I remember shortly after the Brexit referendum, finding myself in a Chinese class trying to explain to my Mandarin teacher, why the British public were so polarised in their decision on whether to leave the EU. I struggled to express my opinion and needed to ask my teacher for topic specific vocabulary, such as ‘referendum’ and ‘European Union’, but I was motivated because I really wanted to express my opinion on this important matter. When students feel passionate or motivated to talk about a topic, they will be more engaged in the lesson material and the class will be more memorable. Incorporating current affairs doesn’t just have to involve reading dry and difficult news articles or holding a controversial political debate, as there is a wealth of material that can spark the interest of your students or be used as the context for the introduction of a language point. Students may be interested in finding out about the culture of another country (for example reading an article about the royal wedding in the U.K) or reading about developments or current trends in their own country in English. This can be particularly useful for students, as it provides them with the means for expressing themselves on issues related to their own country when they go out and use English in the ‘real-world’.
So what things do we need to consider when introducing Current Affairs into the classroom? Some teachers feel afraid to talk about current events in the classroom, as they feel that some topics may be offensive or divisive. This is a valid concern, but when issues are dealt with in a sensitive manner, then they can provide an engaging context for the acquisition of language. Some successful classes I have taught in the past include a reading class on rising divorce rates in China with a group of Chinese learners or a climate conference simulation in a multi-lingual class with the students representing their respective countries. Students will feel more passionate if they can link their learning to real life events.
So how can we incorporate current affairs into the classroom for students of varying abilities?
• Newspapers and print materials
If you have access to English newspapers and current affairs magazines, then these can be utilized in the classroom in a multitude of ways. Sanderson’s (1999) book ‘Using newspapers in the Classroom’ has a plethora of ideas including using photographs of famous people for a writing class, using headlines for story-telling or practicing reading skills by summarizing and unpacking news articles. Inspiring images from National Geographic or The Economist could be used for practicing different grammar points, such as tenses or learning lexical sets related to a specific topic, for example natural disasters or technology.
• Smart phones
Smart phones are an easy way to instantly access what is going on around the world. News apps, videos and podcasts can be sourced quickly using phones in the classroom, although students will need guidance in terms of selecting suitable material that is appropriate for their level. For more advanced students, you can incorporate Ted Talks into your class for listening practice or speaking classes. Smart phones could also be used as a means for the students to create their own news reports using the video and voice record functions on their mobile devices. They can role play being a foreign correspondent for their country or a reporter in their city. I once took my overseas students to a court in the U.K and afterwards they filmed each other giving reports.
There are many websites with great ideas for incorporating current affairs in classes. Check out The NY Times Learning Network too for some creative ideas for using current events in your classes including writing prompts based on cartoon or photos in the news and a special section for teaching English language learners. These resources can be used with university aged students, as well as teenagers depending on the level. The website, breakingnewsenglish.com also has graded articles for students from Elementary to Advanced.
Using pictures of current events from around the world can be used to spark discussion, prompts for writing tasks, or as context-setting or prediction activities to precede a reading or listening task. Ask students to create their own memes using funny pictures from the news, use a powerful image to inspire students to write a reflection piece or come up with questions related to the image, such as ‘What would you do if…?’.
Trainee teachers often shy away from dealing with meaty topics, because they foresee problems with language comprehension or that talking about the news could be perceived as dull. For Elementary/lower-intermediate learners (A2-B1) you could consider using pictures of current figures in the news (Trump, Lionel Messi, Lady Gaga, Mark Zuckerburg or localize it with famous people from your teaching context) for practicing past tense verbs (writing short biographies) or a vocabulary class for describing personality.
Using thought-provoking articles, quotes, soundbites, music and photographs can provide a meaningful way to promote authentic conversation in the classroom. It can also aid in the integration of twenty first century skills in English lessons by promoting critical thinking (analyzing the subtext of an article or inherent bias in newspaper headings) research skills (researching a trending news topic) and problem solving skills (discussing solutions to current global issues e.g. immigration/environmental problems.
Just remember to consider PARSNIPS (Politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms and pork) when choosing an appropriate topic and use some common sense when discussing taboo issues. A lesson on the family planning policy should be fine in China, whereas a class on the Catalan independence movement in a class full of Spanish students from different regions, could lead to an overly heated debate. One other factor would also be to tailor the topic to the interests of your students. A group of teen learners may be more interested in an article on the effects of social media use among young people, whereas a class of predominantly female adult learners may find an article related to the #MeToo movement to be more inspiring.
So, don’t be afraid to incorporate current affairs in the TESOL classroom. The key is to adapt the materials you implement for interest, local context, level of your students and their specific language needs. Find the right topic and your students will be as motivated as I was when trying to explain the intricacies of the British political system in broken Mandarin.
Sanderson (1999) Using Newspapers in the Classroom: Cambridge University Press
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Clare Voke is a teacher trainer and Cert TESOL tutor at EfA, with more than 10 years’ experience in various teaching and training roles in the U.K, mainland China and Hong Kong. She began her training career as a Regional Trainer for EF in the South of China. Since completing her Post-Graduate Trinity Diploma in TESOL, she has worked as a course director for Cert TESOL courses and is also a Trinity approved internal assessor for the Dip TESOL. She has an MA in International Social Transformation and has run courses on inter-cultural communication, as wells as presenting on similar topics at several academic teachers’ forums. Having lived in China for a number of years, she is particularly interested in Chinese learners of English and is a keen student of Mandarin Chinese.