Using News Broadcasts to Improve Listening Skills


Do you use news broadcasts with your learners? This article draws on materials originally used on our Delta Module One course and looks at two issues:   What are the advantages and limitations of using news broadcasts, and how can you use them to improve learners' listening skills?

a) What are the advantages and limitations of using this type of text?

1. Advantage: Learner engagement. Most learners (other than younger learners) want to be able to understand news broadcasts, and will therefore see their use as contributing to their needs.  Use of current broadcasts can provide Ls with up-to-date information on international topics/events that interest them, and sometimes on events related to their own country (eg a BBC World Service broadcast on the wildfires in Greece in 2022). Both the content and, in the latter case, the international perspective on a national event are likely to be involving. This engagement means the language used to describe the event is liable to be processed at sufficient cognitive depth to aid retention. 

2. Limitation : Much of the most important local news will not be covered by the international broadcasters as it is only of local interest. 

3. Advantage:  Catering for special needs. Televised broadcasts are usually based around a studio anchor who speaks facing the camera and often, interviews with protagonists, who again face the camera. This is useful with deaf learners who lip-read and cannot therefore follow purely audio recordings. Sometimes the interviewer will not be on camera, but the questions are usually short and can be given to the deaf learner in written form.

4. Limitation: Other televised broadcasts involve camera shots of scenes, eg forest fires, with voice-over commentary. These, and radio broadcasts, are clearly not suitable for classes containing lip-reading deaf learners.

5. Advantage: Educational value. News broadcasts often focus on topics of general importance – eg immigration, or natural disasters caused by climate change. In classes of teenage learners, it can be argued that the course should not be “just” a language course but should have broader educational aims, raising their awareness of such issues, and developing skills such as listening to and respecting the opinions of others; formulating and expressing their own opinions based on rational argument etc. News broadcasts can serve as a stimulus for discussion of these topics, possibly in the forms of debates, and of written work on presenting and defending arguments.

6. Limitation: However, as these topics often fall into the PARSNIPS categories, which are generally considered unsuitable for classroom use, they may not be suitable for other classes where older learners may often have fixed and conflicting opinions. Focus on the topics could therefore create hostility and a negative classroom dynamic and might be best avoided.

7. Advantage: Lexical development. As the news items tend to be topic based they will bring up a large amount of vocabulary related to the field. Eg a broadcast I used one summer on wildfires In Greece included the items and chunks to fight a fire / to put out a fire / to evacuate / a blaze / arson and others. These items can be introduced when listening to the first broadcast, but recycled by using updates on the situation, or items regarding similar situations elsewhere, in later lessons.

8. Advantage: Suitability for various levels. Although authentic broadcasts may seem mainly suitable for higher levels, comprehension will be aided by a) the visual element in TV broadcasts; b) the Ls’ prior knowledge of the event being reported;  and c) the fact that some such as those on the BBC website, have subtitles of the commentary and also  allow you to control the playback speed. Some items may therefore, with careful scaffolding such as prior reactivation and pre-teaching of key vocabulary, be used at lower levels.

In addition, websites such as News in Levels provide the same (up-to-date) news items graded to elementary, intermediate and advanced level.  

9. Advantage: Length. It is not necessary for the learners to work on the whole broadcast. The individual news items they contain tend to be quite short (around 2 minutes) and can therefore be fully exploited to reach what Thornbury has called “Zero uncertainty” – ie the point where the Ls understand the whole text fully, so that they are not left feeling frustrated because they know that, even if they gained gist comprehension and comprehension of some details, there were large chunks of text which they did not understand. 

b) How might you use them to improve your learners' listening skills?

News broadcasts can be used for developing a number of listening strategies and subskills. Whilst many of these can also be developed using other types of texts, news broadcasts are particularly suitable in several cases. For example:

10. Strategy: Listening for gist - ie getting a general overview of what has happened. This is the way that we would normally listen to a news broadcast unless it contained an item which particularly interested us. As with all texts, it will be aided by previous knowledge of the topic (our content schema) and, as with all texts these schemata can be activated by asking Ls to discuss what they already know about the topic and/or predict what might have happened since the last broadcast they heard..  However, televised news broadcasts can also be useful for activating schemata when learners don’t have this previous knowledge.  Where the item is portrayed visually – ie filmclips of what has happened rather than just “talking heads” – they can watch the item without sound, and use the visuals to decide what has happened. This activates schemata in the same way as drawing on previous knowledge. They can then listen to decide if they were correct. 

12. Subskills: Inferring unknown words from context / Understanding genre specific lexis : The procedures in (10) will also reveal any lexical “gaps” they have – ie lack of knowledge of items which are closely related to the topic and frequently occur in news broadcasts, but which are rarer in other “every day” contexts. As an example, when I used the Greek wildfires broadcast, during the lead-in a learner said “Many people have left their houses”. After the gist comprehension stage, I boarded this this and other similar paraphrases, and asked the learners to listen for the words used in the broadcast (“..have been evacuated”). This showed them that. although they may not have known the expression previously, they were able to understand the meaning, and also expanded their knowledge of lexis common in this genre so that they are more likely to understand similar items in the future..

13. Subskill: Understanding intonational clues to meaning:  News broadcasts are particularly useful for developing the ability to recognise the use of a rise in pitch to indicate a new item. They frequently start with a summarising list  of all the items to be included in the broadcast. As the announcer changes to each subsequent item, the pitch of their speech will rise. For many learners this will not happen in their own language, they may miss the “clue” and it is therefore useful to draw their attention to it. As an English speaker listening to Italian news broadcasts (where it does not happen) I have frequently been misled into thinking a piece of information related to a previous one when, in fact, the announcer had changed topic. For example…

“Wild fires continue to rage in the area around Athens and 300 people have been evacuated from their homes. Two firefighters have died….”

Compared with…

Wild fires continue to rage in the area around Athens and 300 people have been evacuated from their homes.

Two firefighters have died after a crash on the M1 involving an oil tanker and…”

The first version, with no pitch change, indicates that the firefighters died in the wildfires. The rise in pitch Before Two.. in the second shows that the speaker is no longer talking about the wildfires but has moved to a new topic. With my Italian learners, I therefore use news broadcasts to bring their attention to this feature

14. Subskill: Understanding opinions: When the topic is of eg a political nature, the interviews may involve speakers giving opinions. Learners can listen to eg interviews with two different politicians to identify what their opinions are, how they conflict etc. This can be done by asking in the Gist stage “Do the speakers agree with each other or not?”, in the Detailed Listening stage eliciting what the opinions are; and in the Listening for Language stage using a gapped transcript to elicit the actual words used.

15. Subskills: Understanding speaker accent, features of connected speech or other features of spontaneous spoken English : News broadcasts often include interviews with protagonists of, or witnesses to an event etc. These people may come from a range of backgrounds, and their speech will contain features not found, or less evident, in the prepared speech and standard pronunciation of the news anchor, voice-overs of films etc. Again, transcript work (or listening first without and then with subtitles) can be used to focus on these features.