Extra! Extra! See How ESL Teachers Worldwide Are Using the News for Powerful English Lessons

I’ve noticed something a little troubling in my ESL classroom lately, and I wonder just how common it has become.

My 16-25 year old students are smart, tech-savvy and speak English to a generally high level (upper-intermediate and advanced), but they often show a distinct lack of what I’ll call “worldliness.”

They’re stumped by the names of political leaders, have trouble identifying capitals and the locations of countries, and sometimes lack an understanding of the world’s most important issues.

All of them grew up with cable news, but it seems not to have given them a good grounding in global affairs, or an understanding of the international currents in politics and economics which will shape the world in which they live.

Do you find the same pattern in your ESL classroom?

This trend has spurred much debate, and whether you believe there are reasons to worry or that the whole thing is being overblown, there’s no doubt that our students need some encouragement when it comes to consuming high-quality news.

Perhaps you’re teaching in remote, isolated or impoverished community where developing “worldliness” is not a priority. That’s another issue unto itself, but the solution is the same. The news will prove to be an excellent addition to your ESL teaching resources.

Let me share how I came to this conclusion in my classroom.

How to Broaden Horizons with News in ESL Class

The best way to tackle the problem, I decided, was through weekly practice exercises which focus on current events.

I created an integrated-skills class format which encourages plenty of individual reading and research into the news of the week, followed by a short presentation to classmates. I’ll sometimes round this off with a debate on a topic related to one of the top stories. It’s great fun, practices vital ESL skills and has broadened my students’ understanding of important contemporary topics.

There’s another good reason to require news-reading in the ESL classroom, and it relates to another slightly troubling finding: Most of my students report that their main news source is Twitter.

I’ll be the first to accept that technology and social media are driving our students’ news consumption in a somewhat positive way—but, by limiting themselves to Twitter, they risk divorcing themselves from a great deal of quality journalism, the kind of rich, in-depth content which answers the most critical question: Why?

In an educational environment which increasingly emphasizes accessibility (which, by and large, seems to have become synonymous with brevity) a regular diet of full-scale news articles seems a prudent way to counteract the trend. Besides, it’s a terrific way to develop reading skills and to become familiar with the work of leading journalists, anchors and correspondents.

5 Key Steps for Teaching ESL with the News

1. Make a Game Plan

Take a careful look at your students’ demographics, and choose news stories which are likely to appeal either to their personal or professional interests. Consider whether you should have your students tackle stories which are very complex – banks being fined for manipulating the LIBOR rate, for example.

A good range of topics helps provide choice; allow your students to choose their favorite, as well as one or two extra “back-up” choices, and then rotate through the class, assigning topics based on student preferences. It might also be possible to select topics which relate to your recent work. In the 24-36 hours before the class, survey the news and see if there are useful stories in these categories:

  • Elections (major campaign speeches, accusations and inquiries, predictions, results)
  • Government policies (security, environment, society, business, personal freedom)
  • International Relations (agreements and treaties, conflicts, visits)
  • Sports (major trophies, broken records, scandals, transfers, new managers)
  • Celebrities (marriages, breakups, awards, new projects, the Twittersphere)
  • Obituaries (former leaders or royalty, influential business people and academics, artists)
  • Science (events on the International Space Station, discoveries, controversies, publications, awards)
  • Extreme weather (hurricanes, typhoons, unusual or unseasonal weather, climate change)
  • Entertainment (new albums, books and movies; important concerts and plays)
  • Technology (new products, predictions about the future, recalls and controversies)
  • Business (mergers and acquisitions, successes, bankruptcies, major appointments, scandals)

2. Give Your Students Excellent Questions

Choose as many topics as you have groups of students (or pairs, if possible), plus two or three spares. Then write questions which lead the students into the topic and engage their interest, e.g.

  • “The Chinese government announced a relaxation of the one-child policy this week. Why has this happened? Tell us about the current demographics in China and how this policy might affect Chinese society.”
  • “India launched a spacecraft to Mars yesterday. Give the class a very brief history of Mars exploration. Have there been any particularly successful probes? What does the Indian mission hope to achieve?”
  • “The investment bank J.P. Morgan is being fined $2.6 billion for its role in the Bernie Madoff scandal. Briefly summarize this famous Ponzi scheme. Why was the bank found to be at fault? Who will receive the money?”

The aim is to give your students an obvious place to start by providing search terms and an overall theme for their reading. Encourage them to take notes as they read—either in notebooks or electronically—and to discuss all of their findings with the rest of the group, so that they don’t duplicate each other’s work.

3. Be Picky with Your Sources

This is a great opportunity to teach your students important lessons about the relative quality and dependability of different news sources.

Although many young Americans use John Stewart and John Oliver as their main news sources, our students certainly shouldn’t! (Do feel free to share some relevant, humorous clips of “The Daily Show” whenever your students need a little pick-me-up, but remind them that it’s primarily for entertainment.)

news for ESL students

Guide them towards reputable online newspapers—The Guardian, The Economist (which may require a subscription)—and the websites of the major cable providers such as CNN, MSNBC and, above all, the BBC. Unfortunately, the BBC News channel isn’t available outside of the UK, but its news page is one of the all-around best sources. The New York Times requires a subscription after a limited number of articles per month, but you may find it’s worth it, especially as it can be beneficial to have a subscription available for classroom use.

news for ESL students

Google News has a huge range of content, but again, your students should learn to recognize bias by comparing different sources on the same topic. Teach them to research their resources and find out what their prejudices and ulterior motives might be for supporting certain sides of issues.

Also, teach them to steer clear of sources which favor compelling (if not exactly useful) images over thoughtful, well-researched content.

news for ESL students

For younger learners, take a look at the excellent Breaking News English, which organizes its content into seven different levels. Kids should find levels 0 and 1 the most accessible. Time magazine also has a kids’ section which will be easier for younger students, and the BBC’s outstanding Children’s section (known as CBBC) is another good source for lower level and younger students.

To bring your classroom to life with native such as news and other media sources, be sure to check out FluentU.

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

The program includes interactive quizzes and flashcards, meaning your students can consolidate all of the English that they learn. 

4. Guide Students from Research to Presentation

This process will take time, so account for this in your lesson plan. Remind your students that, the more thorough their notes are, the easier the rest of their work will be. With a solid understanding of the topic at hand, students will find it much easier to approach bringing this topic to their classmates in a way which is efficient, interesting and makes good sense.

Here are the major pitfalls to avoid:

  • Students who copy verbatim from the NYT, for example, will end up using words their classmates don’t know—and perhaps ones that they don’t even know. Encourage them to use their own words throughout, to keep a dictionary close and to ask their teacher if they’re confused.
  • When discussing complex topics, students sometimes have the tendency to ramble, to digress and to discuss parallel topics. The issue might be very complex, and it’s great that they recognize that fact, but they should avoid going into far too much detail—they may lose their train of thought or have trouble getting the main ideas across to their classmates. Providing a strict time limit will remind the students to pare down their commentary and deliver just the main points.
  • Communicating and staying organized will be very important aspects of preparing for the presentation. Have the students divide the content between members of the group so that everyone speaks equally. A common problem is that the most confident or keenest student dominates the presentation at the expense of the others.

5. Go Live!

Once the brief presentation is over, have the “audience” of listening classmates ask questions to find out more. The students may not be able to answer all of these, and that’s not a problem—they’re not going to become experts on the topic in the space of 30 minutes’ research, and besides, the teacher can fill in the most important gaps.

Instead of (or perhaps as a successor to) the presentations, invite your students to mock up a cable TV news show in the classroom.

This has been tremendous fun every time I’ve scheduled it, and the students tend to respond very actively, as they’re familiar with the format and enter into the different roles with ease and enthusiasm. In each group, assign an anchor, as well as several correspondents, witnesses, and experts to be interviewed. You can use real stories, or assign fictional (but believable) events which the students will flesh out themselves, using a little imagination and their knowledge of world affairs.

Encourage the students to write the script—either in full or in detailed note form—and to rehearse the show at least once before they “go live” and present it to their classmates. Lots of applause after each “show” helps things along, and some constructive feedback from the teacher can address grammatical, vocabulary and presentation issues.

Another possible extension to the news-reading exercise is to arrange a debate on one of the topics. The sky is the limit here but, again, try to choose topics in which your students will have an existing interest. Here are some useful topics:

  • Should the international community do more to intervene in____?
  • Is a new law regarding_____now required?
  • Should we punish people for_____?
  • Do you support a change in policy to favor____over_____?

We’re surrounded by news—almost inundated by it, you might say—and teaching our ESL students to make sense of these topics, to find good sources and to draw their own conclusions provides not only excellent practice in ESL skills, but also encourages important life skills: detecting and allowing for bias, patiently reading a longer article, judging the reliability of a news source, etc.

I encourage you to try news-based ESL lessons, especially for your more advanced learners, and to challenge their worldview by requiring in-depth reading on the topics which will shape the world in which they will live.

Dr. Graham Dixon is a writer, musician and educator. He began teaching with VSO in China, and then worked in a language academy in Thailand. He has since taught ESL in the UK and USA, and writes on ESL classroom techniques, health and meditation. Graham is also a ghostwriter of novels, and a professional composer and trumpeter, as well as an amateur chef.

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