Discussing Current Events in the ESL Classroom

In Language Lab last week, we turned our Advanced class loose in Google News. We told them to read any article they wanted in any category — world, US, technology, sports, science, anything. The topics they chose varied widely, from the US presidential election (an Eritrean student) to the economic crisis in Spain (a Spanish student) to a scientific study about male and female DNA (a Colombian student).

ESL students are as interested in what’s happening in the world as anyone else. Many keep a close eye on developments in their home country while also paying some level of attention to the international, US, and local news.

Talking about the news can liven up the ESL classroom. Current events are “real” and “now.” Conversations about the news have an immediacy and relevance that textbook dialogues can’t match. News stories are rich in vocabulary. And when students practice English by discussing current events, they prepare to be more active participants in US society.

However, reading full-length newspaper articles can be quite challenging, even for advanced students. For lower-level classes, reading an English-language daily newspaper is not yet feasible, so one needs to find other ways to bring current events into the classroom. Here are a few ideas, ranging from simpler to more advanced.

Using news photographs as conversation prompts 

For advanced beginner and low intermediate students, news photos are great conversation starters. You can clip pictures from the newspaper or print them out from news websites. The best photos are ones that tell a story. For example, this photo was taken after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011:

When we showed a 3B class this photo, the discussion really flew. The students speculated on what had happened to the family, where they were going, how they felt. As we looked at more photos of the disaster, the discussion broadened to what causes an earthquake and tsunami, the damage they do, how survivors react to disasters, and how rescuers can help. The conversation generated lots of new vocabulary, such as earthquake, tsunami, flood, rubble, evacuation, rescue, shelter, and so on. Students talked about earthquakes or other disasters that had happened in their own countries.

If your class has access to the Internet, online news photos or videos can supplement, or substitute for, pictures clipped from the newspaper. We started off the above activity by viewing a YouTube video of the Japanese tsunami in Language Lab, then moved to the classroom to discuss the photos.

Reading news articles in plain English

Several websites offer news articles rewritten for English learners. Breaking News English has simple two-paragraph summaries of current stories, updated with a fresh article every three or four days. Each mini-article is accompanied by printable exercises focusing on vocabulary and comprehension, enough to keep a class busy for an hour or more. The selection of articles mixes serious news (“German Help for Greece Waning”) with fluff (“British Singer Adele Is Pregnant”), so choose what you think your class will want to read.

The Times in Plain English isn’t affiliated with the New York Times, but it draws material from the Times as well as from the Washington Post and other major papers. The articles are rewritten at a basic reading level and organized into categories such as Money & Work, Health & Education, and so on. Stories about immigrant concerns and immigration policy get extensive coverage. The site doesn’t provide exercises, so you have to make up your own or use the articles as discussion starters.

Debating events in the news

Intermediate to advanced students like to debate. Last summer, when New York City banned super-size soft drinks, students bantered about the pros and cons of that policy. Controversial issues in the news lend themselves to debate, but you may want to steer clear of topics that could evoke raw feelings or expose divisions in the class.

Our Advanced class had a sober discussion on gun control last July after the mass shooting in the Colorado movie theater. We began by asking students what they had heard about the incident, and their initial reactions. We then divided the class into teams of three students and asked them to read two short paragraphs, one in favor of gun control and the other against. (Not everyone understood the term “gun control,” so that had to be explained.) Each group then discussed whether they agreed or disagreed with the statements and wrote a short paragraph saying why. We also provided some fact sheets from organizations on both sides of the issue as background. Finally, the class came back together to hear each group’s paragraph and discuss the different views. We could have structured it like a competitive debate, with opposing arguments and point-by-point rebuttals. But we assumed no one would want to argue in favor of “gun rights” (a correct assumption), and we were reluctant to force anyone to take that position, especially in the wake of the massacre.

Reading news articles for vocabulary development

Students in Advanced classes are ready to read the newspaper. We used our Language Lab session for this. Each student went to Google News (or another news site if they preferred), chose an article that interested them, and read it. We showed them how to keep Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary open in a separate tab so they could toggle between the article and the dictionary. Each student filled out a worksheet with the title of the article, the most important ideas, and five new words or expressions, with their definitions. We suggested they read the article through once to get the main ideas, then go back and look up specific words and phrases.

After break, the students brought their worksheets back to the classroom with them. We pulled the chairs into two circles, with one teacher facilitating each group. Each student told their group about the article they had read, summarizing the main points. They did a good job reporting, with the help of their worksheets. The fact that students had chosen their articles meant that they were really interested in the topics and they projected this enthusiasm when they presented to the group.

We then went around a second time, and each student presented one new word or expression in their article, with its meaning. Each group had a small lap-size whiteboard and a dry erase marker, which the students used to write their words and show them. We had words like factoid, cohesive, struggle, bid, and sharp drop. They were all eager to discuss the new vocabulary, and we only stopped because it was 9:00 and time to go home.

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2 Responses to Discussing Current Events in the ESL Classroom

  1. Larry Rausch says:

    Thanks for identifying these news sites and the teaching tips. I can use them in the Writing Class for Advanced Students.

  2. Marcia Rucker says:

    Thanks so much for the good tips and sites.
    I wonder if other teachers ever use news photos in lower-level classes, too. Our team has tried captioned photos for occasional warm-ups with just a “Who” and/or a “Where” question. Any other ideas for use at the Basic or 1 levels?

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