The Who, What, When, Where and Why of Using News in the ESL Classroom

Who? What? When? Where? Why?

Every journalist worth their salt understands why each of these questions must be answered when reporting the news.

But these five W’s are also a great way for ESL students to improve their writing and listening skills, organize their thoughts more coherently and speak English with more courage in the classroom.

Even your shyest students will speak with more confidence after using the news in class, in the ways suggested below!

The Importance of the Five W’s

Just like in the world of writing news, an ESL learner can lean on the five W’s to outline their reading, writing and speaking.

The Who is the subject or character—the person in the sentence or story. The What is composed of the details of what’s happening, which is the plot line or story. The When is the timeline—yesterday, today or tomorrow. Where is the location or setting, which is where sensory words are key to painting a picture of the setting or stage. And Why is the explanation of the event or plot.

These five W’s are a great first lesson about incorporating news and journalism into the classroom. By explaining to the students how these questions can help frame their writing, reading and speaking, it will provide the students with more confidence in their English.

So using none other than our five W friends themselves, here’s a breakdown of why you should be incorporating news and current events into your ESL classroom.

Who: Who Benefits from Using the News in ESL Class?

Using news in the ESL classroom certainly benefits the students. But using news can also help ESL teachers and instructors use a fresh resource to teach English. News allows teachers and students to discuss events happening right now. Possibly, finding topics near and dear to the students’ hearts.

For example, in Korea, one of the biggest news stories of 2014 was the sinking of a large ferry carrying hundreds of high school students to a nearby island for a field trip. Tragically, most of the students died in the accident, and the country was gripped with grief for months over the disaster.

This topic was on the minds of everyone—from students to parents to citizens who wanted to improve their country’s disaster response actions in an emergency. Dozens of articles were printed every day in many different languages. By providing news articles in English, the teachers could work with the students to read more about a familiar event. Due to their prior knowledge of the event, it was easy for the students to feel confident in their reading, ask more questions about specific vocabulary words, and discuss a topic on which all the students had already formulated an opinion.

By giving ESL students a familiar and hot topic or current event, the teacher can provide a welcome and comfortable environment for discussion.

What: What Materials Can Be Used to Teach the News?

There are many great resources for using news in the ESL classroom.  While it obviously depends on the students’ levels, there are an innumerable amount of online newspapers, blogs and websites that are free and easy to access.

For lower to mid-level English speakers, a great website is Breaking News English. This site is one of my favorites, and I’ve used it for all ages, from upper elementary to adult learners.

One of the site’s most recent articles is “Hip-hop can help mental illness“,  which takes a look at how doctors in Britain believe that hip-hop music can help people who are mentally ill or depressed.

This article would be an effective way to discuss both hip-hop music and mental illness, and how they can connect.

The articles on this site are categorized by five different levels, ranging from easy to hard. Once you click on an article, the site also provides multiple activities to follow up with the story, such as listening and reading exercises, grammar and spelling exercises, word scrambles and flashcards.

A great resource for intermediate to advanced students is the BBC’s Learning English website. The site offers a wide selection of materials, from news reports around the world to engaging ESL activities like “Traveler’s Tales,” “How to Write a Postcard” and interesting 6-minute podcasts. FluentU also offers news articles in its vast library of video resources.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

For more advanced English speakers, another useful resource is your local English language newspaper, or newspapers that are read around the world. If you teach in Korea, for example, a great resource would be the Asia section of The New York Times. You can provide an article that was written specifically about Korea (or wherever your students are located) and read and discuss the article with your students.

When: When Should You Use News in the ESL Classroom?

There is no better time than now, when dealing with current events. Using news in your ESL classroom helps make English relevant and useful in your student’s life.

If you are looking for writing assignment ideas, a great exercise is to have students write a fictional news article, making sure to answer who, what, when, where and why. You can have the students serve as editors for their peers, making corrections and edits to each other’s articles.

When looking for reading assignments and practice, find a news article that fits your students’ level and then read and discuss it. As mentioned above, Breaking News English is a wonderful resource for this, since they offer so many follow-up activities to the reading.

When looking for a topic for classroom conversation, you can provide a news article that presents two opinions on a matter, and then divide the class in half and have them debate the topic. The more relevant or hot the topic, the more you can expect your students to speak. It’s always hard to hold your tongue, no matter the language, when you feel passionately about a subject!

Where: Where Can ESL Students Watch News Online?

Reading, writing and speaking about current events are great ways to engage your ESL student in the classroom. But listening is also important.

Here are some audio and video news resources:

  • offers some engaging video and news stories from across the globe. They also offer podcasts and a transcript for their videos—a great resource for ESL learners.
  • also provides video news clips from around the world. Their transcripts appear just below each video itself, making it a very helpful site for ESL learners.
  • Voice of America News is also a reputable site that offers news articles with audio and video. They also have a “Learning English Broadcast” that uses a more limited vocabulary and speaks at a slower speed, which is perfect for lower-level English learners.

Why: Why Can News Create Thoughtful Debate?

One of the most rewarding processes a teacher can witness is when your ESL students speak in English to each other, instead of timidly answering only when called upon.

Debate is one of the best ways to get your students to engage with each other. And one of the best foundations for debate is a relevant topic.

Current events are the best place to go for such a relevant topic, whether it be local politics, social norms or behaviors, pop culture or any other interesting news event.

Debates can be used for students of just about any age. I once held a mock presidential debate with a group of high-level fourth graders. Never was I so surprised to see how seriously they took it, and how well they did coming up with their own platforms and opinions. When the bell rang at the end of the class, the students actually said they wanted more!

Current events and news stories help people relate and learn about one another across all corners of the globe. And nowhere is this more relevant than in the ESL classroom.

Give you students the platform today to help them understand the news of tomorrow.

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