Content Based Learning: Improve Reading Using Newspapers

Content Based Learning Extends the Student to his Own Level

Content Based Learning has as its focus, Content, and provides the student a rich base of content for learning.
A base content is provided by the teacher, with the option for the student to extend beyond what the teacher and lesson provides. This allows the student who is capable and motivated, to work at his own level, and extend his learning to the level of his own capability.

Using a set textbook and working through a set textbook page by page limits the learning experience to one page a lesson, or whatever the teacher has selected as the class goal, according to the writer of the text book, who has created the lesson for the average student, on what he has decided is average. The slower learner is left floundering or given extra assistance and homework to catch up, which they never do, and the faster worker and more competent, already knows the task and simply attends the lesson because they have to as part of their studies.

A set textbook is leveled at the mid- range of a class, and there is never a class with all the students at the same level of competency. It is impossible. Any group has individual differences and competencies, and an individual set of past experiences and learning styles. It is impossible to write a textbook which suits everybody in the class at the same time. We need some base to study around, and this is the map and the lesson plan, and we utilize a textbook which is at the base.

What Content Based Learning does, is use some content as a base, and then provide the opportunity for the student to extend beyond the provided content, or work within and around the content at their own pace.

This is scary for some teachers who only see the content they have planned for their lesson, and have a set goal or lesson plan that they want to achieve for the lesson as per planning. Take for example, a study of weather, the focus being clouds and the different types of clouds. A teacher has a text book with the different clouds listed and what they do and how to recognize them. Then they move onto cloud patterns, and weather from clouds, but not many teachers look outside at the clouds in the sky, and even less take the class outside to look for different types of clouds and experience the weather for the day and talk about the clouds in the sky at that moment. Even less would have the student drawing and recording the clouds in the sky for a week or a month like a cloud map.
Even less teachers would use the newspaper for the weather maps which show the cloud coverage for the day, week, month and even an archive of cloud patterns for the past. Even less teachers would use Interactive weather maps from online to actually see the cloud formations not only over their own city but the entire world. Even less teachers would use Google Earth and NASA satellites to see the clouds as they happen via satellite. All teachers use the same text lesson, but they can teach it in different ways, and they do.

Compare this lesson with the one or two spread textbook lesson that I grew up with, and with the same textbook lesson that is being used today, and you will see clearly, what I define as Content Based learning.
The textbook was the source, but the learning experience moved far beyond the textbook.

Now I remember the two page spread from my Geography Book Quite clearly, but I remember far more the cloud lessons I gained from lying on the grass watching the clouds and drawing the different skies I saw, then referring the drawings to my textbook, and when I found a cloud that was not in the two page spread, going further to learn what that cloud was and why it was different. These lessons I learned when I started teaching. I have used the Content Based Method of Teaching since the seventies, when it was first called "Open Learning", then "Guided Activity Learning", then "Open Classrooms", and so on with so many titles that teachers started to get confused, ignored titles, and continued teaching. I learned more about clouds when I was teaching, because I opened the learning to students and they took the learning even further than I had envisaged, and following the students who extended their learning, I as the teacher learned too. I learned about electricity in storm clouds, and how planes fly in stormy weather, and how weather stations predict weather, and later as an artist, I learned even more about the beauty of clouds.

The teacher who lets the student extend the learning, is the effective teacher. Learning is more than sitting in a classroom looking at a text and answering questions about what is in the text.

What has happened here is that the teacher used the base lesson plan, then extended it with pictures, photos and online activities using Weather Maps and Weather News, and gave the student the opportunity to extend their knowledge in their own time, or as a follow up. An interested student then takes the lesson further and studies more than the set text, and learns what he wants to learn, not only what is in the textbook. This is what Content based Learning is...providing the scaffolding for the student to climb.

Basic teaching is the ladder, but to reach the heights, one has to start climbing, and the CBL (Content Based learning) Student, adds extension ladders of all kinds, and going in all directions, and gets intrinsic motivation from the learning and teaches himself what he wants to learn.

The Newspaper becomes the Textbook

I started using Newspapers as the Textbook when I had a position in China where there was no English Materials and I was expected to write it all for every class and every lesson. I stated using Online books and Text from the Internet, and based my lessons on them. I had students struggling with Shakespeare and other 'free' copyright free texts. Then I discovered that China Daily had an English Page. I grabbed it with delight, and that became the text and focus for my lessons.

The first instances were simple. I used a paragraph from the Newspaper, and built my lesson from the Selected Content. Then I went online and asked friends to send me Australian and any Newspapers in English, and I used those as my base. Finally I asked the school to provide copies of China Daily in English, and they became my text book.

I had a table with all the Newspapers, and had the students reading whatever they could every day for 20 minutes as a start to the class. I was Head of the School and had nobody to tell me I should be using a Set Text, and how to teach, and I developed an entire Content Based Course using Newspapers and articles from the Newspapers. The same situation occurred last year when again the school had no English materials, and again I built up a Library of English Newspapers, this time English China Daily.

When you start using the Newspaper as a Text, you have students simply reading the headlines, and collating new words that they want to learn. The class focus was usually the article I selected, and paragraphs were highlighted. With younger students I copy and paste the extract from the article, but always provide the source as a link or as a hard copy. If the Newspapers are in the class and each student has access to their own Newspaper, its even better. There were Programs in Australia where Class newspapers were provided by the newspaper free, and then at nominal cost. I always utilized these newspapers and used them as part of teaching, as Newspapers provide relevant and current reading material.

Content from regular textbooks often are not of interest to the student, and gets repetitive. The same content is always there and not always of interest, especially in situations where older students and adults learning English are forced to go through some very junior focused reading based on the assumption that new learners are also at pre-school levels of intelligence. Newspapers provide a wide range of reading material from Front Page, to Sport, to International, National and Entertainment and Comics, as well as letters to the Editor and fashion. Each student reads the part of the Newspaper that they are interested in, and reports one item they found interesting.

With new learners, focusing on Major headlines, then minor headlines, and the writing under the illustrations is sufficient content until the student starts to read further, when the next step takes place.

The next step is finding and reading the main sentence. This is easy in Newspapers because the first sentence is always the main sentence, and students reading only the first sentence of a paragraph, gets enough information to understand what the article is about. One does not need to read the unknown words, nor more than the main sentence to understand the Reading. The Student is now Reading for Meaning, not simply reading words.

By the time the student can identify and isolate the first sentence, and summarize the article in a few sentences, the student is ready for the next step. By this time the student has reached a basic level of competence in Reading, and will pass an IELTS Test with a 4.5 or 5.0 score, which is what was needed in China for Students to study overseas. The student reached this level of reading competence faster using Newspapers and reading English Newspapers daily.

I also found that the students became interested in the Newspapers, and started purchasing their own Newspapers and also reading them online.
I created their English Course around the Newspaper Source. I selected an article for each lesson, which I summarized and read in under 90 seconds on my Webpage with the writing below for the students to look at in their early stages. The more proficient students simply listened, and this was their learning be able to listen and understand without watching the words. When they could do that they were at level 6.0 or higher on the IELTS Test Score.
The full Reading of the entire article was placed on Podomatic, a podcasting website and the more capable students had access to this reading as well. Listening and understanding this level placed the student at a competent level and gained them the highest grading. I also added poetry and Short stories at this level for those who wished to listen to them.

In Korea, the focus is on using a textbook, and I have not started using Newspapers.
The next level of my Research is to create Trial Classes in 2009 with students using Newspapers as their English Text.

Schools and Teachers who are interested in participating in this 15-20 week Semester are invited to apply to be part of the Newspaper Program.
The study will test students at a Basic Reading test, using one I developed, which will be placed on a website with students having one attempt at doing the test. Teachers can administer the test before students start the Course. Then the test is administered at the end of 15 weeks.
The test will show a significant improvement in student Reading Ability in 15 weeks, if the Newspapers have been used as suggested.

The Research: Improve Speaking, Reading and Writing Using Newspapers

Stage 1:

Students take a Newspaper, and look though it on their own, undirected, for 15 minutes each session. If they cannot read, they look at the pictures. They are permitted to use highlighters to underline anything they wish.

Students read one newspaper heading to the class in the first weeks or talk about one picture.

After a few weeks, they can either read or talk or both. Some students will start talking when they are ready.They have a maximum speaking time of 1 minute. With larger classes, have student read a headline to a partner. Every student must speak every lesson.
Each student works at his own pace. The task is to read one heading, regardless of the number of words.
There is no teacher comment in any of this, except 'good' or similar praise. The student knows whether they are good or whether they cannot do the task.
All student must participate. That is the rule. They can say one word, maybe the name of the newspaper, if they wish, or read a paragraph. The task is read one headline.

Send your email requesting to be part of this Study to commence 2009 to

You can participate as an individual, as a small group or as a class or large class.
International Schools are also invited to participate.
The aim of the study is to Improve Reading Using Newspapers.

Maggi Carstairs

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