teaching vocabulary

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.

google-news-timeline2

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)
disinformation
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 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.