How to Teach ESL with Newspapers

By Dave Kees

It is not easy to find authentic newspaper materials that are at an accessible level for students and interesting as well. Krashen always recommended reading materials that were L+1 or at a level just slightly above the student's level which causes the student to have to "reach" a little.

I have scoured the Internet for years for such things. Something I like is from a column called "The Boss" in the NY Times. They have a simple life story of a top boss. Typically the story touches on things about the person's childhood, school, influence of parents, first jobs and the lessons of life.

They are also success stories and lots of students have some hopes to be successful in life and find these stories interesting. At the bottom is an example of one of "The Boss" stories that you can find in the NY Times.


There are a couple approaches involved in reading. I don't recommend "pre-teaching" the vocabulary from the text as many course books do, notably "New Concepts" (which is actually a very old concept course book being written in the 1960s and only receiving superficial modifications just recently.)

Although pre-teaching sounds like a practical idea it is very boring for the students. Good teaching allows an element of mystery and curiosity and the thirst for knowledge. Good teaching provides the salt first and then the water. The good teacher gets the student to search his memory, his personal resources in his recollection, and draw on what the student already knows to apply to the problem. Good teaching also gets him to personally recognize what he doesn't know which causes him to be curious and want to learn it.

So typically, before letting the students look at the material, get them to talk about what they know about some of the points in the story.

Pre-teaching sort of digests the text for the student leaving little mental exercise beyond simply trying to remember what he was told a couple minutes ago.

Encourage the students to guess the meaning of what they don't understand. You'll find, in a text as below, that there are a few words the student may not know and may not really need to retain.


I think it was H.D. Brown who talked about the Active Vocabulary, Latent Vocabulary and the Unknown. Some vocabulary the students encounter is destined for their Latent Vocabulary, words that will be important for them to be able to read or recognize when they hear them but are not necessary for them to be able to produce them on the spot like their Active Vocabulary. Some words they may only see once or twice in their lifetime and could well do without ever learning them. So equal stress should not be made on all words that students will encounter. Some words should be pointed out more than others because they will be more useful for students.

I've always said that language learning is like packing a suitcase. You've got to choose what you will likely need and leave the rest behind. Our students don't have an unlimited capacity to retain everything and that's one place where the teacher is most needed. Decisions about what to teach are as important as decisions about what NOT to teach.

It is not a sin to finish a reading exercise with the student not understanding 100% of the words. The teacher has to remember that sometimes English is a buffet. The student does not need to eat everything but he should eat enough to grow.

In the sample text below the intermediate student might need to acquire vocabulary like: headhunter, recruiter, certified, pulled me out of school, over the course of my career, I was No. 2 for eight years, early on.

However, this following vocabulary may not be as important to retain in the student's Active Vocabulary: Amgen (company name), squadron commander, adventurer, overstate, hammered people, flight physical, class of ship, at the top of his lungs.

Still, the student could be encouraged to guess some of these and should be encouraged to find that he can figure some of these out without a dictionary. He may be able to figure out: adventurer, overstate, hammered people, class of ship.

Some words the student can easily forget without serious damage to their English competency like: Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (name).


Of course it is an ideal time to do some speaking after all the time invested in reading the text. There is a lot of vocabulary covered in what they just read and some speaking can help to consolidate it and allow the student to test his understanding and usage of it.

If my goal was solely speaking and I wanted to use a text I'd use a very short one. "The Boss" is too long for that purpose. But if we used a long text for something else then let's roll into a speaking exercise. Here are a couple ideas that could be done in pairs or small groups:

* Students could be asked to talk as if they were the characters. In "Say It" fashion, they could do a short monologue explaining themselves and what happened and why they felt the way they felt and adding in made-up details and parts of the story.

* They could try to isolate various aspects of the story such as the lessons of life and people of influence and discuss those. Then they could follow up with their own personal lessons of life and people of influence.

Use interesting news articles for God's sake (& tips on vocabulary)

Shoppers 'set their own prices'

A supermarket reportedly let customers pay what they liked for their shopping after a thunderstorm knocked out the cash tills. The Mirror says the Asda store at Monks Cross in North Yorkshire was soon packed as word about the give-away spread. Bosses reportedly let people guess their shopping bill rather than make them wait for power to return. Manager Colin Storey said: "It was worth it to keep our customers happy."

The question is not IF vocabulary should be taught but HOW. Those of us who adhere to more communicative approaches believe it should be presented in an authentic way that interests and engages the student. We believe that once the interest is aroused it will allow vocabulary to be retained much better.

After reading the above story the students will be very interested in understanding: thunderstorm, knocked out, cash tills, packed, give-away, worth it.

Imagine one teacher asking this: "Students, remember the ten words we learned on Monday?" or "Students, remember the story about the supermarket that let customers pay what they want?" In which case will the students best be able to retrieve the words and use them in a proper context?

The story above came from the Ananova news website. They have a special section called Quirkies and it's full of curious news items under the categories: Eccentrics, Quirky gaffes, Strange crime, Sex life, Animal tales, Sporting quirkies, Showbiz quirkies, Business quirkies, Heartwarmers, Rocky relationships, Bad taste and Unlucky.

Of course, the teacher should create some opportunity for the students to use the words they learned. Perhaps they could talk about what they would do if they were a manager or customer in that situation or if they were a business consultant examining it.

People have a natural curiosity and motivation to learn things. As Andrew Littlejohn, author of Primary Colours and Cambridge English for Schools, said when he visited us in China, "It is not the teacher's job to motivate the students - it's the teachers job to not de-motivate them."

- Dave Kees is an ESL Instructor in China. Visit his website at: