english articles

How to improve your reading skills with Google News

Some people are addicted to news and current affairs.  If you are a language learner who is also a “news junky” – who enjoys following the latest news, here’s a great idea for improving your reading skills and increasing your vocabulary.

It is true that the language of newspapers is often very complex.  It is estimated that to read an English language newspaper fluently you need about 4,000 words.  This can be overwhelming for some learners.  And then there’s the question, with so many newspapers, where do I start?  Few of us have the time in a day to search the Internet for the articles that we find interesting.

Enter Google News.  When I first looked at Google News, the thing I liked about it was that it brings all the breaking news from a variety of the world’s newspapers and puts them all together in one place.  But I didn’t realise that it can do a lot more.

google-news-1-2One of the best motivations for improving reading skills is reading things we are interested in.  This sounds so basic, but perhaps you remember doing reading comprehension exercises in school which you found really difficult, mainly because the subject matter was so boring!  What do you like to read about?

First select the country of your choice for your Google News page.  The default setting is for the US (why am I not surprised?)  This will give you a standard layout like this:
google-news-3
You might decide that you are interested in sport, but not interested in entertainment.  You can move the sports section up the page, and delete the entertainment section.  You can also easily add news headlines from several different countries by selecting “Add a standard section“.  Let’s say you are studying French.  It is possible to add news from France, French-speaking Canada and Belgium to give you a more international perspective.

google-news-4Let’s say you are particularly interested in Finance, or perhaps you are learning English vocabulary for an exam like the TOEIC, and you need to work on your financial words.  Google News allows you to create your own personalised content.  You select “Add a custom section“, and then “advanced options“.   Let’s say the words you are revising are banking, finance, interest, loan and credit.  Type in these key words, then give the section a label, “Finance” for example.  Once you have saved these options you will see that a selection of Finance articles, each containing your chosen key words, is waiting for you.  You can move it up or down the page to suit you.
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You can change your content as often as you like.  The best way to revise vocabulary is according to theme.  This week it might be finance, next week transportation.  You could create a new section for transportation with related key words to replace the one on finance.  The point is that the best way for revising vocabulary you know, and for learning vocabulary that is new, is in the context of real everyday language.  Memorising lists of words is not usually an effective way of increasing your vocabulary.

Google News is a great addition to your language learning toolbox.  Do you use it already?  Have you found it useful?  How do you like to use Google News?  Join the conversation in the comments.

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.

Golden rules for English articles

Should I use the, a/an or no article? How can I know for sure? Are there any rules? It’s so complicated!

If you find it difficult to use the three English articles, you are not alone. It is one of the most difficult areas of English grammar. I have two pieces of good news for you if you are a learner having difficulty with English articles.

1. When you make mistakes it’s not usually serious. Most native speakers are used to “international English” and can usually understand what you mean.

2. If you can remember 3 simple rules, you will avoid the mistakes that are the most common and the most obvious. Here they are:

  • Don’t use singular countable nouns without articles.

Have you seen the car key? I don’t know; there is a car key on the table. Is it yours? (not *Have you seen car key? etc.)

  • Don’t use the with plural and uncountable nouns to talk about things in general.

Politics is boring. (not *The politics is boring)
Apples are good for your health (not *The apples … )

  • Use a/an to say what people’s professions or jobs are.

Peter was a salesman, but he is now training to become an architect. (not *Peter was salesman etc.)

Just remembering these three rules will fix most of your article errors.  Do you have questions about using articles? Ask your question in a comment.

photo credit: mikecogh cc