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Teaching EFL/ESL Students How to Read Time and Newsweek
by J. Ignacio Bermejo
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(First published on the Internet TESLJ July 2000)

Time and Newsweek have always been favourite sources of teaching material at advanced levels for several reasons:

• These magazines are easily available all over the world and they can be taken to class as examples of "authentic" English because they are written by native speakers for native speakers.
• The lesson will focus on meaning rather than on form, which is the best way to promote language acquisition, according to authors like Prahbu (1987) or Nunan (1989).
• Students will find these texts especially motivating because they will learn something new about the modern world while practising English: the lessons will have signification, relevance and the perceived value of the activities will increase (Williams and Burden: 1997).

But teachers have a decisive role to play as "mediators" (Williams and Burden: 1997) to help students cope with the challenge of reading these texts. First of all, we have to be aware of the "house style" of these publications. Then, we have to design lesson plans which train students to deal with the peculiarities of this style, those that hinder and those that facilitate reading comprehension. In other words, we have to teach how to read Time and Newsweek as particular examples of authentic journalistic style.

Tackling Lexical Complexity in Time and Newsweek

The first area where both native and non-native readers need help when reading Time and Newsweek stories is vocabulary. The choice of vocabulary in these magazines has been described as "whimsical" (Hughes: 1992), and Nigel Ross (1995) has pointed out that their stories often mix together all types of register. In the story "CASE Study" (Newsweek, January 24, 2000), there coexist high register expressions (abundance, rancor, nascent, succinctly, mentor, when need be), technical words (gyroscope, venture capital, CEO, synergy), recent coinages (digerati), informal language (bucks, cocky, to flop, clunky, cool, cheesy), colloquialisms (schmoozing, hobnob, jittery), buzz words and popular constructions (low tech, overarching, overextended, overeager), slang (geeky, techie) or even words the journalists themselves have made up (nonflashy, techno-zillionaires). And it is not unusual to come across literary terms, archaisms or foreign borrowings in other stories ("Plus Ça Change", Time February 7, 2000).

The idea behind this linguistic exhibition is to create a distinctive house style which is "dynamic" or "racy" (Ross: 1995, 16), where the references to pop culture and buzz words bring freshness and vitality, the technical words underline the objectivity and reliability of the information, the literary terms are appreciated by the educated reader, and there is still room for playfulness and some exotic flavour. Students should be aware of this peculiarity and should take it as a stylistic convention which appeals to an international, educated, often dynamic readership. So, as a cautionary first step, students should be discouraged from underlining every unfamiliar word they come across, because that only focuses their attention on the particular and the unknown; learners should be trained instead to get the message of the story without being dazzled by the impressive display of lexicon. Teachers have to promote a "top-down" comprehension strategy, from the context and general ideas to the specific detail, so that students can guess the meaning of unknown words from contextual clues and can gauge the real dimension individual words with regard to the meaning of the text as a whole.

Using Highlighted Information to Get the Gist of the Story

Journalistic stories offer several ways to grasp the gist of the story: the headline, the first paragraph (lead) that expands the information of the headline, the picture and the caption, the subheadings, the charts and other visual information. In Time and Newsweek headlines are usually eye-catchers that imitate the technique of advertising gimmicks by engaging the reader in a quick intellectual game based on alliteration ("Hunting the Hackers", Newsweek February 21, 2000), rhyme ("Behind the Hack Attack", Time February 21, 2000), hints or puns that try to establish a double or sometimes triple channel of communication -a complicity- with the reader at a glance. They very often make a reference to the title of a famous film, book, song…, to an idiom or to a common expression, for example, in Newsweek January 24, 2000, the cover says "Citizen Case", and in the articles inside you can find "Desperately Seeking a Deal", "Something Old, Something New", "CASE Study". In the issue of February 21, 2000, you almost hear the tune as you stumble over "So Many Causes, So Little Time", and in Time October 11, 1999, you can read "All the King's Women", "Forgive Us Our Debts", "A Cinema Very Near You", "The Real Thing", "Every Breath you Take", "A Brave New Web", or "Silicon Valet". Memory retrieval and association of ideas is a popular intellectual game among the readers of these American magazines, but our students will probably be confused by these conceptual loops as appetisers, so learners should always read the headline together with the subheading, the caption, the highlighted sentences, the quotations and the visual information, if they want to understand the main idea in the story. The discussion of the full meaning of the headline should usually be postponed until the end of the class.

The cognitive process of determining the gist of the story will trigger the students' comprehension strategies: students will activate their relevant world knowledge and they will start anticipating the content of the story. The interplay between prior knowledge, new information and predictions will probably create a moment of cognitive uncertainty, so, at this point, a natural communicative task would be to allow students to discuss their guesses in pairs, which, in turn, will be very favourable for the dynamics of the class, as it will introduce a break of oral interaction in the reading comprehension lesson.

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