Lesson Plans

5 news sites for authentic language-learning

There is no end to language-learning possibilities that are available to us through the Internet news media.  Things might be getting dire for newspaper companies, but the general appetite for current affairs continues to encourage the launching of news sites of every flavour.  Here are five you might like to try, as a teacher or a learner, each with a practical suggestion for a learning activity.  The focus is on learning English, but the same ideas can be applied to other languages.


1. Google News Timeline is still fairly new and has loads of potential for language learning to be discovered.  It’s very configurable.  You can set it up for whatever newspapers, magazines, blogs etc. you prefer to focus on.  Specific search queries are also possible.  Type in the query « Ford » for example, and you can trace back articles and events related to the carmaker for as many years as you care to go.

Idea. For a  self-access activity, have learners research the main headlines on the day of their birth, the day of their parents’ birth, their grandparents’ etc. (if they know it).  Interesting conversations ensue about what was happening in the world the day they arrived, leading into how things have changed since. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)

We have also looked at how to set up Google News for language-learning.

2. BBC Learning English has a bbc-words-in-the-news1vast range of English-learning tools that are so well known that they hardly need mentioning here.  Although have you come across the BBC World Service « Words in the News »?  It’s primarily set up for listening and vocabulary activities, but each report contains a link to a corresponding print article that is different to the audio report.  This provides a wealth of possibilities for integrating reading and listening: predictive activities, gap fills, writing summaries.  They put the prescribed vocabulary to be studied in bold – not ideal as it doesn’t allow much latitude for tailoring to your learners’ particular needs.  Some adaptation is usually required.

Idea. Use the prescribed vocabulary list as a predictive lead-in activity. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)

3. Breaking News English
is a language-learning site, not a news site.  It has been a great standby for teachers on those days where all the best intentions of preparing a super lesson go out the window and you need something ready-made.   Breaking News English takes interesting news articles from a variety of sources and subjects, adds language points, discussion ideas and other activities, and puts them all together in an easily downloadable and copiable format.  Just what you were looking for, right?

Idea. Running out of time to prepare lessons is hard to predict, but if you can see ahead of time that you’re going to be running, E-mail the article you choose to your learners before the session.  It avoids the problem of extended reading in class feeling like « down time », and encourages learners to read in their own time for pleasure.  This saves time, gives the learners confidence and allows you to get more juice out of the article during the session. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)
4. Disinformation. Claims to have access to « hidden information that seldom slips through the cracks of the corporate-owned media conglomerates. »  You’ll find the fringe, the bizarre, the extreme and the intriguing mixed with more mainstream articles sourced from all over the Internet news.  Suited for more advanced students.

Idea. For an extensive reading activity, to practice fast-reading for gist, choose a provocative article.  It works best with stories that are not too obscure, and that give a new slant on a known news headline.  Set the learners the task of  searching the Internet for two other articles, preferably originating in different countries, which give alternative views or explanations of the stories.  As a follow-up speaking activity the learner could present the different points of view in the article and then discuss which arguments seem the most plausible.  A good lead in for a debate activity, as long as it’s a subject learners have opinions about. (Level: Upper Int., Advanced)

5. Euronews. One of the unique features of Euronews is that it is a truly multilingual newspaper, with the same headline articles in 7 European languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian) and Arabic.  It almost seems to be designed with learners in mind, with it’s very succint articles supported with video footage.  If you’re looking for in-depth reporting, this isn’t your site.  However, it opens up a number  of possibilities for activities where comparing L1 and L2 can be advantageous.

Idea. For learners needing to improve translation skills into their L1,  select 4-5 articles (they are generally short, 120 words or so) which deal with a particular lexical area needing work (there’s a good tabbed menu enabling easy navigation of the different categories of article so not too much hunting involved).  Compare the articles in the L1 and L2 and study how the key words in the chosen field are translated.   The discussion the follows could include which words were translated differently in different articles, which was the most unexpected translation, which words could have been translated alternatively, why did the translator choose a particular word etc. (Level: Intermediate )

Learn to spell with poetry

Anyone who has had to learn English as a second language knows how irregular and complex English spelling can be.  Unlike other languages English has never had any kind of regulating authority and attempts to reform spelling have usually met with failure.  Even amongst native speakers it is not uncommon for well-educated native speakers to have poor spelling.

One of the amusing side-effects of the chaos of English orthography is the number of poems that have been written to illustrate the many alternative spellings of different sounds. The following poem has made the rounds of school English text-books since the 1960s:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!

Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004,
by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981,
and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.

What do you think – should English spelling be simplified?  Would it ever work?  The Spelling Society thinks so, and you can find several more poems like the one above on their site.

I rather like the irregularity of English spelling.  Strange spelling often has something to say about  the history of a word, where it came from, under what circumstances it was borrowed into the language.  Memorising irregular spelling is good mental training for children, and helps with learning other languages.  Without it there would be no Spelling Bees and no poems like the one above.

Using these poems for language learning: as a teacher

Create a gap fill dication where you blank out the words containing the particular irregular spellings that you want to focus on.  Read the poem aloud and have learners fill in the blanks.  Check the answers together.

OR make a recording of your own voice reading the poem (I would use Audacity).  Then have learners make their own recording, and have them compare the two.  They should highlight those words that they got wrong.  This can be done using a language lab or as an asynchronous online activity.

…or as a learner

Read the poems aloud, and each time you see a word you are not sure of, underline it.  Then use an audio dictionary to check the pronunciation.  For this you could try WordReference or The Free Dictionary.

For more resources to help with English spelling:
Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (4th Edition) (Words Their Way Series)
How to Spell Like a Champ

EFL writing lessons that work

1013331_sunset_silhouetteTeaching writing effectively in a general EFL class is not only possible but also rewarding both for learners and teachers. But for me it wasn’t always that way.

Of the four skills taught in the EFL classroom, writing was probably the one I most neglected. For years I loved the idea of teaching writing, but there seemed to be so many obstacles. I resigned myself to waiting until the day some director of studies would hand me my first specialist writing course, and hoped in the meantime that my students wouldn’t notice the suspicious absence of writing from my weekly offerings.

Course book writing activities never seemed to work for me. It didn’t matter how well the activity was presented, I would always end up with a group of learners chewing their pencils, rolling their eyes and sighing conspicuously. Writing lessons would be hastily cobbled into speaking activities, and I would resolve not to try again until I was sure the learners had forgotten their previous underwhelming experience doing writing with me. I seemed to be up against a number of factors I had no control over:

  • Learners who naturally enjoy writing seem to be a rare breed
  • An ESL learner who suffers from writer’s block is just as likely to struggle with writing in his native language. The skill of writing does not seem to correlate with one’s level in a given language: proficiency in one is no guarantee of success in the other.
  • Writing activities are often too time-consuming for the limited hours allotted to the EFL classroom.
  • Having been nursed into English teaching on the milk of the communicative method I was allergic to any activity that required long periods of silence and learners working on their own.
  • Many learners struggle with a sense of « why do I need this? » Speaking more fluently is held up as the benchmark of language-learning success, and learners can’t see how writing activities might advance that goal.

So what changed? Observing my own children learn has had a surprising influence on the way I teach adults. They taught me something which is so fundamental that I don’t see how I could have missed it, namely that when learning cognitive and communicative skills, progress in one area benefits all the others. The application of this to the EFL classroom is that becoming a better writer will also make you a better speaker, reader and listener. My lack of success teaching writing was largely due to my tendency to separate writing from all the other skills. I needed to approach writing in a much more holistic way.

I have Mario Rinvolucri to thank for an activity, which launched me into teaching writing holistically. I was amazed the first time I tried it to observe a group of (adult, upper intermediate/B2) learners sit down for about an hour, and happily write 300-word texts that were genuinely interesting to read. The key was in the preparation:

1. In the first class I explain that in the following session we will be working on fluency in writing. They need to choose a topic to write about such as:

  • a childhood memory
  • an interesting story I have been told (true or fiction)
  • an exciting experience I had recently (e.g. while on holiday) etc.

The activity works better if learners choose a subject that is not well known to their classmates

2. Learners then produce a mind-map of their story. For me they get the concept more easily if I first demonstrate mind-mapping a story that is well known to the class:mindmap

This goes a long way to addressing the problem of writers’ block.

3. Once they have a strong mental picture of the story they will be writing, I ask them to write 8-10 comprehension-type questions about the plot. They then exchange their questions with a classmate, who reads them and seeks to write answers to them based on what he imagines to be the content of his classmate’s story. At this stage look for fluency over accuracy. The teacher should supply language as necessary, but not correct unless asked to. This has multiple benefits: apart from preparing better written fluency through prior practice in useful language structures, crafting questions also enables focus on the overall flow of the text, and exercising the reading skill may supply useful vocabulary.

4. The next activity absolves the communicative teacher from his guilt over having a silent classroom: learners swap their answers to the questions with their partners. More reading, usually a few laughs, and then lots of speaking practice as learners correct their partner’s answers or confirm them as they narrate to them the story that they will be writing about. This enables them to practice the flow of the story in preparation for writing, and further anchors the different elements in the memory.

This way, when the actual writing activity begins, learners have 3 documents to support them: the mind-map, the list of « comprehension questions » and their partner’s written answers to the questions. Generally I have found that by this time the writing just flows, learners are satisfied with their work, and you end up with a large corpus of written work to serve as a base for all kinds of follow-up activities.

The whole activity usually takes about 1 ¾ to 2 hours, which can be divided between two sessions.

This illustrates the combination of reading, writing, listening and speaking holistically in a meaningful activity that, while specifically intended to improve written fluency, gives learners the opportunity to practice all the skills simultaneously. And not only that, it’s fun.

An engaging article for a reading activity

Q. What do English, French, Finnish, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Welsh, Estonian, Icelandic and Esperanto have in common, apart from the obvious?  A. They are all languages spoken by writer and linguist Daniel Tammet. He also has the distinction of setting a European record for memorising the digits of pi (22,514 digits in 5 hours and 9 minutes), and he is the subject of an interesting New Scientist article I found this week entitled Inside the Mind of an Autistic Savant.

This is just the kind of interesting article I look for when preparing reading comprehension activities for ESL classes.  Here are some ideas that I might use with a class with a vocabulary building focus.  The ideas could be adapted for CEF level B1 and above.

autistic-savant-pdf-1You can download a worksheet for the activities here and adapt them for your own situation: inside-the-mind-of-an-autistic-savantpdf-icon

Lead-in.  Write the word THOUGHT on the whiteboard or equivalent.  Brainstorm all the vocabulary the learners can think of related to this word and present it in a mindmap.  Highlight any words that appear in the article.

Prediction. Give learners the following list of keywords from the text (For a great tool for determining keywords and word frequency in an article that you want to adapt for ESL, see Online Utility):

  • savant
  • relationship
  • mind
  • autistic
  • lumpy
  • ability
  • intuitive
  • visualise
  • interconnected
  • realise
  • understanding
  • remember

From this list, ask learners to predict what they expect the content of the article to be.  Follow this discussion by giving the profile of Daniel Tammet and the introductory paragraph to the article:

tammet-profileAutistic savant Daniel Tammet shot to fame when he set a European record for the number of digits of pi he recited from memory (22,514). For afters, he learned Icelandic in a week. But unlike many savants, he’s able to tell us how he does it. We could all unleash extraordinary mental abilities by getting inside the savant mind, he tells Celeste Biever.

Inside the Mind of an Autistic Savant, Celeste Biever © 2009 New Scientist

Vocabulary work.  I would choose a maximum of 12 words, preferably words that occur more than once in the text.  I have used the wordlist above in the worksheet, where there is a definition matching exercise.  For a more advanced activity the learners can fill in the gaps of a list of quotes from English literature using the word list.  I can just hear busy teachers saying « that sounds like a lot of work to prepare »!  I have found a great tool for doing this easily but that will be the subject of another post, so if you want to find out how I did it, subscribe to the englishonthe.net feed.

Reading. The article is formatted as an interview with questions and answers conveniently separated.  Give the learners a jumbled list of the questions, and ask them to discuss what can be learnt about Daniel Tammet by simply reading the questions.  Then they will be ready to read the article.  For a challenging exercise I might give them the article with the questions blanked out, and have them match the questions to the appropriate paragraphs.

Follow-up. Actually I’m still thinking about what I might do – so many directions you could go in with a good speaking or writing activity, depending on the class and level.  One idea was to  get learners to engage with Daniel Tammet’s blog – they could find an interesting post to write a comment on.

What would you do?  Leave a comment and share your ideas.

An ESL lesson plan from « History of the Internet »

One of the obscure but interesting things I came across this week was PICOL – Pictorial Communication Language.  You probably haven’t heard of it yet – it’s a fascinating project by some German graphic designers developing  » a standard and reduced sign system for electronic communication. »

So what’s a language teacher doing writing about graphic design?  Well, using these PICOL icons they’ve made an interesting short documentary entitled History of the Internet – very engaging.  I thought it would make a good English lesson for Upper Intermediate to Advanced students (that’s level B2 for CEF fans), or an ESP class related to computer science.  Here’s the online video.  There is also a YouTube version.

History of the Internet from PICOL on Vimeo.

Here are a few ideas I might use to craft an esl lesson plan out of this video.  You can download a transcript of the video here: pdf-iconhistory-of-the-internet-transcript

Lead-in (10 minutes).  What do your learners know about the history of the Internet?  Brainstorm and mindmap a few elements of Internet history.  Depending on how geeky your group is you may wish to set them homework the night before to do some very basic research (using Wikipedia, for example) so they have something to bring to the discussion.

Pre-teaching vocabulary (10-15 minutes).  Assuming this is an ESP class you could focus on the general theme of language to talk about NETWORKS.  Here’s a brief summary of useful material that comes up in the video:

remote connection, time-sharing, large-scale computer network, knowledge transfer, mainframe, interface, interconnected, TCP – Transmission Control Protocol, file transfer, packet switching, centralised/decentralised network architecture, node, compatibility

In ESP classes I love the way that students are usually the experts, and one of the most valuable language-learning experiences you can create is to have them explain their field to you using the language you are focusing on.  Being a complete dummy in this area I will have a great time asking my B2 IT expert to explain to me what ‘TCP’ is, the difference between a mainframe and an interface, how ‘packet switching’ works for example.

You could also design a matching activity with a jumbled list of the words to be matched to definitions.  A good online dictionary for computer and Internet technology terms is Webopedia.

Viewing (30 minutes). The clip is about 9 minutes long, the speech is very clear but quite fast, and the language quite challenging so even for higher-level students it should probably be viewed in three chunks.  Why not design a different viewing activity for each chunk?

  • Gap fill.  Very easy to prepare by cutting and pasting the text from the transcript into a Word document and creating gaps at meaningful points for learners to fill in.
  • Transcription.  Practising similar skills to gap fill but a lot more challenging.  It can be a very rewarding activity too.  Set a limited number of sentences to be transcribed depending on the level.
  • Viewing without sound.  View a brief section with the audio switched off and have learners discuss in pairs what they think the section is talking about.
  • Comprehension questions.   Best for the teacher to invent his own questions, particularly if you’re not familiar with the subject matter.  Your learners don’t need to know you’re a dummy!  There are two ways I like to attack comprehension questions: the traditional way (question + multi-choice or short answer) OR the back-to-front way.  In other words, I give the learners the answer, and then they have to produce the question.  In view of the difficulty even advanced students have formulating questions, this is always a meaningful activity (see Can you answer questions correctly?).

Follow-up.  Lots of scope here.  The documentary finishes with the real launch of the Internet in 1990.  What I would probably do is to set a research activity where pairs have to imagine the script for a follow-on documentary concerning the main events in Internet development say from 1990-2000.  This could either be structured for an oral presentation, or a piece of writing.  I think this kind of activity is more meaningful when learners can do the preparation between class sessions, and can email their work for comment and correction before actually giving the presentation.

So those are some of the ingredients I would probably throw together.  How would you use a video clip like this in a lesson?  Share some ideas in a comment.