Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Breaking down Breaking News English

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?

  • How do you feel about weather?
  • Do you believe in weather?
  • Do you like weather?
  • Is there weather where you live?
  • Do you often weather?

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!

Activity 7

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.

Activity 8

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.

Activity 12

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!

Activity 17

Write some questions about the text to ask your class.

How long til class is over?

But this is OK if you’ve not done any of the comprehension questions beforehand.

Activity 18

Odd placement of this. Now In pairs / groups, compare your answers to the gap fill. Check your answers.

Then a reappearance of the way Activity 2 used to be done: Talk about the words from the activity. Were they new, interesting, worth learning…?

I can no longer tell if this is a good or bad activity because I’m too bored. 11 more to go.

Activity 19 ⇔

Look up the vocab you don’t know and work out the meaning. Fine, if a bit late and not really an activity that needs mentioning. Are we nearly there yet Mummy?

Activity 20

Test each other on the words from the text and see if the other student can remember how they were used. OK, doubt students can do this most of the time but it would depend how many of the exercises you drilled them with in your lesson. In principle I don’t object and it might be fun even as they’re testing each other.

Activity 21 but ⇑⇑ if you do it my way

“Write five GOOD questions for a survey about”…..Luunncchh!!!!

Screw this, I’ve talked about lunch for half an hour now. I’m going to write bad questions about lunch. As soon as I can work out what a bad question might be.

  • Whose soup would you most like to poison in this class?
  • Who do you hope chokes on their egg and cress sandwich?
  • Have you ever put a bogey in someone else’s food and then watched them eat it?

Woah, this is FUN!

Activity 22

Discussion questions for Student A/Student B. Good wide ranging questions that get every last detail about the article discussed. I think this is the most valuable part of the lesson. Could be more targeted to use useful vocab/constructions.

Activity 23

Level up of 22. Students write their own discussion questions. I doubt they’d come up with better than those in 22.

Activity 24

Language cloze. Great for exam class prep. However not all the gaps are grammatical words so can’t be approached like the Cambridge exam task it would look like if it didn’t have multiple choice options provided. A pity. If Algie was more rigorous, he could have been very usefully applied here. The options for the answers are mostly nonsensical so too easy for exam students.

Activity 25

Jumbled up letters e.g. take a 0/p/p/e/r/r lunch break.

M-u-u-u-UM! Are we nearly there yet are we nearly there yet ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET ARE WE NEARLY-

Activity 26

Text broken up into one or two line chunks to be reordered. Yeah, go on then. Too bored to find fault. It’s probably OK.


Activity 27

Sentence with all the words out of order. Except not all of them are whole sentences but parts of sentences so I couldn’t make sense of them without the clues of Subj+verb+object.

But you know, no-one died here, right? And we’re nearly at the end so I’ll say it’s OK.

Activity 28

Choose the correct word. Ah, who cares? Some of it must be useful for exam students. Let’s get to 29!

Activity 29

It’s the best activity in the whole wide world. I LOVE it.

I’ve not read it yet but it’s the last one and I’m so happy I can’t stop the positivity….

Oh SH*T.

I’m gutted.

Not just because this activity is the entire text with all the vowels taken out and it’s giving me a migraine just looking at it, but because the page keeps scrolling down and there are more activities.

Sean! You told me there were 29?!?! I told the kids! They’re going mental already. I can’t do it. No more….no more…

Now I can’t even see where I got the impression there were 29 activities. I must be going mad. There are in fact… peeking through closed fingers… 5 more exercises! Text with no punctuation, text with all the  spaces removed. As if the migraine I got in 29 weren’t enough, I am slipping my arms into the straitjacket. JUST MAKE IT STOP.

I can’t do it. I won’t do it. Two writing tasks, one is a free write about….dear God….lunch breaks … the other is an academic text about whether lunch or breakfast is more important. I think I remember that question from my Philosophy degree. No wait, that must have been my friend studying Neuroscience on the effect of torture on learning.

Then there’s homework.  I’m not even free from this at home?! I have one of six possibilities and one of them is research on the internet about  f*cking lunch breaks. Algie, I’ll never ever take a lunch break again if you promise not to make me do this. I’ll study all day and night. Please! Don’t make me make a poster about lunch breaks. They don’t let us play with paint in the asylum. They’re scared we’ll eat it…for lunch. Oh please, please, have mercy Sean, please…


If you made it this far, well done because I nearly didn’t. Breaking News English is for teachers that hate themselves. You might use it once but you’d take so long sorting through which activities to use, you might as well just make your own materials. You couldn’t repeat it more than once a week at the absolute most because students would see how repetitive it was. There is a two page mini lesson which perhaps is the best of the lot but I really can’t face looking today. I’ll update this when they let me out of the care facility.

verdictOn the positive, Breaking News English  comes up at the top of searches for free lesson plans etc and it’s topical and up to date, which is  a rare enough plus. It touches topics EFL often shies away from like homophobia in sport. Maybe it was better once and  lessons made from it were not always templated. It makes the site owner a fortune I expect even though it’s of worse quality than most course books. You could get a reasonable lesson out of the good stuff, but, honestly, you can write something better just using the adapted text which one of the commenters below has rightly highlighted the benefit of.

I’ve just realised that another collocation of “break” is breaking news. And another is break down.

Enough. It’s enough now. Calm, rest…it’s over.

**NB It is presumably not intended that any class does all these activities. They’re to give the teacher variety so they can use Breaking News on subsequent lessons and not have the exact same content every time. A mercy. One of the few. It doesn’t say this anywhere however, so I can imagine many people will just print off the lot and then attempt to do them all.

*** Slightly edited this post because, well it was making me laugh too much and I possibly got a bit carried away with the Breaking Wind piss take. I am humbled and, ya know, this is serious sh*t… oh dear, I can’t help myself.

For a review of other free lessons sites go here.


12 comments on “Breaking down Breaking News English

  1. Diane Nicholls
    June 16, 2014

    Ha ha! I feel your pain! A great exasperation post.

    Just to be clear, I didn’t ‘recommend’ anything. I hadn’t looked at the site. I simply thought that, because you hadn’t mentioned the plethora of stuff already out there on Star Wars in ELT, including TEFLGEEK’s excellent post, and said there was a ‘shocking paucity’ of stuff on Star Wars in ELT, you hadn’t seen that there’s loads and loads. I wasn’t talking about quality.

    I see from your reply that you think paucity has a qualitative connotation as well as a quantitative one. It doesn’t. It means ‘fewness’.

    A misunderstanding.

  2. englishinlife
    June 16, 2014

    I have been using Breaking News English for a long time and I can’t say that it’s that bad. I think it’s really helpful for students to be able to find same news stories in different levels. OK, I have to admit that I hardly ever use those activities suggested by Breaking News. Actually, I used some stories to create my own materials. I have created some e-learning materials by using them. I sent those to my students, and feedback was really positive. They say reading and understanding news is easier and funnier by this way. Just because of this, I really appreciate Sean Banville, the creator of those lessons. If you want to have a look, one of my courses is here;

    • Nicola
      June 16, 2014

      It’s true that I didn’t acknowledge the biggest strength of the site – adapted level news items. It’s the activities themselves I object to (most of them) and I think any teacher worth their salt would make their own to use with the text, just as you have done. Calling him a hero though, WAY over the top of you ask me!

  3. Nicola
    June 16, 2014

    OMG, you’re so right. I thought it was synonym for poverty. I am shamed! Changing it now!

  4. Diane Nicholls
    June 16, 2014

    This is the sort of thing that fascinates me – do you think you thought it meant ‘poverty’ because ‘pau’ sounds like ‘poor’? If so, you’re probably not the only one and one day a qualitative sense might become understood and accepted, rather along the same lines as ‘enormity’ gained another meaning (almost certainly) because it has a ring of ‘enormous’ about it
    Stuff like this presses my nerd button 🙂

    • Nicola
      June 16, 2014

      I guess it sounds a lot like poverty. But it means I’ve come across it time and again and not realised the pattern in that it’s always being used about quantity. OR lots of uses I’ve seen have been incorrect and led me that way. Impossible for me to say. @ebefl has just written a post about this talking about the word “humble” as a verb. Check him out for more nerdiness!
      I did know enormity meant seriousness but then the phrase “enormity of the task” sounds right to me although I’d never use it to describe a physical object … I both want there to be right and wrong and to carry on using enormity in that phrase! What to do?!

  5. eflfocus
    June 16, 2014

    So funny.

  6. Diane Nicholls
    June 16, 2014

    My advice – do whatever the hell you like! :-). Both senses of ‘enormity’ are now perfectly acceptable and, more importantly, perfectly understood by all but the obdurate. I don’t think anyone hearing you say ‘the enormity of the task I’m about to undertake’ will think you’re considering committing war crimes, for example. 😉

    I’m glad we’ve cleared up our misunderstanding re ‘paucity’.

    • Nicola
      June 16, 2014

      Not as glad as me that you’ve saved me from this misuse! Or that I’m saved from thinking you looked at the Lessons On Movies site and thought it was good!

  7. Pingback: Breaking down: Part II | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

  8. Alan
    September 29, 2014

    Excellent and very funny, thank you.
    I’ve never used these lesson plans – I don’t have the stamina (like you) to wade through all that stuff – but I have used the audio and transcripts as part of my own lessons. And to that end, I created mobile site for students to be able to listen to the latest audio and read the transcripts on their phones. If anyone thinks it’s useful they are welcome to use it (for free). It’s here:

    • Nicola
      September 29, 2014

      That sounds like you’ve taken the strongest part of the site and made it more accessible. Good idea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


This entry was posted on June 16, 2014 by in ELT, Teaching English and tagged , , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: