Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
I’ve managed to pretend not to notice the lingering taste produced by Breaking News English ever since I came across it. It’s been an effort and the strain has finally got too much. I almost critiqued it at seeing it on the Eltons shortlist but I had deadlines to concentrate on instead. Then a commenter on my Han Solo post recommended its sister site, LessonsOnMovies and it reminded me why I needed to write about it.
I’ve wavered over Breaking News English thinking maybe, maybe, maybe its templated lessons are not as bad as they look. For example, template activity 1 is always “Students walk around the class and talk to other students about XXXXX. Change partners often and share your findings.”
Just because I’d seen lessons where the XXXXX was replaced by “forks” and “bottled water”, perhaps I’d been hasty to immediately dismiss Breaking News English as another mediocre free ESL lesson, cluttering up the top of my Google search results.
Having a quick look today one of the most recent stories is about Kim Jong-un being unhappy with the weather forecasting in North Korea. I wondered if the XXXXX for the day would be “North Korea”, “dictators” or “weather”. I was unsurprised to find the most EFL bland option had been chosen. What the hell are students going to say about weather to multiple partners?
And then share their findings?!
Jason says there’s lots of weather where he comes from but there wasn’t much when he was growing up. Ilya doesn’t believe in weather but he allows that everyone has the right to believe what they want and he doesn’t judge. Chia weathers at weekends and in the mornings if she has time before work.
But maybe I’ve been being harsh. There are 29** lessons for one news topic alone. Some of them must be good. For the purposes of this investigation I’ve chosen an article I could see being used well in a class as it’s about the danger to health of not taking lunch breaks at work, something most employed people can relate to.
Activity 1 ⇓
You guessed it. Talk about lunch.
Activity 2 ⇔
Key words from the article are picked out and slotted into “Talk about these topics or words from the article. What will the article say about them? What can you say about these words and your life?”
This is much better than how this activity used to be presented which was “Decide which of these topics or words from the article are most interesting and which are most boring.” I could imagine students having a go at predicting the article more easily than they could apply all the words to their life. Of the 13 words, only 2 of them would be hard to say anything about. Not bad for an algorithm/5 second human skim off from the text.
Activity 3 ⇑
Students complete a table which makes them weigh up good and bad points of something related to the article. This tabling activity is usually handled with attention to the actual content of the article. I can’t fault it.
Activity 4 ⇑
Student A/ Student B debate. They’re given opposing views as suggested by the article. Again, the algorithm takes a break.
Activity 5 ⇑
A ranking activity. Things to do in your lunchbreak. Not bad.
Activity 6 ⇓
Uh oh. The human content creator went on their lunchbreak and Algie is back. Having decided that class has focussed too much on lunch, we’ve got one of the other words from Activity 2 (one of the 2 I didn’t think anyone could say anything about): “regular”. One minute writing down all the words associated with “regular” and then putting them in categories. I suppose this is getting at collocation…regular exercise, regular bowel movements, regular check up…I’m struggling but, yes, it seems regular can go in front of any activity you do often! What a linguistic insight!
Thoroughly warmed up, we move onto the pre reading or listening (the site offers three levels of listening as an alternative to using the text as reading every time).
Predict true or false statements from the headline. I guess this is OK. It focusses students on understanding the content of the text more than preparing them for vocab or constructions they might struggle with, but it’s good enough. I spot a pretty bad mistake not caught at proofreading though: The woman said companies should be responsibility for staff health.
Synonym match with words from the article. Not bad again, although I’m sceptical that “test” is a true synonym for “challenge” in this sentence: Finding ways to build in time to do at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, five times a week, can be a challenge.
Activity 9 ⇓
Phrase match. This would be good if the phrases were always ones that were worth drawing attention to. They often have too many possible answers which further dilutes their usefulness as phrases. E.g. They need time -> at their desk/for their own health/off work.
Also phrases are not necessarily given in their full lexical chunk e.g. “It is in everybody’s interests to find ways [to]” so reducing their usefulness again. Algie needs help on this one or the templater needs to concentrate. She/he’s probably getting bored by now. I know I am…twenty to go…
Activity 10 ⇓
Oh gap fills, good-o. Borrredddd…Snap to it, Nicola!! Blog duty is not done. I really hope the content creating monkey doing these lessons is being paid well to make up for the self loathing that has to come from turning out this stuff every day.
The entire text with some words taken out.
Beloved of the lazy teacher, of zero interest to students. I suppose people would complain if it wasn’t an activity option, but encouraging terrible lessons everywhere. It must take more time to print off a class-worth of these than for students to complete.
Activity 11 ⇓
Listening. Choose the correct word using similar sounding words. I think this might just confuse students as some of the options are not genuine words but, now they’ve seen them written down, they might think they are since other questions use options that all exist. E.g. unhealthily/healthy/non-healthy/unhealthy vs surfed/surfaced/staffed/saved.
I’m not convinced this activity really teaches anything as it can be done without listening anyway just by knowing the language. But it does fill time and look like an activity and you could get away with it every once in a while.
The gap fill from Activity 10 but without the words for the gaps to choose from. Students listen for strings of words to complete the text. The gaps look confusing because it’s not clear that the answers are not just one word and there are no instructions.
E.g. Half of the people took a break but ate their lunch at (5) ___________________ the Internet, answered e-mails or went on Facebook. Answer: ___their desk and surfed___ Although note taking at a lecture tests this type of listening skill, you’d never write all that bit down, so testing key points would be better.
Activity 13 ⇑
Comprehension questions. Unexciting, but fine.
Activity 14 ⇑
The same questions but with multiple choice options. Good as it is an easier option for weaker classes.
Activity 15 ⇓
Role play. This isn’t actually a role play, it’s just a debate. This one has 4 people debating the relative merits of 4 activities to do in a lunchbreak and students are told which viewpoint they will agree/disagree with. Great for teachers that hate role plays! Otherwise just Activity 3 and 5 rehashed.
Better would be an actual role play e.g.a boss that’s concerned about his employee and an employee worried he’s not able to get all his work done and an employee who uses his lunchbreak well or something like that. I hate role plays though, so I might be tempted to palm my students off with this crappy debate instead.
Activity 16 ⇓
Algie wants us to look in our dictionaries for collocates for “lunch” and “break”. OK!! Let’s!
Lunch time, lunch break, er….lunch break…er lunch….have lunch, make lunch, eat lunch….I am on a roll…lunch roll?
Let’s try “break”…break time, break a leg, take a break, have a break, make a break for it, break….oh, sod it LUNCH break!
Now share your findings. Really? Do we have to? I can just see the sea of miserable faces, slumped shoulders and dragging feet. Then make questions with your collocations!! YAY!! We can talk about lunch again!