Tag Archives: authentic materials

Fresh and inspiring sources for your teaching: an #ELTChat summary

How do you make sure your classes stay fresh and inspiring and what sources and influences outside ELT do you use to find subjects for your lessons?

This is the summary of the ELTChat held on Twitter at 12pm Wednesday 18th July 2012. The topic was suggested by @theteacherjames and inspired, he told us, by the following quote:

‘Success depends on sufficient knowledge of the special subject and a variety of extraneous knowledge to produce new and original combinations of ideas.’ Rosamund E.M. Harding

@theteacherjames  kicked off by pointing out that ‘ELT is the subject without a subject, meaning we can basically use any topic we want for our classes’ So, ‘. How do we find ideas?’  The focus was particularly on ideas and topics not from ELT sources.

News stories

News stories were obviously a popular source. Many people used local newspapers, so that the stories would be very topical, but some useful websites were also suggested:

@cybraryman1 gave us the link to a whole page full of links to news sites: http://cybraryman.com/news.html

@teflerinha gave the link to weird news stories from Metro (a free newspaper) http://www.metro.co.uk/weird/

@esolcourses recommended Newsy, for short news videos http://www.newsy.com/

And Ken Wilson’s blog has a nice article on using the Yahoo home page: http://kenwilsonelt.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/the-yahoo-home-page-dull-scary-or-engaging/

Other articles and bits and pieces

@theteacherjames gave us a link to  http://www.brainpickings.org/ , an ‘interestingness digest.’

And his list of interesting’ sciency ‘people on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/thejamesabroad/interesting/members

@theteacherjames recommended the Guardian Family section and gave a link to his blog where he highlights some of what can be done with it. http://theteacherjames.blogspot.be/search/label/The%20Guardian

@theteacherjames suggested ‘For fun facts and trivia, follow @qikipedia and @UberFacts.’

Films and clips

@leoselivan mentioned using films, and said that he used whole films in segments throughout the semester. @sharonzspace said she encouraged students to find suitable films, and there was a brief discussion about finding out what students are interested in rather than imposing our own favourites  on them, balanced with choosing films which are suitable and have linguistic benefits.

@esolcourses mentioned youtube and gave an example of a clip used on her blog at at http://esolcourses.blogspot.com/

@leoselivan gave us the following link to the ESL Learner Movie Guide  http://www.eslnotes.com/

@cliltoclimb Gave us this link to an interview with Kieran Donaghy on using films http://iasku.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/kieran-donaghy/

@sharonzspace gave us a link to the TED page http://www.ted.com/

@worldteacher’s students still love Mr Bean! @theteacherjames gave us a link to his blog with some examples of different silent movies. http://theteacherjames.blogspot.be/search/label/silentmovies and @esolcourses gave us a clip of oktopodi  http://esolcourses.blogspot.com/2009/09/learn-english-twitter-esl-writing.html

@teflerinha mentioned clip from youtube, which @designerlessons has turned into a lesson for advanced students. It’s from a series of videos 50 people, 1 question. This one interviews people in Denver about ‘What would make you happy?’  : http://designerlessons.org/2012/02/20/esl-lesson-plan-happiness-one-question-generating-discussions/

 Podcasts and other audio resources

 @worldteacher commented, ‘One of my favourite resources with higher level sts – From Our Own Correspondent podcast from BBC – 5 x 5-min stories each edition.’ @BobK99 agreed ‘Very good for looking at different accents (as there’s often a vox pop in the reports).’

 @teflerinha somewhat sheepishly added BBC Women’s Hour as a favourite source- and other fans came out of the closet too!

And @jamestheteacher said he often used  4 thought http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010q0n0 with business students.

@worldteacher also mentioned BBC Desert Island Discs

@jeaneoakes made the point that ‘ if students make podcasts they hear how they improve oral langauge skill. Use a rubric to score and set goals.’

Pictures and visual content

@Sharonzspace mentioned Facebook for visual content, and @worldteacher suggested that it pays to follow the British Council, as they post great links.


 @nancyteach pointed out that there are lots of free webinars and walkthroughs which can help teachers learn how to do many Edtech tasks.

 @Sharonzspace uses a closed group on Facebook with her students and @worldteacher’s students are motivated by using Edmodo (a secure social learning network for learners and teachers- good if Facebook is blocked)



@DanielaArghir told us about a routine she has with YLs where she starts each lesson with a ten minute slot on what is being celebrated that day (e.g. International Women’s Day, or something sillier like Chewing gum Day- can even make them up if necessary)

@cybraryman1 gave us a link to national holidays etc on  http://cybraryman.com/calendar.html

@worldteacher suggested that  ‘Taking students outside of the classroom whenever possible helps to keep things fresh.’

@esolcourses suggested using Googlemaps for virtual trips.

@BobK99 said ‘I use mats based on a free tourist h/o (maps, time, buying tickets, etc) but after the lesson give out up-to-date education.’ And @teflerinha agreed that realia can be really motivating- even simple things like brining in a real book to read aloud from rather than reading it off the coursebook page.

@teflerinha suggested lessons where students make things, such as origami, can be good for a change and involve a lot of language use. @DanielaArghir gave an example of a recent class where her 11 year olds made windmills for Global Wind Day. And @worldteacher talked about her cookery sessions with adult students (lucky, her some of them own restaurants!)

@DanielaArghir gave us a link to a site about creative ideas for working with children. http://www.childcareexchange.com/

@SueAnnan had used a foreign language music CD, which generated lots of language.

And, intriguingly, @jeanneoakes mentioned using a ‘culture bag’ but we never found out what that was?!

To conclude, @Shaunwilden reminded everyone that materials are not the only thing which makes a lesson fresh and inspiring. @teflerinha agreed that trying out different ways of doing things was also important, and @worldteacher mentioned CPD. @Cybraryman1 added ‘Important to start each lesson with something that will engage your students & is relevant. Vary your teaching approach too.’ And, finally, @MizLadyCaz pointed out that ‘The right scaffolding can allow for success with any resource.’


Filed under ELT Chat summaries

Ways to exploit news articles with minimal preparation

Why use news items?
In a recent post I talked about the idea of narrow reading and passed on a suggestion from Scott Thornbury that learners could read a series of articles about a news story they were interested in, thus exposing themselves to the same vocabulary several times (and hopefully thus retaining some of it).
Obviously another advantage to this approach is that learners would be able to choose for themselves what they wanted to read. It seems obvious that this may well be more motivating than something the teacher has chosen for the whole class.
And finally, reading news items is pretty authentic, mirroring what learners may do in their first language, and may encourage extensive reading in L2.
However, there are several potential problems with using news articles.
1 Finding and selecting articles
Students may not be very good at finding appropriate sources of articles, or know how to select articles which are at the right kind of level of difficulty/challenge.
Obviously what makes a good source for news items will very much depend on your teaching context and the level of your students. There are specific sites online with news adapted for lower level learners (such as BBC Learning English), and the style of some newspapers seems to be clearer than others (I find the Telegraph quite good for learners, though it wouldn’t be my personal reading choice). I also rather like happynews.com, which ‘scoops’ news articles from various different sources, but guarantees that all the stories are positive (for when you don’t want a worthy but depressing lesson).
So, either point your students in the direction of suitable sources, or you could select a number of different articles and let them choose which they feel is most interesting or appealing. This can work well with the kind of newspaper which has a number of small articles on the same page. Mike Harrison gives a good example of this in his blog here
2 News articles are notoriously difficult to read.
Before students even start reading, headlines can be impossible to decipher. They often use puns and are frequently extremely culturally bound. This is particularly true of tabloid newspapers, which you might think would use simpler language, but are in fact about the hardest to decipher because of this. A headline chosen pretty much at random from today’s Mirror:
Ruff table manners: Rottweiler needs surgery after swallowing five-inch spoon
Although the picture would certainly help (!),  to understand this you need to understand that ‘ruff’ can be the sound a dog makes when barking, and that ‘rough’ also means not very polite. You need to know what ‘table manners’ are and what a ‘rottweiler’ is. You also need to understand the phrase ‘needs surgery’ and, for a full understanding, know how long five inches is! And that’s before we start to look at the syntax and who (or what) actually swallowed the spoon. Not too difficult in this case, but there are some famous examples, such as:
Police help dog bite victim
The text itself is also likely to be very dense and contain a lot of elision and unusual syntax.
As Bermejo (2000) puts it:
‘Journalistic stories are complex and ambitious, they tell new events, but they also include quotations, background and consequences of those events.., so editors very often have to package the information in a way that is sometimes forced and can be difficult to understand.’
If we are going to work with news articles, students need some help and training in understanding the features of the discourse.
For example, the headline is frequently confusing, but there is often a subheadline which makes things clearer. E.g.:
Max had to have an emergency operation after wolfing down a strawberry… and the spoon it was served on.
And then the first paragraph usually summarises the story:
A fruit-loving dog had to have surgery after wolfing down a strawberry… along with the spoon it was served on.
Max the rottweiler had to have an emergency operation after getting the five-inch teaspoon lodged in his stomach.
This first paragraph nearly always contains what journalists call the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where and why). In his 2003 article, Antepara makes the point that getting students to try and find the 5 Ws (or as many as possible), just using the headline and first paragraph, is a way of leading them into the rest of the text, which usually just adds detail to these main points.
We can also help learners to decode typical newspaper syntax. As we can see in the example above, a very common structure is before/after + ing. This can cause confusion because the subject isn’t directly stated. Some practice with simple sentence transformation can help learners:
After he wolfed down the spoon he had to have surgery.
After wolfing down the spoon he had to have surgery.
Another common feature is the use of reference devices. Obviously we find these in all texts, but because of the concise way newspaper texts are written, it can be particularly hard to follow the chain of reference. For example:
The 10-year-old’s owner, Annette Robertshaw, of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, said her brother had been visiting her and was eating some strawberries when Max took a shine to them.
He offered Max one on a teaspoon but was caught totally by surprise when the dog gulped down both items.
I think a lot of students would assume that ‘He’ at the beginning of the second paragraph referred back to the dog, because Max has just been mentioned, when it actually refers right back to ‘her brother’.
A couple of ideas for working on reference, which don’t require any preparation:
– Getting learners to underline reference words and then draw arrows back to what they refer to.
– Asking learners to rewrite texts with as little reference as possible and then give them to a partner to put the reference back in.
And, as you will have noticed, there are also a lot of idioms (especially in the tabloids). With a short article like this one, you can ask students to underline any idioms they find (wolf down, gulp down, take a shine to something) and look them up. They could then try and rewrite the article (or a section of it) without any idioms, put the idioms in a list below and, again, ask a partner to try and rewrite the text or section.
3 Working with authentic news articles can be extremely labour intensive.
Teachers often spend a lot of time thinking exercises to exploit news articles. And, because they date, the material can rarely be used again.
Furthermore, if every student has been reading something different, the task of exploiting all these texts can seem impossible.
One solution is to provide a generic task:
A good example of this would be the 5Ws task outlined above. This could be set for any news article, enabling learners to work simultaneously on completely different texts.
Alternatively, you could create a generic worksheet. Heather Buchanan has a good example of this, though designed for listening to the news. For example, you could start by asking learners to identify the type of news it is (human interest, politics, sport, finance). Then ask about the 5 Ws and finally ask for some kind of personal reaction.
The other solution is for tasks to be learner generated:
We have already seen some examples of this in the second section above. Other ideas might include:
-With a group of very short articles you could give a pair of learners one article each with the headline missing and ask them to write a headline. All the headlines and articles are mixed up and learners then work together to match them. A further stage might be to then match with the original headlines.
-Ask learners to choose, say, no more than 5 sentences which seem to carry the main points of the article. This can then be checked by a peer (while you monitor).
– Ask learners to rewrite a short article, changing some of the information to make it a lie (as outrageous as they wish. For example, Max might swallow a five foot spoon… A partner then reads it and spots the lies.
Essentially, try to rethink any activity you might devise for a text and see if the learners can do it themselves. This way they work harder, you have less preparation and it’s all personalised and learner centred.


Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials, Vocabulary

Tips on selecting effective authentic reading materials

Many teachers like to use authentic materials in class, and they can obviously be a wonderful source of language. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to offer some thoughts and tips on how you might go about selecting and exploiting these materials, to maximise their benefit to students.

Nunan (1988) defines authentic materials as those ‘which have been produced for purposes other than to teach language’, so that might mean emails, blogs, statistics, timetables, advertisements, instructions, labels, menus etc as well as articles from newspapers and magazines.

Relevance and interest

Have you ever done any research into the literacy practices  of your students? In other words, what they actually read (and write) in their daily lives, in their first language as well as in English. Ask students to keep a note of everything they read, including cereal packets etc, for a couple of days. You may be surprised, and it will probably give you some new ideas of where to look for material.

Similarly, the more you can find out about the kinds of topics your students are interested in, the more successful your texts are likely to be. Obviously, if the students are preparing for an exam, you will also need materials and topics which reflect the exam they are taking.

Cultural appropriateness

This is a HUGE area, but I think there are three main points:

  1. Being careful about materials which may offend political, social or religious mores. If you know the context you are teaching in, this should be fairly easy to avoid. Or, if you are confident about your class, you may be able to touch on subjects which published material would have to avoid. I once taught a fabulous class about dangerous sports, which was fabulous not because of anything I did, but because one of the students suddenly started telling us all about the time he played Russian Roulette. Everyone was, unsurprisingly, fascinated and completely involved in communicating with one another.
  2. Being careful about materials which your students simply can’t relate to. This is a criticism aimed, not unfairly, at a lot of published ELT materials. ESOL learners in Birmingham are unlikely to want to read about skiing holidays, for example. However, just because something is outside the students’ experience, does not necessarily mean that it is uninteresting. It’s a judgement call.
  3. Consider visual literacy as well. The way the text is laid out may cause confusion. This is particularly an issue for students with low levels of literacy in their first language, but can also cause problems if the norms aren’t transferable.

For example, look at this leaflet:

The bullet points in the top right hand corner are used to give reasons why you should join- but this is only implied through the visual convention and might well not be obvious to a student.

The speech marks on the left indicate that what is inside them is a quote- but you need to know what the speech marks mean.

The asterisk in the bottom left-hand corner indicates some ‘small print’ information (in itself another convention!)

Students need to know a lot about the conventions of this type of text to be able to make sense of it. Other examples would be speech bubbles which always go from left to right, italics to indicate direct speech and bold or capitals to indicate that something is particularly important.

Linguistic and cognitive demands of the text                                                                                                    

To a certain extent, the question isn’t so much about how difficult the text is, but about what you expect learners to do with it (the task). However, realistically, if a text is syntactically very complex and contains a great deal of unknown vocabulary, it is unlikely to be very motivating!

As teachers, we generally have a good sense of the ‘level’ of a text. However, if you aren’t sure, you could try running it through a programme which will assess the difficulty of the vocabulary, such as  the Oxford 3000 profiler. According to this tool, if 100% of the words in your text are in the Oxford 3000, it is at a low intermediate level, if 90-95%, it’s upper intermediate and 70-90%, it’s advanced. This obviously won’t help with assessing the complexity of the syntax though, or other factors such as the level of background knowledge or maturity required.

Another factor is how clearly the text is organised. This can be a real headache with newspaper texts, which often have very short paragraphs, not necessarily linked clearly to the surrounding text. I remember an activity in the first edition of Headway Intermediate where the students had to order the paragraphs of a newspaper article. It was virtually impossible, because the links weren’t clear enough- and because the students weren’t made aware that the first paragraph of a newspaper article usually sums up the whole story.

It is also worth thinking about whether you want to use the text as a model for writing and, if so, whether, for example, a newspaper article is a type of discourse that students might actually want or need to write in real life (unless they are budding journalists of course)

Practical considerations

  • Length (if it’s too long, you could edit it, but would need to be very careful about removing some of the features which make the text authentic or making it difficult to follow the links which make it cohesive)
  • Font size and style (may be too small or difficult for learners not yet familiar with different ways of reproducing the Roman alphabet)

In my next post, I’ll look at some ideas for exploiting texts once you’ve found them. If you want to get the next post automatically, just hit the ‘Follow blog via email’ button on the right.


Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials