Using newspaper articles in the classroom – the practical side

Posted by on September 03, 2012

This week’s guest blogger Karen Richardson is a freelance teacher, teacher-trainer, and ELT  materials writer based in Germany, who (amongst other things) writes the Guardian Weekly and Business Spotlight news lessons on www.onestopenglish.com.

After having read Roberta Facchinetti’s recent informative post on teaching English through newspapers, you are hopefully now convinced of the usefulness of using newspapers in the classroom. I certainly am.

As someone who divides their working time between materials writing and classroom-based teaching, I’d like to take a brief look at the practical and legal challenges of using newspapers and how to deal with and overcome them.

Along with a colleague, I write the Guardian Weekly news lessons for Macmillan’s Onestopenglish.  Although this is a subscriber service, one set of news lessons is freely available to everyone once a month:  So, not only do I have a professional interest in this topic, I also have years of experience of making newspaper articles work in the classroom.

Roberta talks about using articles in their unabridged form. This is certainly interesting for advanced students or those who wish to be exposed to ‘real English’. Whether this works for your students is something only you can decide. But there are a few pointers which will help you decide whether an article has classroom potential. As I am writing the Onestopenglish news lessons for a multi-level, global audience, I’d like to mention a few aspects I always keep in mind.

Firstly does the article contain a lot of assumed pre-knowledge? If it is about a ground-breaking court decision it will only make sense if the students know about the background of the case. Some articles will include this, but some additional pre-reading tasks be may be required make the contents more understandable for students.

Secondly, does it assume cultural knowledge? For example, unless it is their particular area of interest, will the students be able to understand references to popular TV series (possibly even one that is no longer aired), national sports scandals, politicians and politics, or brand names of food and drinks that used to exist in the author’s childhood, to name just a few?

In the same vein, newspapers aimed at a national readership will often use well-known acronyms and not bother to write out in full what they stand for. Would students, for example, be able to make head or tail of these everyday acronyms in the UK and USA: RSPCA, AA, NFL, FDA, GOP, BMA? (look them up if you’re not sure).

Then there are the ‘half’ idioms and sayings that the British in particular are so fond of. Often these sayings are so well-known amongst the readership that the writer may not bother to write them out in full as he knows that the readers will automatically be able to complete them in their heads. But will the language student be able to do the same? Try to complete these: If you can’t beat them,….; A fool and his money …… ; A bird in the hand …..; Don’t count your chickens ….; It never rains ……
If you’re using an article that contains any structures like this you will need to decide whether to simplify the language by removing the idiom completely, or make a learning point out of it , in which case you should probably first decide whether it is really useful language or just a waste of classroom time.

Regardless of content or level, one extremely important thing you should be aware of is that even if an article is available online you may not simply print it out and hand out copies to your students. If you teach in Europe or the US this will open you up to potential prosecution and a costly fine under infringement of copyright laws. Despite what your colleagues might do, it is always advisable to check the legal situation in your country. Obviously at Onestopenglish we obtain the express permission of the newspaper before we turn any article into news lessons.

But I said I’d offer you ways to get around this. So here they are:

Have the students read the article online, either in class if you have the technology available or as a preparation task at home before the lesson. Providing a link to a particular article will not place you in any legal difficulties.

Buy the newspaper! Many newspapers (and magazines) offer special subscription rates to students or class groups. These are obviously worth checking out. And don’t forget, if the students have made a (small) financial investment in their learning by buying a newspaper, they are more likely to read it than if you just hand out illegal copies and ask them to read it as homework!

Comments (1)
  • Very informative.I also find newspaper articles and headlines extremely useful for the students.Newspaper headlines are very interesting because they pose certain challenges before students; interpreting the meaning from recognising the right tense form. The present simple in headlines is actually the present perfect or past simple, if the headline is expanded into plain English.

    Posted by laxmidhar Panda on 1st December, 2012
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