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Using the News in class
by Katie Riley

6. How does listening to the news differ from other types of real life listening activity?

Penny Ur (1986) looks at a number of factors which are important to consider when analysing our real life listening activity.

These are;

1. The response.
2. The visibility of the speaker.
3. Environmental clues.
4. Length of chunks of heard discourse
5. Formality
6. Our purpose and expectations.

I will now look at how listening to the news differs from other types of listening activity in terms of the above features;

1.We get an immediate response.
In most cases, when we listen, the listener is required to give an overt, immediate response. This may be verbal (the answer to a question) or non verbal (an action in accordance with instructions or the nod of a head). Even a university lecturer will normally get a response from his audience in terms of facial expression, eye contact, interruption and note taking. In the case of listening to the news the response is not immediately apparent, although later we might summarise what we've heard and report it to a friend.

2. We can't see the speaker.
In the majority of cases we can see or are in the physical presence of the person we are listening to. Usually the visibility of the speaker is related to listener response. If we listen to the news on the radio, we are unable to see the speaker and therefore not expected to react to him personally. The link between visibility and reaction isn't however so clearly defined. In telephone conversations, for example, we can't see the speaker but must almost certainly respond and when watching TV programmes we can see the people but are not expected to react to them personally

3. Lack of environmental clues.
Environmental clues refer to things such as maps, diagrams, smells etc. These clues generally don't tell us about the type of discourse, but they may provide us with useful background information about the situation and speakers involved in order to facilitate understanding. E.g. when a teacher clarifies her exposition with diagrams/pictures or less formally when someone gives us directions according to a map. In radio recordings, telephone conversations etc, these clues are not explicit.

4. Longer chunks of heard discourse.
The most common pattern of discourse is as follows.

RESPONSE (non verbal/ verbal)

In news broadcasts and other more formal discourse patterns, however, stretches of speech are generally longer and less interrupted.

5.Formal Speech
In news bulletins the language is formal and planned and therefore lacks many of the features inherent in spontaneous, informal conversation.

a. Redundancy
Informal speech is full of utterances which are not necessary to convey our message e.g. false starts, hesitations, re-phrasing self corrections. They are meaningless additions which give the listener time to think.

b. Noise
Noise is the opposite of redundancy. It refers to situations where information is not received because of interference. This interference is not only caused by outside disturbances but also due to lack of attention, mispronounced or misused words or the listener not being familiar with a word. Although the concept of noise still exists to a lesser extent in formal planned speech, the opportunities to interrupt and ask for clarification do not

c. Colloquialism
The language used in news broadcasts is formal and therefore more similar to the written form. Therefore many of the problems caused by the changes of lexis, ellisions, contractions and assimilations of speech do not occur in this type of listening activity

d. Auditory character.
In contrast to formal planned speech, which occurs at an even pace, volume and pitch, informal conversation is jerky, varies in pace and pitch and occurs with frequent pauses and overlaps.

6. We listen for a purpose and with expectations.
Formal planned speech is similar to informal conversation, however, in that we normally have some preconceived idea of the content, level of formality and discourse of what we're going to hear. J.C. Richards calls these ideas SCRIPT COMPETENCE; i.e the knowledge we possess in advance. These expectations may be linked to our purpose for listening. For instance, if we want to know the answer to a question, then we will ask and expect to hear a relevant response, which means that in many cases we listen out for certain key phrases or words. Ur(1986) goes on to say that
"heard discourse which corresponds closely to what the listener expects and needs to hear is far more likely to be accurately perceived and understood than that which is unexpected, irrelevant or unhelpful."

Unfortunately there is often a huge difference between the characteristics of the discourse we normally listen to and those of which the student normally hears in the EFL classroom, leading to the classic situation of students doing well in the classroom but being unable to transfer their skills outside. Here we need to distinguish between reception and production. While students are understood producing neatly formed sentences with limited vocabulary, they understand little or nothing when their interlocutors respond with colloquial, regional accents.
We therefore need to make sure that students are exposed to authentic listening situations.

7. What actually goes through a listeners head as he listens to the news?

It isn't enough, however, to simply look at the linguistic features of authenticity. In order to make an activity truly authentic, it is also necessary to consider the process that is going on in the listeners head as he/she listens and how this is shown in external behaviour. Porter and Jones (1981) describe the process for listening to the news to be as follows.

1. Process: " In one ear and out the other." This is very superficial listening with little awareness of the context of what is said.
Output: Zero

2. Evaluative listening and scanning for topics of interest to self or companion(s). This involves matching topics against ones own or companions interests and making mental notes.
Output: Summarise and tell companion"

For listening to the weather, on the other hand, they describe the process as

Focused listening for specific information e.g. about the days weather.
Output: Selection of appropriate activities for the day, or of appropriate clothes to wear etc.

8. What problems do listeners face?

Students have many problems when listening, but many of them (e.g. their difficulty in hearing sounds which don't appear in their language) are not a major problem in extensive listening activities such as these, as students can normally work them out from context. We've also seen that listening to the news is made more difficult due to our inability to see the speaker and lack of visual clues, but possibly easier due to the lack of colloquialism in language.
However, another major problem that students have is that they try to understand every word. I have found that this is especially a problem for Japanese students, since perfection is part of their culture and they are therefore not satisfied unless they understand everything. They therefore need to be made aware that in real life listeners don't do that. When listening to the news, they tune into one item and exclude others.

9. What are the implications for language classes?

In class we therefore need to try and replicate the roles that the native speaker plays in authentic situations.
Porter and Jones say

'If the learner is to achieve any degree of real proficiency in language use -as opposed to rather abstract proficiency, which operates only under the strictly controlled laboratory-like conditions of the classroom - he or she must be given the chance to listen in authentic ways`

However, although features of authentic speech are gradually making their way into ELT materials, to look at speech in authentic ways, a great number of activities are involved and these are rarely exploited in EFL materials. However there are a whole range of activities which enable us to do this. (See appendix 1 for some ideas)

10. Which news bulletin should be used?

Brown and Yule (1983) say that one of the main factors that affects listening is related to the speaker (how many there are, what types of accent they have etc)
It is therefore important to choose a broadcast that can be easily heard and for the early stages which has only one voice, since even quite advances students find it quite hard to follow a news broadcast where there are several different voices and several different acoustics. In Europe I have found that the BBC World Service is usually the clearest to follow. On the other hand, when teaching in the UK, I found the BBC radio 3 news much easier to follow than, for example, radio 4.


We have seen, therefore, that authentic listening certainly has its place in language classroom, although at lower levels it is a good idea to supplement it with non authentic materials. There are lots of different situations where authentic listening takes place and as teachers our role is to focus on those activities which most suit our learners needs and learning styles.
In order to provide authentic listening activities for our students we need to consider what native speakers do when they listen and try and represent this in the language
Listening to the news, being a planned monologue, is different to many other types of listening activity and this is something we need to bear in mind when planning activities. However, it is a motivating type of material to use in class and is something I will be using more often in the future.


Anderson, A and Lynch,T (1988) Listening: OUP
Brown, B and Yule, B (1983) Teaching the spoken Language: CUP
Nunan, D Communicative Approaches to Listening Comprehension, Language Teaching Methodology, 2:17-38 : Phoenix
Porter, D and Roberts, J (1981) Authentic Listening Activities, ELT Journal, Volume 36/1 pp 37-47, October 1981
Revell, J and Beary, B (1988) Advanced Listening: OUP
Richards, J.C. (1983) Listening Comprehension, TESOL Quarterly, volume 7/2.
Rixon S (1986, 1989) Developing Listening Skills: Macmillan
Rost, M (1991) Listening in Action: Prentice Hall
Tomalin, B (1986) Video, TV and Radio in the English Class: Macmillan
Underwood, Mary (1989) Teaching Listening: Longman
Ur, P (1984,1986) Teaching Listening Comprehension: CUP

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