IATEFL 2012: Out of the media and into the classroom

Went to Heather Buchanan’s talk this morning on exploiting TV/radio broadcasts for use in the classroom.

Apart from having someone behind me breathing heavily throughout the entire talk and the room being stiflingly hot and stuffy, it was enjoyable enough.  Quite a lot of background info that was already familiar to anyone who’s used video/audio clips in class before, but a few practical ideas to take away, which I always like.

Here’s the low-down of Heather’s key points and my thoughts…

About 20 years ago, she had a standard worksheet that she could use with any news programme she taped in the morning – just tape it, print the sheet and go into class.

This sums up the aim of her talk – sharing some quick, simple ideas for using authentic media materials in class without hours of planning the night before!

A definition (Nunan, 1988:99):

“Authentic materials are usually defined as those which have been produced for purposes other than to teach language.”

Benefits of using TV/radio broadcasts in class:

– exposure to real language in use

– exposure to different accents and natural pronunciation (not just what’s in the coursebook!)

– should help equip students to cope with language in use outside class

– gives students a sense of satisfaction

– materials are topical and up-to-date (assuming you’re using a relatively recent broadcast!)

– materials can be very culturally rich, allowing access to a diversity of cultural input for students

– TV in particular supports listening skills with visual clues

– can develop students’ listening skills and strategies

– can develop students’ language awareness

– can develop learner autonomy (arguably showing students they can cope with texts they previously considered themselves unable to comprehend)

– aids differentiation when learners select audio/video clips to explore outside class (they can access and learn from whatever material they feel is suitable for them)

Some possible drawbacks/considerations:

– not everything’s appropriate for all levels

– some lexis/grammar may be just that bit too difficult (highly graded, inappropriate, etc.)

– natural pronunciation CAN be quite fast and unclear – can be a bit overwhelming

– cultural references can be obscure

– teachers have to exercise discretion and professional judgment in choosing authentic materials – what’s right for our students? what will they find interesting? what’s right for our cultural context?

– some research actually suggests that visual info can distract from audio!

– with news programmes, often students can understand the newsreader but once it cuts to an interview with someone (e.g. vox pops), they’re lost!

Some ideas for sourcing authentic material:

– BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme (available from BBC iPlayer or elsewhere on BBC website)

– documentaries, chat shows, interviews, etc. also available on BBC iPlayer

How to select suitable material for your students (from McGrath, 2002):

– relevance (to syllabus, learners’ needs, etc.)

– intrinsic interest of topic/theme (but this is difficult to define! you have to know your students)

– cultural appropriateness (again, use your judgment)

– linguistic demands (teachers’ professional expertise should help here… how fast/slow/complex is it? etc.)

– cognitive demands (e.g. something that’s suitable for a young learner vs. a PhD student, what background knowledge/experience students need to be able to follow the clip, etc.)

– logistical considerations (length, legibility, audibility, etc.)

– quality (as a model or representative example of a particular text type)

– exploitability (what can you get out of the text?)

One key reminder about creating tasks:

Generally, they should be authentic (like the materials) – i.e. create tasks which are realistic replicas of how they’d engage with the text in the real world.

Some standard, flexible exercise ideas:

1. Using the TV/radio news: (1) sts discuss in groups what news they’ve seen/heard lately; (2) listen/watch & count the number of headlines; (3) listen/watch and write down the subject of each headline; (4) listen and tick the boxes in a table (x-axis: typical news topics, e.g. sport, human interest, money, etc.; y-axis: story number from the total presented); (5) listen again and make notes in a table for each story about when, where, who, how, why; (6) listen again and note down some exact words/phrases you hear; (7) discussion of follow-up questions, e.g. which story did you find most interesting?

Here’s an example of step 6 that I did while we listened to a radio news clip.

the government is to…

in an effort to rejuvenate the economy

so-and-so has the details

they fear that a temporary change could become a permanent one

so-and-so has welcomed the arrest of…

he could not escape justice

My thoughts: lots of interesting lexis but I had to type very fast!  Might be hard for students to note things down as they listen, unless they’re very fast writers or typists, or unless you play it several times (which I know my students wouldn’t mind, if it helped them catch certain phrases).

2. Using a documentary: documentaries where people experience something different are very common (e.g. where modern people go back to living in a Victorian-style home, etc.).  Some suggested activities for “Homes for the Future” (recent Channel 4 TV documentary) which would require lots of adaptation but can be very effective: (1) sts watch/listen to the first bit of the documentary and fill in some gaps (which teacher has prepared beforehand); (2) sts watch the rest of the start of the documentary and answer some broad comprehension questions….. it goes on and on.  (See my thoughts below!)

Aside (my thoughts): having done stuff like this with students before, these are great activities… but hardly simple and straightforward.  This seems to me to fall into that category of video lessons which you spend ages planning the night before.

3. Question time/debate programmes: panel discussions showing different people’s POVs can be a lucrative resource for discussion and language work (e.g. “Question Time”, on UK TV mid-week).  They often start with one broad question for discussion by the panel – you can start your lesson by getting students to discuss this.  (This pre-discussion arguably helps them understand the programme.)  Essentially, students split into ‘for’ and ‘against’ for the question, discuss and list some points in their allocated category, then watch and compare with the TV group’s discussion, adding points to their initial brainstorms.

4. Dragon’s Den: well-known UK TV programme in which people present products/services they’re developing for investment by… investors!  Personally I’m not a fan of this programme, but I know students love it, and the format is ideal for classroom use – easily chunked into little bits, fairly predictable and easy-to-follow, with good use of language to explore (especially for presentations, agreeing, disagreeing, questioning, etc.), and in a format that’s easily replicable by students afterwards (they have to present a product to their classmates afterwards, being as persuasive and interesting as possible!).  Heather suggested some while-watching work including noting down what products people were presenting, their features, how much money they wanted the investors to give, etc.; and watching again and noting pros and cons of each product, etc.

My verdict on the session overall:

To be honest, a lot of ideas I knew before and had already used, but good ideas nonetheless.  Unfortunately, I was hoping for more simple, one-size-fits-all activities that were promoted at the start of the session… I’ve already got quite a lot of good but heavy-prep activities!  I also think maybe Heather could have given more background to the nature of the programmes she was presenting to us, as there were a lot of people in the room who weren’t from the UK and maybe couldn’t see the immediate relevance/content of programmes like Dragon’s Den and Question Time.  After nearly 20 years living in the UK, I’ve never watched Question Time myself!


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. just had to comment on your final line ‘After nearly 20 years living in the UK, I’ve never watched Question Time myself!’ you must have a great innate sense of avoiding artificial debate! 🙂

  2. Laura Patsko

    Hmm… avoiding artificial debate… well this is certainly something I try to do in my classroom! 🙂  But I've never been particularly drawn to Question Time.  Maybe I should watch it this week, just to find out what it really is!

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