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Teaching EFL/ESL Students How to Read Time and Newsweek
by J. Ignacio Bermejo
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Journalistic Style and Density of Information

Once the oral exchange has built up confidence, students are ready to come down to the text proper, and deal with style problems such as vocabulary. They will probably find a second difficulty: the density of the information. Journalistic stories are complex and ambitious, they tell new events, but they also include quotations, background and consequences of those events (Bell: 1991), so editors very often have to package the information in a way that is sometimes forced and can be difficult to understand. Time and Newsweek tend to overuse noun phrases to put together sentences that sprawl in several domains, and miss the point in an unnecessarily complicated syntax, for example in "Targets of Opportunity" (Time, February 21, 2000) we can find this sentence:

European companies, pressed by the bigger-is-better mentality of the new technology-based global economy -not to mention a growing corporate concern for shareholder value- started rushing to the altar in droves, sometimes with a shotgun in view.

Very often, these noun phrases are woven in long lists, to give detailed descriptions in the shortest possible space, "Ivan the III" (Time, February 21, 2000), begins:

When an authority on Russia says the country is going crazy, it evokes images in the West of a nation in political and economic turmoil; of brutal regional warfare; of barons and mafiosi getting richer while the proles steadily get poorer.

Finally some journalists are carried away by the tricks of the trade and they compress so much information together that sentences turn into strings of headlines which summarise whole stories in two or three words, as in "Setting their Sails" (Time, February 21, 2000):

Competition for the jewelled silver America's Cup is usually as nasty as it comes: rule books ignored, bitter courtroom clashes, moneyed bullies and sore losers.

Density is one of the factors that increases the complexity of communicative tasks (Skehan, 1998: 99), and is probably the most difficult aspect of the style of Time and Newsweek. Students will have to slow down their reading speed at certain points, and they will sometimes have to read some sentences twice in order to swallow these tablets of fortified information. Nevertheless, the density of these passages can be played down if we draw the students' attention to the general layout of the discourse, because the great advantage of the style of Time and Newsweek is that the textual organisation is very predictable and this can be an invaluable aid in reading these stories faster and more efficiently.

Topic Sentences and Paragraph Structure: When House Style Facilitates Comprehension

The stories in Time and Newsweek, unlike those in daily or weekly newspapers, are always very neatly organised, ideas are ordered in paragraphs of around 125 words, ranging from 70 to 250 words, with very rare exceptions to this rule. Each paragraph is usually made up of 6 to 15 sentences, and the structure of those paragraphs is very regular: there's always a topic sentence, usually at the beginning or at the end of the paragraph and the other sentences expand that idea or give examples to support it. The only exception to this, is the first paragraph, which, as opposed to the lead in newspaper stories, does not explain the headline, but tries to personalise the story and bring it closer to the reader by describing a particular scene or an actor in the event. It is another rhetorical trick to attract the reader's attention.

Teachers have to make active use of the predictability of text organisation and topic sentences to help students understand these stories better. Topic sentences can be approached in a communicative class in the following way: after reading and answering some comprehension questions, students can be asked to summarise in pairs several paragraphs in one sentence; then we can compare as a class the paragraph summaries that different pairs have produced with the topic sentences the teacher has extracted from the text, and it will dawn on students that the summaries of the paragraphs are written word for word in the paragraphs themselves, which, in turn, will give the teacher an excellent opportunity to point out how useful and how easy spotting topic sentences is, when we need to skim the text quickly and accurately. Later in the course, when students have become familiar with the function and location of topic sentences, a proper skimming task could be undertaken after discussing predictions and before reading the text to answer the comprehension questions.

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