Karen's Linguistics Issues, July 2002 | This Month's Articles | Previous Months  


Using Newspapers in the Classroom: A Personal Experience

 by Thevy Rajaretnam, MARA University of Technology, Malaysia


In a country like Malaysia, where the medium of instruction is Bahasa Malaysia (the national language), English is taught as a second language in the national school system.  As such, it comes as no surprise that many of the students who enter university lack the reading and writing skills required to complete their course of study. This has prompted the local public universities to conduct English language courses for their undergraduates.  At MARA University of Technology, as part of the graduating package, students are required to undergo various English language programs, ranging from proficiency to ESP courses. While they were in the public school system, these students rarely practiced their ability to read in English outside the English language classroom. Many of them did not even take the trouble to read the local English dailies!  This article is the result of classroom experience in which English language newspapers were used to encourage functional literacy in English among the students. At the same time, the students were also provided with the necessary experience to improve their reading skills, enhance their knowledge of current issues and improve their writing skills.


Almost all the students who enter the university are literate in English; that is, they are able to read in English but many of them are not in the habit of actually using this ability to practice reading outside the demands of the ESL classroom.  Hence, functional literacy is confined to reading so as to be able to answer comprehension questions, complete grammar-based exercises, or write a composition/essay. Occasionally, if core subject reference materials are not available in the national language (Bahasa Malaysia), students read books and journals in English to obtain content related-knowledge.  As for survival literacy, they are generally content to carry on using their literacy in Bahasa Malaysia, given the fact that almost everyone in the university can communicate in the national language.

The objective of this article is to share an enriching classroom activity called the ‘Reading Project’, which can be introduced and managed on an on-going basis using any of the local English language newspapers. The main objective is to encourage the students to read any of these local English dailies. At the same time, students are provided with the opportunity to improve their reading skills as well as enhance their knowledge of current issues. 

Begin the semester by introducing newspapers into the ESL classroom. Get the students to buy at least one copy of the newspaper per week – usually the Sunday edition of the English daily of your choice. Then talk to them about the advantages of reading newspapers, especially how such on-going reading can help them develop reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary skills.  Besides this, also talk to them about the importance of developing schemata so as to widen their general knowledge.  Explain to them that reading is a critical skill that is essential for the undergraduates, not only in preparing them for the various English language examinations, but also for ensuring their academic success. Stress the fact that by developing their reading skills, they can better articulate/discuss ideas as well as read and understand a variety of texts. They can also internalize a full range of world background knowledge, language conventions and vocabulary by exposure through reading.  Also point out to them that in an academic setting like a university, it is essential to develop their reading skills because they have to carry out research work and write assignments, term papers and reports. And finally, emphasize the fact that if they want to excel, their reading must go beyond the content lecturers’ notes and recommended textbooks. They must read journals and reference books as well as related information available on the Internet, all of which are in English. Therefore, there is a dire need not only to equip themselves with the necessary reading skills but also to train themselves to read and understand texts independently.

Then introduce the on-going Reading Project. The introduction of the Reading Project, if planned well, can take up a whole two-hour lesson. To share this activity with teachers and teaching professionals, a detailed description of how this Reading Project can be introduced and managed is given below.

Introduction of the Reading Project

1.      Set aside a two-hour lesson.

2.      Prior to the lesson, ask each student to purchase a copy of the Sunday edition of the newspaper which you wish to use.

3.      At the start of the lesson, encourage the students to browse through the newspapers. While they are doing this, take the opportunity to introduce the various sections - headlines, national news, foreign news, business section, editorial page, letters to the editor, feature articles, classified/unclassified advertisements as well as the various supplements on computers, youth and education.

4.      Then tell them to put aside the newspaper. Do a listening activity. As you read, ask the students to take down notes relevant to the headlines.

5.      To do this, select a simple news report from the copy you are holding and read it aloud to them at a fairly slow pace, taking the time to emphasize the main details - the where, why, when, what, who of the report. It is recommended that you read it twice. For the benefit of the less proficient students, select a report on an accident or an incident which contains specific details.

6.      After the students have taken down short notes, use elicitation techniques to get them to help you build up a mind map of the details in the news report. Put it on the whiteboard. Then using this mind map, orally present the news report to the students.

7.      Get the students to copy the mind map and then write a short report using the details. If you have a large class, you could get them to work in pairs or in groups of four.

8.      Once they have completed their reports, ask them to compare their reports to the original report. Give them the option of editing their work before submitting the reports to you.

9.      Then move on to the next activity. Get the students to select a report/article, cut it out and paste it onto a piece of paper. Ask them to read it and then mind map the information relevant to the headline. Encourage them to use colors and designs of their own choosing.  If your students are fairly proficient, encourage them to give their opinion about the incident/report if they have any before submitting them to you.

10.  At the end of the lesson, explain that this is an on-going project, which they have to do at home since the time allotted on the timetable has to be used to teach the items or skills listed in the course content.  They can select reports based on their interest and most importantly on their level of comprehension. Also set the number of articles/reports to be done per week.

Management of the Reading Project

In managing this Reading Project, two approaches can be used to edit the reports. You can either collect them to edit in the comfort of your home, or edit them in class while the students are working on the exercises assigned to them. It is not very taxing to read them because most of the time the reports are about 60 to 80 words  long.  While editing, you may want to improve on the students’ work and if the need arises, you may also want to get them to rewrite the reports, especially if they have made many structural errors. You could also encourage the students to maintain a file.  From time to time, get them to pass their files around so that all the students get to read and look at each other’s work.  

In carrying out this Reading Project, particularly with students whose proficiency in English is quite low, you can gradually build up their ability to read, extract relevant information and write summaries.  At the same time, the students are also being trained in guided writing, that is, writing based on short notes.


This Reading Project using newspapers can be used by teachers in their respective classrooms per se or adapted to suit their classroom situations. This activity, if planned and carried out well, can be converted into a research project.  Before embarking on such a research project, the would-be researcher may want to look into the underlying principles of encouraging functional literacy using English Language dailies.  

To a large extent, there are many advantages of implementing a reading project such as this in the ESL classroom.  For one, an attempt is made to encourage the students to read in English outside the ESL classroom.  At the same time, they are provided with experience in reading a variety of authentic texts of current and general interest to supplement the teaching materials, which are specifically written for pedagogic purposes.  For their part, the students become familiar with a variety of genres, like advertisements, reviews, reports, statistics, captions and notices, to name but a few.  Reading newspapers also provides an avenue through which the students can expand their knowledge schema and develop their reading skills.  Besides this, it can to a large extent motivate the students to read a readily available and relatively cheap source of discourse in English., which contains texts that offer high interest content ranging from sensational news, gender-biased articles to content-based information.  Finally, to some extent, learner autonomy is being encouraged among the students, albeit in a modest way, by giving them a choice when it comes to selecting the reports for the Reading Project.


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©Thevy Rajaretnam 2002. All rights reserved.