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Teaching English through newspapers

Our guest blogger this week is Roberta Facchinetti, who is a Full Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Verona. Roberta teaches courses in English for Journalism, and has published numerous books and articles on language, culture, and the media.

While teachers of English are increasingly taking advantage of online communication and new media in their professional activity, traditional media seem to be losing ground. In particular, newspapers are now exploited to only a very limited extent. This may be partly accounted for by the fact that the language of newspapers (in their print or online versions) is deemed too difficult for successful and effective language teaching; thus, when news-related texts are exploited, they are frequently simplified or abridged, so as to fit the needs competence level of the students.

But should we take it for granted that we need to simplify newspaper texts for students? Should they necessarily be abridged to fit the syllabus? In fact, I am convinced that newspaper texts can easily and fruitfully be exploited in their original, unedited form, for a range of language-teaching purposes, at all levels of formalized schooling.

Newspapers are a genre which finds its actualization in a variety of textual types, among which the most common are news reports, features, and commentaries (or editorials). These three categories are highly diversified in aim, structure, layout, and length. News reports tend to be the shortest, averaging between 200 and 300 words. Their structure is relatively simple, since their main aim is to convey information about an event in a straightforward way, by answering the traditional ‘wh- questions’: what, who, where, when, why and how. Typically, the main difficulty in news reports may derive not so much from the textual structure but rather from the specialized vocabulary of the topic.

Features and commentaries are often much longer, reaching up to 5000 words, and more complex in structure, since their aims are different. The narrative form of news reports gives way to the argumentation typical of commentaries, which may be either balanced or unbalanced, and which aim to convince the reader of the writer’s point of view on a subject. By contrast, features may aim at analysing, entertaining, expanding on a fact, and even – particularly for travel features – in convincing or persuading. Different aims lead to different ways of structuring the text – and this implies different degrees of competence when such texts are exploited in a language-teaching class.

Undoubtedly, if teachers intend to use texts belonging to any of these three types as a language-learning resource, they need to take proper decisions on the basis of the competence level of their students, since some texts can indeed be relatively difficult in their unabridged form, both from the textual and lexical point of view.

Yet, by flipping through a newspaper’s pages, many more textual types can be found that are lexically and structurally simple, including the following: advertisements, Agony Aunt columns, games, dating notices, comics, crossword puzzles, horoscopes, reviews (of films, books, music and so on), interviews, letters from readers, obituaries, weather forecasts, and notices of births, marriages, and deaths.

The relatively simple structure of these text types, as well as their brevity, means that abridgement is often unnecessary. This doesn’t mean that such texts are always easy to read, though their range of diversification is narrower than what you would find in reports, features or commentaries. So, for example, obituaries can exhibit emphatic and convoluted syntax, resulting from the desire to express positive evaluation of the person who has died. Conversely, readers’ letters may be written in a slangy, conversational style, and some may run the risk of being ungrammatical, since they are written by ordinary people and not professional writers. Finally, the Agony Aunt section may make great use of figurative language, because the journalist aims at convincing readers of his/her claims, often in a humorous way.

Despite this great diversity in style, all the textual types listed above tend to be lexically, syntactically, and textually less complex than news reports and, for the most part, than commentaries and features. So a discerning teacher can select from this wide range of textual choice the unabridged texts that best suit their students’ needs, depending on their level and degree of linguistic competence.

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Roberta Facchinetti


  • When I was teaching English to refugees and asylum-seekers in London I found they were avidly interested in British media coverage of news in their own countries and this provided a motive for studying newspapers. I devoted a whole lesson to ‘headlinese’ to help students understand the way in which newspaper headlines condense English in a systematic but often not transparent way.

  • Thank you for this article! So far I have used only advertisements in my lessons and my students were really interested as they worked with authentic texts. Your article has inspired me to work with other types too, for instance, I have never thought about using obituaries or notices of birth, marriages and deaths! Thank you! I am going to browse through a few newspapers to get some stuff 🙂

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