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.
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Why use news items?