comprehension strategies

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 )

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 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.

More language learning strategies with Evernote

Judging by the large number of visits to last week’s post on More ways to learn language with Evernote, there is a lot of buzz about the many uses for this application that helps you to « remember everything ».  Evernote just won Best Mobile Startup at the Crunchies 2008 Awards.

Here are a few more tips to help you learn language online with Evernote.


I gave up bookmarking to my Firefox toolbar a long time ago and adopted Delicious.  The disadvantage of Delicious is that you can only save the link but not the content, which limits the capacity to search.  In Evernote you can add the content of a webpage to a note in Evernote  directly from your browser with two clicks, although to speed up searching it’s best to add tags.  My Evernote is full of tags to help me find language-learning tools (‘reading’, ‘writing’, ‘listening’, ‘speaking’, ‘vocabulary’, ‘pronunciation’ etc.)  For a better visual presentation of the page in Evernote, you can paste it as a screenshot into the note.  The Firefox plugin screengrab does this well.  You can also type your own notes into the bookmark to help you remember why you saved it.  There is one negative though – clipping websites into Evernote seems to be slower than bookmarking in Delicious, something that should improve in future releases.

evernote-readlaterBecome a better reader

The best way to increase your vocabulary in a foreign language is through reading.    The best way to increase your reading is to find material that you are really interested in.  Doing reading comprehension exercises based on articles or books that don’t interest you at all is a waste of time.  There is a huge amount of reading material on the Internet that matches our interest, but the problem is that the best articles usually turn up when we don’t have time to read them.  So we bookmark them, but never remember to go back to them.

I hardly ever have time to read valuable material the moment I find it, so I have created a « read later » tag in Evernote.  When I find an article that I would like to read, I save it using « read later » and then forget about it.    I then plan « reading time » into my week when I have a spare hour, type « read later » into the search, and all my articles are there waiting for me.  When I’ve finished reading I simply delete the tag.

evernote-chatRecord your social networking conversations

In the post How to improve your language outside the classroom we talked about using social networks for language-learning.  Sites like Ning Networks, EnglishForum and many others use Instant Messaging for live communication with your language-learning contacts.  IM or chat is very effective for language-learning, especially if you combine it with Evernote.  Copy and paste your IM chats into Evernote and make time later to study the conversation to revise the language that you learned from your language helper, and to see how you can improve and correct your own language.  In the desktop version of Evernote you can use the Edit/Spelling and Grammar tool to help you.

Using Evernote is as easy as writing all your notes on post-its and throwing them into a drawer.  Even when the drawer is overflowing with notes, you can still easily find the note you are looking for.  In addition to the text search and tags, you can also filter notes based on when they were created or modified, what kind of media they contain, or the tool you used to capture them (web, mobile, desktop, etc.).

A fun way to develop listening comprehension

Every language learner has used video at some stage in their journey, and with the explosion of video on the Internet there is a huge amount of material to work with.

But have you ever been on YouTube and found that there are so many videos that you don’t know where to start? Which clips are good for my level?  How do I know that they will be interesting?  What if the sound quality isn’t good and I find it hard to understand?
If you have asked these questions, then there is a site that is specifically designed for you :

Yappr was designed by a guy who found that watching local television in his second language was the most fun and productive way to study.

On Yappr you can view funny or interesting videos uploaded from people all over the world, that are appropriate for language learning.  Yappr members transcribe the videos and add the text, and may even post translations into 7 other languages.

yappr-video1As you watch and listen to the video you can pause it or replay the sentence you just heard as you follow the text.  This exercises your reading and listening skills at the same time, and the video material helps your comprehension.  It is a very low-stress and enjoyable way to learn.  You can even download the full transcription of the video in .pdf format for vocabulary work.

The videos are graded according to their difficulty, and site members can rate the videos so you can see which are most popular.  Learners also add their comments to videos, and can add them to their own favourites.
When you’ve had enough of watching videos, you can move over to the chat page where you can chat with other Yappr users.  There are rooms for three English levels, and 7 other languages.  You can leave messages on a forum, and search for other Yappr fans in your country.

If you are an English learner of any level, you need to have Yappr in your language-learning toolbox.