Create a topical class

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This page gives guidance on creating a topical news class. It assumes that you live in an area with liberal copyright laws in respect of English teaching.

Furthermore, the article is written on the assumption that the teacher has small groups of four to seven. Should you have larger classes then you will need to adapt the process and the material as appropriate. Creating a class along these lines is not a trivial task and is only really worthwhile if you are going to be able to reuse the class a number of times, or if you can adapt it to a number of situations. (If you want something free and ready-made off the net then check out Breaking News English and Heads Up English.)

Such classes would also be of use to freelance teachers working in one-to-one situations which allow them to recycle topical material.

Structure[edit]

Ideally you will want to use all four skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) in your class. Consequently you will want to do some or all of the following during the class:

These classes lend themselves to variations of think, pair and share classes and fit into numerous methodologies including Content-Based Instruction.

Selecting an article[edit]

You will first need to select an appropriate topic and then find a news article to go with it. The simplest way is to go to Google and search "news" using the terms you are interested in. You will almost certainly have multiple hits. Open the most promising-looking in tabs and skim them for an appropriate article. The ideal article will:

  • Fit on less than two A4 sheets when printed. Much more than one and a half sheets tends to weary students.
  • Will have some - but not too many - idiomatic expressions.
  • Will have some phrasal verbs.
  • Will be written at a level which will both interest, and be comprehensible to, your students.

You may need to edit the article somewhat in order to meet these objectives. Remember to acknowledge the source of the article. You may also wish to consider how up-to-date you wish the article to be. It may be better to choose a topic that will have relevance for some months rather than a topic which will only be relevant for a couple of days, because this will allow more scope for re-use.

Introductory activities[edit]

Before using your selected article you will want some way to introduce the topic and get the students thinking about the issues.

Conversation questions[edit]

We have a range of Conversation questions to use in class on this site. Furthermore, our article on conversation questions identifies a number of other sites which include lists of questions by topic. Our article also includes advice on how to use the questions in class. It is clear that these conversation questions can readily be used to introduce issues.

Cartoons[edit]

One good way to introduce a subject is to use cartoons. Excellent topical cartoons can be obtained from "Cagle" but others are be found on other sites listed on our cartoons page. If you right-click on the cartoon you should be able to use the "save as" function to save the cartoons to an appropriate folder. Later print them up in "portrait" ("landscape" tends to produce worse definition). Alternatively, simply copy and paste them into the body of the text.

You should remember that not all societies will immediately understand the nature of English cartoons. Furthermore, cartoons tend to use very idiomatic phrases or make cultural references the students may have difficulty grasping, so you should consider pre-teaching any idiomatic or cultural elements first.

Give each student a maximum of three cartoons. It's probably best if they don't initially see each other's cartoon, but it's not vitally important. Make notes while the students are speaking in order to give feedback later.

  1. Have them read and try to understand the cartoon. Do not "explain" the cartoon to the student - interpreting and explaining the cartoon is the student's task.
  2. Select a student and ask them to describe exactly what they can see in the cartoon. Most cartoons only have a small number of elements, so this should not be very difficult.
  3. Then ask the student to interpret the cartoon - what does it mean, what does it refer to?
  4. Ask the student if she/he agrees with the point they believe is being made by the cartoonist.
  5. Ask the other students if they agree with the interpretation made by the first student. You may be surprised by the fact that the first student or others may interpret the cartoon in radically different ways. Explore these differences with the students.
  6. Finally - if appropriate - ask all the students if they agree with the point being made by the cartoonist.
  7. Repeat with another student until all students have spoken about their cartoons.
  8. Give feedback on points of grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation which may have come up.

Some cartoons are pretty obvious while others may require more thought. Try to give students a mixture.

Wikipedia[edit]

See also main article Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a great source of information and, whatever topical issue you may have selected, chances are good that Wikipedia has an article on it. Nevertheless, Wikipedia articles themselves are not usually useful in class because:

  • They are unevenly edited. The fact that different paragraphs, sentences or even words have been added by differing authors does not make them good examples of authentic text. They sometimes have repetitions, and errors of spelling and grammar.
  • Even when they are well-written they are written like encyclopaedia articles. This style is probably not what you would want your students to emulate.

They are however a great source of information for creating a quiz associated with the article you are about to use - but make sure that it is not exactly the same information that is about to be revealed in the article. Give the students the answers to this quiz immediately so that they can see who the "class expert" is. If the question is quite difficult - "What's the surface area of the Sahara desert?" then give them multiple choice options in the answer.

The quiz should hopefully activate students' existing vocabulary about the subject and, with a bit of thought on the part of the teacher, introduce some of the vocabulary and issues which will be raised in the subsequent article.

Pictures[edit]

Searching on Google for images will usually get you something on-topic. Another good resource is Paul Sherman's Word Processor Clipart collection of public domain clip art; and the truly detail oriented will enjoy his extensive sources list on his legal page.

Vocabulary[edit]

Read through your chosen article and identify any difficult vocabulary and pre-teach it. One way of doing so is to provide a list mixed-up words and definitions and ask the students to match the words to the definitions.

Quotes[edit]

Quotes from well-known or thought-provoking authors can be used to open and close classes.

Unusual sounds[edit]

Use the FindSounds search engine to obtain an interesting of surprising sound to introduce the topic.

Other warmers[edit]

We also have a large selection of warmer activities, many of which could be adapted to create an introduction.

Reason to read[edit]

You need to give your students a reason to read the article. Simply telling them that it's in English is not enough. So find four or five facts in the article and turn them into questions. Ask the students what they think the answers will be and then ask them to find out by reading the article.

Using the article[edit]

As you have a small class it would be nice to ensure that each student reads the passage at the same time. One excellent way to do this is to have the students read each paragraph in turn out loud. This obliges them to pronounce any unfamiliar words and also allows you to identify and correct any problems. It also means that any necessary explanations can be given to the whole class at the same time.

The article should be interesting in itself, so don't be afraid to stop the process to discuss any thought-provoking points which may arise during the reading. You could create a teacher's copy with talking points to remind you of issues of interest. You should also take the opportunity to talk about any unusual phrases or structures when they appear.

Exercises[edit]

After the students have read and discussed the article you will probably want to reinforce the new vocabulary or phrases by carrying out some exercises. Here are some possibilities.

  • Prepare a copy of the article with all the new vocabulary removed or with only the first one or two letters of the new word remaining.
  • Prepare a copy of the article, but shuffle the word order of any complex grammatical structures or idioms.
  • Remove all the prepositions from the article.
  • Get the students to identify all past perfect forms, all passives, etc.
  • Get the students to identify and define all the phrasal verbs in the article.
  • Get the students to correctly pronounce the past tenses of regular verbs.

Corrections to articles[edit]

You may be able to find a newspaper produced by non-English speakers which has a report on the issue. If you can find one created by speakers who have the same native language as your students, then there is a good chance that they may make the same sort of mistakes as your students. Ask your students to identify and correct the errors in the article.

If they are unable to find the errors then spend some time explaining the nature of the problem.

Listening[edit]

(See our main article on creating your own listening activities for more comprehensive suggestions.)

If you are going to use a listening then it's usually best to do the listening after the reading as the students should have now been exposed to some appropriate vocabulary.

Selecting and obtaining a listening[edit]

Our article "podcasts" has links to a number of good news sites you can use as sources. However there are many ways to get podcasts from the internet - one of the easiest ways to get an on-topic listening is either to go to Google and search under videos or go to YouTube and search there. You can usually find a video which is only a few minutes long which you can use in class. You will need to obtain a utility from the web to download such videos.

In an ideal world you would have a class computer which you can use to show the video.

Such videos are usually in FLV format and, for various reasons, you might wish to transform them to AVI. There are a number of free utilities on the web you can use for this.

An alternative solution is to use either Breaking News English or Heads Up English and use the specially created teaching listenings which may be obtained gratis from those sites, along with associated exercises. However in this case it's really best to start with the listening and work back from there.

Using the listening[edit]

You may, or may not, want to pre-teach vocabulary. First time round, show the video to the class and just ask them to watch and listen.

The second time round, don't show them the video but ask them to do activities while listening. These could be:

  • Fill in the gaps.
  • Is this statement true or false?
  • Answer to a particular question.

Associated activities[edit]

You may wish to ask your students to carry out other activities to consolidate the vocabulary.

Idioms[edit]

Create a list of topic-based idioms, and create two false definitions and one true one. Ask the students to identify the correct meaning. The free dictionary is a good resource for obtaining idioms.

Role-play[edit]

Topical issues will usually have more than one side. Create role cards which exemplify any conflict and ask students to role-play a debate.

Songs[edit]

You can use a song in a number of ways:

  • To simply introduce the subject and start a conversation.
  • As a listening gap-fill exercise.
  • If you have a timid class you might try experimenting with leaving the song(s) playing while the students carry out pairwork. Sometimes shy students are afraid of being "overheard" or being laughed at, so providing some additional agreeable ambient sound might make them feel a little more relaxed. (Also see affective filter)

Quotations[edit]

Find some appropriate quotations and ask students:

  • What do they understand the quotation to mean?
  • Do they agree with the sentiment expressed?

A good site to use is The Quotations Page, but there are others on the web.

Writing activities[edit]

Having spent so much time on the topic, students will hopefully have some ideas about the issue - and have the vocabulary to express those ideas. Various writing tasks will suggest themselves to the teacher including:

  • A letter to a newspaper expressing an opinion.
  • A letter to one of the protagonists expressing an opinion.
  • An article presenting either a balanced view of the situation or a personal view of the situation.
  • An opinion-free report of the situation.

Before asking the students to write you may wish to give them guidance about things such as a possible paragraph breakdown; sentence structure; sentence length, etc.

See also[edit]

External Links[edit]

An interesting article on the same subject: James Andrew Farmer, How to Effectively Use News Articles in the EFL Classroom, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 12, December 2008.