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Teacher to Teacher: Using the Newspaper to Teach ESL Learners

An OLRC Book Review by Sarah Nixon-Ponder, Jane M. Schierloh, and Nancy D. Padak

Don't let the title of Olivares's book lead you astray! His book has much more to offer the ESL teacher than tips on how to use the newspaper in instruction (although it certainly does do that as well). The first half of this readable, little book summarizes the research on second language acquisition and learning. We offer you some highlights from the book to help you decide whether you will want to have it in your professional library.

For many years the audiolingual approach dominated the field of second-language learning. It emphasized drills of "scripted interactions" (p.8) and stressed structure over content, form over meaning.

About 20 years ago, researchers began challenging this approach. They have demonstrated over and over again that "in order to learn any new form of communication it is more important to understand the message (the content) first and to focus on the structure of the code (the form) later" (p. 9).

What skills do ESL students need to learn?
ESL learners need two kinds of proficiencies if they are to succeed in a school environment: basic interpersonal communication skills (coping skills; BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (academic skills; CALP). The daily newspaper offers opportunities to develop both types of skills.

How can ESL teachers make second language learning easier?
Communication that takes place within a context is much easier to understand than context-reduced communication (Cummins, 1981). As an example of communication embedded in a context, consider a conversation between a foreign tourist and a sales-person in a fruit market. There are a variety of clues to help the tourist with her limited knowledge of the language--the buying/selling situation, gestures, and facial expressions. As an example of context-reduced communication, consider this book review. To comprehend you must depend exclusively on your ability to read without pictures or context to aid your comprehension. Olivares argues that ESL classrooms must speaking, listening, reading, and writing experiences emphasize both BICS and CALP.

The audiolingual approach with its emphasis on drill and repetition of sentence patterns tends to delay ESL learners' progress in content areas such as social studies and science. Olivares feels strongly that there is no reason to expect ESL students to be less academic than native English speakers and no reason to put off rigorous content learning until they have mastered English. Teachers can integrate second-language learning and content learning if they use materials rich in context clues.

Why should teachers use the newspaper to teach ESL learners?
The newspaper offers context-embedded communication. Its photographs, graphs, charts, headlines, cartoons, and other context clues aid comprehension of text. In addition, newspaper articles are about situations relevant and meaningful to learners' daily lives.

Another reason the newspaper is a useful resource in the ESL classroom is that it provides learners opportunities to practice interpersonal communication skills (e.g., discussing the supermarket ads). It also provides academic content (e.g., geography, civics, health).

The second half of Olivares's book is crammed full of interesting activities you can use to integrate language instruction into many content areas. For example, one small group activity asks learners to look over the employment section of the classified ads and compare the types of occupations they would find there with those of their native countries. Are these occupations similar or different? In what ways?

Another activity involves dividing the class into small groups and telling each group that they have $50 to spend in the supermarket to buy food to feed a family of four for one day. Using the food section of the newspaper as a guide, they figure out the total price of the purchases and the change they will get back.

Activities are classified as most appropriate for either beginning or more advanced English speakers. The book contains specific ideas for using the newspaper to integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening with many content areas or areas of interest: biology, career exploration, chemistry, civics, consumerism, current events, environmentalism, geography, geology, health, math, nutrition, propaganda and advertising, and sports.

We think the activities are good. They are fun and motivating and could easily be applied to either ESL or ABLE instruction. In addition, many would be useful in family literacy programs. We also found the annotated bibliography and list of references quite helpful for those who wish to further their knowledge of ESL methods.

Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework. Los Angeles, CA: California State University, Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center.

To order:
contact the International Reading Association at 1-800-336-READ, ext. 266.
Visa and MasterCard accepted; shipping included on prepaid orders.

IRA book no. 237-824
ISBN 0-87297-237-1
Cost: $9.00
IRA members: $6.00
plus shipping/handling.

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