Ask any new ESL/EFL teacher (or, for that matter, a seasoned teacher) what comes to mind as an authentic reading activity for their learners and almost certainly one of the first things they will say is “using a newspaper”. There has been much use and abuse of newspapers in the ELT profession. This article takes a fresh look at newspapers and suggests what to do, and what to perhaps AVOID doing.
Why do so many teachers like using newspapers? Well, to start with, newspapers are much more current than coursebooks. There is also a lot of information in newspapers which make them an excellent springboard for lessons. Finally, there are lots of different kinds of texts in newspapers (narratives, stories, letters, advertisements, reports…)
So what do teachers do with newspapers? One of the problems with newspapers is that they are often used as an up-to-date coursebook activity. The teacher applies the same pedagogical principles and exercises that are in the coursebook. Two major problems tend to emerge from this approach:
- It can be extremely time-consuming for teachers
- It is not necessarily interesting for learners
If you are going to use a newspaper, the task itself should be authentic wherever possible, not merely the material. One aim of reading newspapers should be to encourage their reading outside the classroom as well. If you TEFLise a text too much, you run the risk of killing the enjoyment from it.
We have put together a list of 6 Dos and 6 Don’ts that we adhere to when using newspapers in class. Read them and decide for yourself whether you agree or not. Then perhaps you can try some of the ideas we include that follow.
Newspaper DOs and DON’Ts
- Use English language newspapers produced for the local community if you are teaching in a country where English is not an official language. Many large cities will have a newspaper in English. The topics within these papers are likely to have more of an impact on the learners than topics that are specific to the British or American press.
- Allow learners to select an article that interests them, work on it and report back to other learners.
- Be clear on aims. Is it reading or speaking you want to practice? Or both?
- Get learners to read outside class as much as possible.
- Make your tasks as authentic as the material. Tasks like “underline all the verbs in the past” are of limited value and should be used sparingly. Think about what people do when they read newspapers in their own language.
- Help learners to become better learners. Reading is a great way of acquiring language. If you can get your learners to regularly dip into English newspapers then their reading skills, writing skills and vocabulary will improve. Talk about reading and comprehension of English texts with your learners as well, and share strategies that they use when reading. How often do they use a dictionary for example? At the end of a course, do they feel they are reading faster or better?
- Make a song and dance about teaching words like headline, editorial, column, leader. Is it that useful to learners?
- Assume learners are interested in British, American, Canadian or Australian culture, particularly tabloid gossip. The British tabloids, for example, are a culturally specific type of newspaper and are not universal.
- Dwell on comparative style and discourse features of tabloid papers versus broadsheets. These are often either obvious or of interest only to journalists and media students.
- Assume what you find interesting in a newspaper will interest your learners.
- Spend ages with tippex blanking out words (if you want to do this type of exercise get your learners to white out words themselves and test each other).
- Set simple tasks for lower level learners with a very difficult piece of text, e.g. Find three numbers and two countries in this 3 column article on the Middle East. Unless these tasks are followed up with an opportunity to comprehend and interact with the text, they’re condescending and (almost) pointless.
Ideas on how to use newspapers
The following are a list of ideas on how to use a newspaper authentically in the classroom. Of course, old habits can die hard, so we have included some other, TEFL classroom type activities that we like as well.
1. Letter to the editor
Material: A series of recent newspapers in English
Direct learners to the letters to the editors page of the newspaper. Ask them to read some of the letters and discuss in pairs which ones they find most interesting/ controversial/ easy to understand. Feedback on this as a class. There is often one or more letters in the letter to the editor section that can spark discussion or a controversy.
Now ask learners to write their own letter to the editor. They can respond to one of the letters on the page, or they can write about a recent news item. They must write between 25 and 75 words. When they have finished, ask them to compare letters with a partner and try to peer correct any big mistakes. Circulate and monitor. Then post the letters to the editor around the class. If someone responded to an earlier letter then they should copy and cut out the original letter to which they are responding.
2. Q AND A (question and answer)
Material: Paper and pens, Copies of Notes and Queries section of the Guardian newspaper (optional)
Some newspapers, like The Guardian Weekly for example, have a section where readers write questions and other readers answer them. Here is an example:
Set up a Q and A board in your classroom. Every week ask 3 or 4 learners to submit a question for the board. You can set a theme (e.g. sports questions, grammar questions, movie questions) or leave it open. Check the questions for accuracy and post them up. During the week ask other learners to look at the questions (as they arrive in class, just before the end of class, if they finish early) and try write a response to one of them. They should post their answers under the relevant question. You can do this using 'Post It' notes, as the questions and answers should be relatively short. For more typical TEFL type activities try the following:
3. Brief News Items
In some newspapers, there is a news summary section consisting of many short news items (one paragraph each). Give each pair of learners one of these news items and ask them to write a headline for it on a separate slip of paper. Collect all the stories and the headlines. Post them on the board or put them on a table and ask learners to match the stories and the headlines.
4. Lies, damn lies
Ask learners to choose a short item of news that they find interesting and rewrite it, changing some of the details. Have learners exchange news items with a partner and see if they can spot the lies.
1. What's this?
Materials: photos cut out of various newspapers (not necessarily English newspapers)
Cut out some photos from the newspaper of recent news items which are familiar/ relevant/ of interest to your learners. Put the learners in pairs. Demonstrate the activity by holding up a picture and doing the following:
- Describe what is in the picture (there is… there are… a man is talking… two women are walking….)
- Speculate about what the news story could be (it could be… it must be… he might be…)
Ask learners to do the same with their picture in pairs. As a follow up they could write the caption for the photo on a separate piece of paper. Collect the captions and photos. Redistribute them to the learners, who now have to find the photo to match the caption.
Material: Some recent newspapers (in the learners’ L1)
You can always use newspapers as a prompt to start a discussion on a given topic. Just as you would show a picture of something to prompt discussion, do the same with a newspaper article. If your aim is discussion and speaking skills, then why not use a newspaper written in the learners’ L1 to prompt discussion? Learners will be able to skim an article much quicker in their own language, especially at lower levels. If it is an issue that is local (and therefore unlikely to be covered in an English newspaper), then all the more reason to do so.
A variation of this would be to ask the learner to read something from the newspaper in their own language and explain it to you in English (of course this works best in small classes, or one to one classes).
You can use a newspaper in class without learners having to read it at all. For some role play speaking activities give out props. For fidgety learners, having something to hold while they are speaking can help!
For example, role play a conversation between two people over a coffee in the morning. To help them get started, give them the following options to start a conversation:
A (reading a newspaper) – Can you BELIEVE this?
B – What is it?
A – This is an outrage. Listen to this…
A – Are you listening to me?
B (reading a newspaper) – Hmmmm?
A – I was saying…
For a more typical TEFL type activity try the following:
4. Roleplay the news
Choose an interesting article or story from the newspaper and make enough copies for every pair of learners. There are often “human interest” stories in the newspaper which adapt themselves well to role play (“Man finds long lost brother”; “Lottery winner buys a house for pet dog” etc.). Ask learners to first read the newspaper and then improvise a short role play. Role plays from newspapers are often conducted one of two ways: 1) one learner plays the journalist and the other plays the protagonist of the story; the journalists does an interview, or 2) learners each take the role of a person in the story and act out the story, or something that happens before or after the story.
1. What's in the news today?
Materials: English language newspapers
Distribute the newspapers, one for each group of two or three learners. Tell them they have a time limit with which to skim through the newspaper. When the timit limit is up, ask two groups to get together and report to each other everything they remember that is in the news. They must do this in English, and cannot refer to the newspapers (this is important, because otherwise you may get one or two learners who bury their heads in the paper and don’t participate!). Do feedback as a whole group. This is a combined reading and speaking activity, although the time limit forces learners to use the reading skill of skimming.
Newspaper show and tell
2. Materials: English language newspapers, enough so that each learner has one (or a section of one)
Give each learner a newspaper and tell them that for homework, you would like them to take the newspaper home, choose an article and prepare a report on it to classmates. The report must be no longer than five minutes, and should include peer teaching on new vocabulary that the learner encounters in their article. This encourages reading outside the classroom, as well as dictionary use. Set up a schedule and have the last five minutes of every class devoted to news reports by a learner or learners and make this project part of your class routine.
Do it yourselves newspaper quiz
Materials: One newspaper, or section of a newspaper for each group
Give each group of four or five learners a newspaper and a piece of paper. Tell them that they have ten minutes to make a quiz based on that section of the newspaper. Suggest different kinds of questions, e.g. How long has X been… Where is …? How many people…? What happened in …? Who is…? Who won…? How much did…pay/cost…?
In groups, learners write six questions. Circulate and monitor, checking the grammar and spelling in the questions (and making sure that questions are not too difficult!)
When the groups are finished, they pass the paper and the questions to another group. Set a time limit for new groups to do the quiz. Repeat the process if you have time. Do feedback and check the answers to the quizzes. This is good to practise the reading skill of scanning for information.
Why do all the work making a class for a news story when it is right there for you? You can download a free lesson based on a news story every month at onestopenglish.com. There are different lessons for elementary, intermediate and advanced learners for each news story. Take a look at the archive for some great pre-prepared materials.