Effectively using news in ESL classrooms
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
The number of sites featuring news in levels and news for kids attest to its growing popularity as a learning tool — especially in the ESL classroom.
Current world affairs make for compelling conversation starters, and news reports provide authentic examples of how the English language is used in broadcasting this information. For the language learner, the ability to comprehend the facts in a real news story — whether written or spoken — is a big step in employing their second language in everyday life.
Yet, along with the advantages found in incorporating news media in your lesson plans, there are potential pitfalls inherent to this genre. Here are five key points to consider when selecting and using the news in your language classroom.
Which language skills to focus on
What your students need to learn or reinforce will help dictate the media and particular news piece you choose to employ. A wide variety of language and critical-thinking skills can be developed with lesson plans centered around the news. Whether you have students read an article, listen to a radio broadcast or watch a TV newscast, you can introduce or review everything from specific grammar points to general reading or listening for gist.
Guide students in exploring a newscast's use of language, idioms, creative vocabulary, lexical sets, exaggeration and persuasive techniques. With the written news they can analyze areas like writing and sentence structure. They have the opportunity to scrutinize the newscaster's tone of voice, intonation and delivery when they listen to the news — add visual clues and body language as they watch it.
Advanced students can practice their critical-thinking skills while comparing across different news channels to identify variant points of view on the same story. Team any of the above receptive skill activities with one that is productive, such as writing their own news piece or role-playing a newscast.
Whether to use real or graded articles
Whether to choose an authentic news story or one that is graded to a specific learning level is an important consideration. If your students are beginners, a news story tailored to their level will push the limits of their language ability yet be understandable — while authentic news pieces may be beyond their grasp and create frustration.
An added advantage of graded articles is that the same story can easily be used in a mixed-level group. I witnessed an enormous boost in self-esteem in a couple of my least-advanced secondary students when they were able to read real news articles at their level to do research for their space project. At the same time, another student with a high level of fluency was able to expand her vocabulary and language skills reading the more complex original article.
Yet, when students are ready and have been prepared for the tricky aspects of the news genre, original articles have definite benefits.
"Finding that you can read something designed for a native speaker is motivating, and developing ways to deal with 'real' texts enables students to read more confidently and extensively outside the classroom," writes Rachel Roberts in an article examining the challenges of using newspapers in language classes.
Among the features that often confuse students when reading newspapers are headlines, idioms and unclear linking between paragraphs, says Roberts.
Ideal news report length
Today's students are often accustomed to reading short online articles and social media news bits — even in their original language. While the same sort of pieces in English may be a comfortable place to start, don't hesitate to push students to tackle something more elaborate.
However, particularly long news reports can easily discourage students due to the demanding nature of reading in a second language. The authors of an article on the British counsel/BBC blog recommend editing down long articles that you want to use since the style of news writing allows for entire paragraphs to be omitted from most articles without affecting the story's overall meaning.
On the other hand, there may be cases when an article is packed with fascinating details that you want to cover with your students. I have successfully used longer, in-depth articles in their original form by breaking up the reading over the course of two or three class periods.
When listening to and watching the news, it may be helpful to pause the piece and go over what has just been covered to assure student comprehension verses listening straight through.
Choosing the best news source
With so many news sources easily accessible online, the choice can be a bit daunting. A clear idea of your teaching objectives as you set out will make for a more productive search. Reputable sources with professional reporters are recommended by most teachers, for obvious reasons of accuracy and unbiased reporting.
However, even "fake news" or poorly written articles may have a place in your lessons — depending on your objectives. In fact, helping language learners identify fake news was the subject of one of the lesson plans The New York Times printed last year that I covered in a previous MultiBriefs Exclusive.
Several well-established media companies and organizations have educational sites geared toward young people, such as The New York Times and Smithsonian. Also, public radio and television sites like NPR cover compelling human interest topics commonly passed over by mainstream news media.
As mentioned earlier, there are an increasing number of sources of the news adapted to different levels of English language knowledge. I have personally used Newsela, which is categorized by subject matter and offers useful features such as a comprehension quiz following each story.
Generating exciting activities from the news
You may have originally chosen your news stories to generate interest to introduce a new theme or project — or to satiate your students' thirst for more information on a captivating topic or event. Now, imagine additional activities the news piece could inspire — a group newspaper or newscast video, a debate, role play, survey or game.
Tackling the news piece from distinct approaches gives you more mileage from the time you invested in selecting it. More importantly, students will gain deeper understanding of the topic and language points covered when they engage in associated activities that are memorable.
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