Saturday, 1 March 2014

"Breaking News English" - a great resource for EFL teachers!

Earlier posts on this blog have focussed on the language learning affordances of ICT tools (often free) or modes of teaching utilizing ICT (e.g. e-learning, blended learning).

There's still much to be said about these things, of course, but today I'd like to take a different approach and examine the Internet in terms of its potential as a resource for language teachers and materials developers to share lesson ideas with each other as part of a supportive online community of practice.

This post will therefore examine a truly remarkable resource that is both a potential treasure trove for busy teachers in search of relatively authentic, yet graded material for reading/listening plus related activities for English language learners. And it's continuously being updated: the site in question is Sean Banville's "Breaking News English".

Relevance and Rationale
Many teachers will argue that learners need more than a textbook to engage them, or help them engage with the real world in English. There's certainly some truth to this. Textbooks have to serve a global market, meaning that content has to be selected extremely carefully in order to be globally acceptable. The cost to teachers and learners of publishers going out of their way to avoid giving offence to anyone may be content that is artificial, bordering on the anodyne at times, and insufficiently relevant to learners' lives.

Basing lessons on authentic sources (as this blogger has done many times) can be a much more exciting experience for learners, but can entail a lot of preparatory work upfront. Unfamiliar vocabulary - idioms especially - may need to be explained, and possibly the cultural background, too; texts may need to be shortened, which raises a number of issues; and in the meantime, lead-in and follow-on activities must also be worked out. The payoff for a class of learners may be significant if all of this done well, but the chances are that a teacher will only really be happy to "go the extra mile" in terms of materials development if the materials are going to be reused. Making such an effort may well be judged too much work for a single teacher delivering a single lesson to a single class.

There is therefore a need for graded "semi-authentic" materials that are ready for teachers to use, and Sean Banville fills this niche magnificently. His site features relevant and up-to-date lesson plans - a new one is published every two days, it seems - plus a library of earlier content that's still well worth exploring.  The text materials are graded well, it seems, according to seven ability levels. He also provides a number of excellent MP3 audio materials for listening practice (these can be listened to at five possible speeds, as well as graded for language). Whether text- or audio-based, a typical set of teaching materials features a wealth of possible activities, plus mini-lesson or homework suggestions from which teachers and learners can choose the most appropriate for their particular learning situation.

Propensity to foster language learning
There are many reasons to rate "Breaking News English" highly. They materials have clearly been put together by an experienced teacher/teacher trainer who understands an awful lot about how to grade input and make it comprehensible for learners. There are also several activities on offer within text-based lesson plans that really force learners to focus on form, and that's good if used in moderation.

Of course, being able to follow the latest "hot" news stories is certainly an attraction, but actually the existence of a substantial "library" of curated materials on the site is a huge benefit in terms of learner autonomy. Young and older adults can be asked to select materials for study that interest them, and if they take up the offer, that's a clear sign of their taking responsibility for their own learning.

"Breaking News English" is such a great resource, it seems a pity to criticize it. I feel I have only mild things to say!

Possibly, one might say that the ability "levels" featured on Breaking News English seem internally consistent, but don't appear to map directly to IELTS bands or the Common European Framework. Teachers (and self-directed learners) should, it seems, investigate texts themselves to gauge what level is right for them, but I don't myself think this should seriously inhibit uptake of the materials.

As for what type of learner would best be served by such materials, I think there's a clear case for using them with younger and older adults, but it might be hard to engage whole classes of teenagers this way. Their interests are just too likely to diverge.

One other possible limitation is that learners with more specialized interests would prefer to see more specialist content. Sean is doing a fantastic job with "general" news, but business news is perhaps a niche that needs more content. Maybe that's an area I should consider exploring…

Overall, though, I'd certainly rate "Breaking News English" highly. If you need graded, semi-authentic and up-to-date content for intelligent adult learners (and fast), look no further. It's a great resource.

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