authentic learning projects is unrealistic for their classrooms. However, there are many ways to transform everyday assignments and assessments to reflect authentic learning and help students apply practical academic skills to real-life situations.

One popular method is to ask students to solve a real-world problem. They must research and determine a plan of action, which they will then present to the class. This approach can be applied to any subject or topic, all while providing students the chance to develop research and critical thinking skills, as well as to improve in reading and writing.

Here are some other ways to bring real-life relevance to the literacy classroom:

Authentic instruction

  • Incorporate math (teaching time) and literacy by practicing reading times in different contexts and with everyday resources, such as:

    • Movie listings

    • Bus schedules

    • Store hours of operation

    • Event timetables (e.g. Field Day, a community festival)

To turn this into a fully authentic experience, allow students to plan an outing and make a schedule of class activities utilizing multiple resources from the list.

  • Read recipes while making food that goes along with a story or theme in class. This will help students make a connection to food items mentioned in a story and also allow for practice of reading and math skills in recipe preparation.

  • Take a field trip to give students a firsthand look at a problem or topic. Upon their return, encourage students to build off their observations to teach others about what they saw or to solve a problem they encountered on the trip.

  • Utilize current events whenever possible in class. Make connections from classic literature to pop culture, have students investigate topical issues, and incorporate hobbies and other things students enjoy outside of school into the classroom. Consider assigning a character analysis and leading students to create something that is both reflective (i.e. represents the character’s personality and values) and relevant, such as a social media profile or journal entry.

Authentic assessments

  • Give students a break from the pen-and-paper format with a more kinesthetic learning experience. Assigning students to read instructions and perform the task described demonstrates comprehension of the text while deepening the connection to the material.

  • Allow students to create an informational brochure on a topic or develop sales materials promoting a book. In doing so, they will gain practice in identifying the most important facts or points of a story and learn how to write in a captivating manner.

  • Encourage students to pass on their knowledge to others by having them “teach” younger students through creation of a product (a book, lesson, play, etc.). For an even more authentic opportunity, arrange for students to go into other classrooms or visit lower-level learners to present their end product.

  • Build 21st-century skills by having students complete literacy assignments from the viewpoint of a blogger. Students can read and edit peer work, then share the result with the community or make connections with authors through a classroom blog, Twitter account, or other online resources. Establishing a deeper familiarity with computers will also help with computer-based assessments and learning programs.

Keep in mind that these are just a few suggestions for incorporating authentic learning into the classroom, and the most effective methods are likely to come from taking the pulse of the students directly. By engaging in authentic learning, we can help prepare students to face and overcome the challenges they will encounter in the real world—and create more confident, well-rounded global citizens in the process.

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