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Making Current Affairs Lessons Timeless

By Alex Case
Making sure your lessons and their results last longer than the news cycle.

I must start this article by saying that my dislike of teaching most current affairs lessons is mainly purely selfish, partly because it kills the relaxation of sitting down with a newspaper when a part of my brain is also scanning it for potential lessons. More important for me, however, is the fact that you can rarely re-use anything from most current affairs lessons, usually because the topic quickly becomes no longer current. This makes two hours spent planning a lesson really two hours on a single lesson, but also means anything you learn about the lesson by teaching it that would usually help you polish it up for future use is totally wasted.

While I’ve spent years cursing current affairs lessons for their temporary nature, only in the last couple of years has it occurred to me that the quick passing of the news can also often be accompanied by the quick passing of the student learning that comes out of the lesson. Not only is the vocabulary that is needed to fully understand and be able to discuss the story unlikely to come up in another story for weeks if ever, but students are also unlikely to be able to use whatever language they do manage to retain to talk about unconnected stories in the next few lessons. Most of my recent responses to that situation have made for lesson content that lasts longer both in the teacher’s list of useable materials and in the students’ heads. Those techniques are:

  • Focus on and expand on an element of the language in the text that can be used to understand and talk about many more current affairs lessons, e.g. language for describing political systems
  • Lead onto a point which is even more universally useful, e.g. prepositions, determiners, or narrative tenses
  • Stretch out a single topic for at least two lessons – plus probably preparation before, and homework and other revision after
  • Choose a topic that is both current and timeless and so likely to come up in students’ future reading, listening or lessons
  • Have “news roundup” slots where students can talk about all kinds of stories
  • Have regular vocabulary revision and other recycling activities (something helped by all the ideas above)

Examples of vocabulary that can come up in many current affairs lessons include:

  • Vocabulary to describe media (“caption”, “tabloid”, “newsfeed”, etc)
  • Crime and punishment vocabulary (“kidnapping”, “death sentence”, etc)
  • Political vocabulary (“senator”, “bill”, etc)
  • The language of headlines (the verb “ink”, “to + verb” for future events, etc)
  • Social problems (“alcoholism”, “homelessness”, etc)

Students who are interested in business news and economics will also find the language of trends (“crash”, “creep up”, “recover”, etc) coming up all the time.

There is also functional language that is likely to come up again and again in classroom discussions and/ or post-lesson writing tasks, for example:

  • Opinions, including agreeing and disagreeing
  • Language for hedging/ generalising/ speculating (“the vast majority of people”, “It could be said that…”, etc)
  • Language for talking about cause and effect

Ways of stretching out a topic to make sure that language is recycled until it is properly retained include:

  • Doing two related stories, or even coverage of the same story from two different sources
  • Following up developments in a previous story (even if only as a warmer, or as a way of linking into the next story)
  • Allowing students to prepare for the next topic, for example by concentrating their reading on one kind of news story
  • Allowing students to read the text again and prepare some speaking for the next lesson, e.g. their responses to discussion questions or a mini-presentation on one possible solution to the problem
  • Give students writing homework, e.g. a letter about the topic to a newspaper, a summary of the story, rewriting the story in another genre (e.g. as a chronological story or film script), or adding some details or explanation to the story

Examples of both timeless and current topics include:

  • Nuclear power
  • Gun control
  • The electoral system
  • Immigration

“News roundup” activities include:

  • Giving each student a different short news story to present at the beginning of the next lesson
  • Doing the same thing but allowing them to choose their own stories to present
  • Asking them to work in pairs to bring together all that they can remember about recent news stories, perhaps giving them headlines to help (and perhaps moving from that to one of the stories)

Vocabulary revision and other recycling activities which are suitable for current affairs classes include:

  • Making up imaginary news stories using as much of the vocabulary being revised as you can
  • A version of The Definitions Game or Taboo in which one student explains a word without saying it until their partner guesses which word they are speaking about, in this case probably talking about real and imaginary news stories to help them explain
  • Thinking about possible links between that vocabulary and recent news stories (maybe with headlines to help, and then maybe moving onto one of those stories as the topic of the day)
  • Predicting which of the words are likely to have most results on Google News today, then searching to check
  • Predicting which words from the revision list are not in today’s story, then reading to check
  • Seeing how much they can remember about all the stories that they have covered so far or in the last two or three lessons
Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET June 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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