Teaching the style of news stories
Working with many examples
The following suggestions are best used when your students have access to one or more complete news sections of an English-language newspaper like the Bangkok Post. Here you will not focus on a single story, but will instead have your students find as many examples as possible of the concepts introduced. For actual lessons illustrating this, see Post Tips
A group of students at a Bangkok Post seminar are clipping stories that fall into various categories.|
1. A good introductory exercise is to have your students look at as many news stories as possible and determine what category (something happened, etc.) they fall into. This is a confidence builder because students quickly see there are more similarities to news writing than there are differences. (See The basic news story for a list of common story types.)
2. Most headlines are abbreviated in some way and it is easy to construct exercises which require students to convert them into complete sentences. For title headlines this means that students must read one or more paragraphs to find a suitable verb. For sentence headlines, they
may have to add one or more articles or, in the case of abbreviated passive voice constructions, they will have to add the verb “to be”. Since, in Thailand at least, omitting both articles and the verb “to be” are common errors, this can be a very good exercise indeed. (See The headline for more ideas.)
3. The newspaper lead is usually one sentence long and it, too, exhibits familiar patterns. Find several lead sentences which are particularly good models. At least one should begin with the subject and main verb, another should begin with an introductory phrase and still another should have the subject and main verb separated by a relative clause. Have the students quickly look through other lead sentences to find examples that correspond with the sentence structure of each of
your model sentences. Make sure they identify the subject and main verb in each because this is where they generally will found out the “something happened”. It is also useful to include leads that have sources clearly marked either at the beginning or the end of the sentence. (See The lead for more ideas.)
4. News stories are generally very poor sources for main idea exercises — that is, if you simply have students identify the main ideas. All they generally need do is to point to the headline or lead. But if, instead, you cut off the headline from the rest of the story and have your students write a headline of their own, it can be a very powerful main idea exercise — and more.
In the real world headlines are generally written from the lead, often by a different person from the one who wrote the body of the story, so this is a realistic exercise as well as a useful one. The headline writer must condense the main idea into a few words and this forces your students into considering what is absolutely essential. Below is one of the examples we use during our seminars:
ABOUT 1,000 technical students from Samut Prakan and their guardians rallied at the Vocational
Education Department yesterday to demand senior officials conduct an investigation into possible corruption at their college.
We ask seminar participants to decide which concepts are essential to include in the headline and, with some discussion, they usually come up with demand, investigation, and corruption. Now their task becomes to put this into the headline style and since this is a news story, it means a sentence headline. And since both investigation and corruption are lengthy words, they should also try to find shorter equivalents. The actual Bangkok Post headline for the above story was Graft probe demanded. This does not constitute the right answer, however, but one of many possible right answers. Space availability is the main determinant as to which possibility is actually chosen. This absence of a single correct answer is another attractive feature of this exercise since it takes pressure
off the students and let's their creativity take over.
5. Have the students look for the various elements common to the body of the story, i.e., details, statements from those involved in the story and background. Details are easy to find as are the statements — although you could have your students identify both direct and indirect speech. Background may be more difficult for them to identify. Background is extremely important, however, since it allows ordinary people—non-experts — to read the story with understanding, so you should
spend some time on this subject. In fact, you might want to have students read some stories only for the background. In a story about a little-known foreign country, for example, you might want to ignore the news and have your students find out as much as they can about the country instead. (See The body for more ideas.)
Working with single stories
Single stories are also useful for understanding the style of the news story. Here are two suggestions:
6. Probably the most important idea you can teach your students about the news style of writing is that it gives them at least three chances to understand the main ideas. Make sure they understand the functions of the headline, lead and body, particularly as they relate to guessing unfamiliar vocabulary. Have them find unfamiliar words in either the headline or lead of a story. Then let them see if they can understand them from the context supplied by the other sections of the story. Often
this takes the form of familiar synonyms. At other times, the unfamiliar word becomes clear as the writer develops the main news items through additional details. (See Taking full advantage of the news style for additional ideas.)
7. In news stories, writers first focus on the latest developments — the news of the story. This means that stories which involve a sequence of events (a robbery, an election campaign, etc.) are usually not
told in chronological order. A useful exercise, therefore, is to have your students take such a story and put its events in the order in which they actually occurred. Then have them consider why the writer didn't tell the story this way.