Vol. 1. No. 2 A-3 August 1994
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Using Newspapers on CD-ROM

Paul Seedhouse
York University Norwegian Study Centre


While most areas within the broad spectrum of ELT now boast a wealth of published materials, two fields in which locating suitable course materials can still be a problem are British or American Civilisation/ current affairs and English for Specific Purposes. This article proposes that newspapers on CD-ROM can be used as an effective resource for materials production in both areas, at a price which is affordable to many institutions. CD-ROM software can conduct sophisticated searches for articles and instantly locate large amounts of detailed and up-to-date information even on specialised areas. This article provides ideas for using the newspaper articles as a basis for materials design, language learning exercises, project work, CALL exercises and conversation classes. Practical advice is given on how to obtain newspapers on CD-ROM in Europe and the U.S.A.

1. What are newspapers on CD-ROM?

Most people are familiar with CDs or compact discs as discs on which music is stored. However, you can store any kind of digital information on a CD, and computers can read information from a CD in the same way they read floppy computer discs. Huge amounts of information can be stored on a CD; for example, all the articles published in one newspaper for one whole year (typically around 70,000 articles) can be fitted on a single CD. What is more, the CD-ROM software will conduct searches and locate for you within seconds all the articles on any subject you specify, and then print them out onto paper. At present there are 6 U.K. newpapers and 43 U.S. newspapers available on CD-ROM.

2. Newspapers on CD-ROM as a resource for teaching British or American civilisation and current affairs

A problem which is frequently encountered in institutions everywhere is how to provide learners at intermediate level and above with up-to-date information on British or American Civilisation and current issues. Such information can be useful for [-1-]British or American Culture or British or American Civilisation components in EFL courses, for examinations such as the Cambridge Diploma in English Studies, for learners who need to access it for project work and as a basis for conversation work and debates.

Several books are available which provide an outline of British or American civilisation issues. However, they are often too generalised and in insufficient depth for project work. In addition, in a rapidly-changing world, they are often out of date in some respects by the time they are published; the healthcare systems in most Western countries, for example, are in a constant state of flux. Newspapers are clearly the best way to obtain up-to- date and detailed information on current issues, but there are several problems involved in access. The physical space involved in storing collections of back copies of newspapers is considerable, as is the difficulty in keeping them in order. Interesting articles get cut out and disappear. If a group expresses a particular interest (for example in euthanasia, immigration, or racism) it can take hours of searching through back copies to locate suitable stories. Furthermore, for institutions outside anglophone countries, it can prove too expensive to subscribe to a daily anglophone newspaper.

Newspapers on CD-ROM provide an appropriate solution to the above problems at a reasonable cost. If, as in the above example, you want to locate articles about euthanasia, you simply type in euthanasia as your search word, and you will instantly have a list of the headlines of all the articles for the last year in which the word euthanasia occurs. Then, scroll through the list of headlines and select those which seem to be appropriate for your purposes. Press another key and you can read the articles to see how relevant they are. Press another key and you can print the relevant articles onto paper. It is also possible to conduct more sophisticated searches in order to widen or narrow the search. If, for example, you want to find out about euthanasia in Holland only, then you type in euthanasia and Holland, and the search will locate only those articles which contain both words.

Newspapers on CD-ROM can be run from DOS or Windows, and the degree of user-friendliness varies according to the particular package. In general, the user encounters a simple menu-type interface, and the most important operation is to type in a search word. None of my students (Norwegian students in Higher Education majoring in English) have ever found it difficult to learn to use the menu systems.

The problem of space is solved in that a CD-ROM drive can often be fitted inside your computer as an internal drive. A simple external drive is generally of modest size, typically around 45 x 140 x 220 mm or 1.75 x 5.5 x 8.5 inches (H x W x D). All the articles for one year can be fitted on a single CD. The articles do [-2-] not need to be kept in order: the computer will sort the articles in any order you want. The time spent searching for articles is cut to a few seconds. The cost can be competitive; one year’s subscription to “The Times and Sunday Times,” for example, is currently 195 British pounds or 295 US dollars plus tax and postage to any country. Depending on which country you live in, this can compare very well with the cost of airmail subscription to an anglophone newspaper. Annual subscription to the “Washington Post” on CD-ROM is around 1350 US dollars per year.

To give some idea of how many articles might be instantly available for a particular Civilisation area, the results of a search are detailed below. The figures show how many articles were found which included that search word in “The Independent on CD- ROM” January-December 1993.

Table 1. Results of a sample search on CD-ROM

            Crime          2298
            Violent crime    94
            Immigration     422
            Healthcare      272
            Racism          411
            Euthanasia       50

3. Using the articles for language learning exercises

Once you have located articles which are of interest and relevance to your learners, you can use them as a basis for producing your own language teaching materials. You also have the additional opportunity of using the texts as a basis for language learning exercises. This can be done by saving the articles you have found onto the hard disc of your computer and then retrieving them into your word processor; this is easy to do as the texts are in the near-universal ASCII format. Here are some possibilities:

a) Alter the text. Once you have the text of the article on- screen, you can easily convert it into a gapped passage by deleting words and typing dots in their place before printing them out. Or you can gap the passage and provide all the missing words jumbled up at the end of the article. Or you can put all verbs into the infinitive, remove all linking words or remove all capitals and punctuation, depending on the focus you require. Or you can create a guided writing exercise by making each sentence into a series of prompts.

b) Vocabulary exercises. Once you have the text of the article on-screen, you can italicise or underline key words [-3-] and then add an exercise at the end of the article. For example, have the learners infer the meanings of the key words, give definitions to match with the key words. Use the key words as a basis for dictionary work.

c) Comprehension tests. These can be in the form of comprehension questions, true/false questions, multiple choice or alternative summaries to choose from.

d) Scanning for information. Ask the learners to scan the article to obtain factual information.

e) Ordering articles. Cut the article into paragraphs and have the learners reconstruct the article by putting the paragraphs in the correct order. Or you can mix up two separate articles with titles and have the learners separate and reconstruct them both. Or you can mix up a pile of articles and a pile of headlines and have the learners match the headlines to the correct articles.

f) Information transfer. Produce an exercise which involves taking information from the text and transferring it to another format e.g., filling in a flow chart, questionnaire, biography etc.

The advantage of writing the above exercises by means of the CD-ROM is that the exercises can be simply typed onto the end of the article while it is on-screen. When it is printed out, therefore, the result will tend to look a lot more professional than photocopied newspaper articles with exercises typed on a separate sheet. The article and exercise can then be saved on the hard disc of your computer for future use.

4. Using the texts for CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning)

Any of the newspaper texts can be saved as ASCII files; ASCII is a standard format which can be used by almost any word processing software. This means that the newspaper articles can then be imported and used by various computer programs for language learning. Wida Software, Camsoft and other software publishers have CALL programs which can import ASCII files, including cloze and gapping programs, vocabulary, multiple choice, jumbling and matching exercises. Storyboard, for example, is a program very popular with learners, in which they read the text for as long as they want. The computer then completely removes the text, leaving dots on the screen where the words were. The learners then reconstruct the text, asking the computer for help when required. [-4-]

Alternatively, the text can be imported into a concordancer as an ASCII file, and work can be undertaken on the collocations and contexts of particular words. Wordlists and analyses of word frequency can also be created.

5. Using articles as a basis for conversation classes

In conversation classes, it is often useful to have a textual input in order to present basic facts to order a debate and to provide a stimulus. Some possibilities are:

a) Summarise and report back to the group. Choose a subject, for example, abortion. Print out a number of articles so that each learner has an article. The learners read the article and write a brief summary which they read out to the group. Group discussion of the event or opinion expressed in the article then follows.

b) Role play. Letters to the editor are useful here. Choose a controversial topic, for example, racism, and give each learner a letter so that a wide range of opinion is represented in the class. The learners invent a personality for themselves to fit the tone of the letter. The teacher opens the debate and each learner contributes in role. Newspaper letters are extremely useful in reflecting the huge range of public opinion on such subjects, as well as the range of possible registers.

6. Project work

At York University Norwegian Study Centre, we run short courses for Norwegian tertiary learners who are majoring in English. The courses are based mainly on British civilisation and current affairs. All students write projects on a subject of their choice, ranging from monopolization in the media to the sources of the conflict in Northern Ireland. They therefore require very detailed and very up-to-date information which can be rapidly and easily accessed. The newpapers on CD-ROM at York University library have proved extremely popular. The students prefer the ability of the CD-ROM to conduct rapid searches for relevant data to the alternative of ploughing through stacks of books and collections of journals and newspapers. It is very easy to browse through newspapers on CD-ROM by entering search words and scrolling through headlines to look for particular angles on a subject area. Quotations from articles can also be integrated directly into their word-processed project reports with reference details automatically cited. [-5-]

7. A resource for teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP)

Resources are a particular problem for ESP teachers. If short intensive courses for Iranian naval engineers, Italian ski- instructors, French waiters, or Thai systems analysts need to be provided, then obtaining suitable materials at short notice can be difficult. Published ESP textbooks tend to cover general areas rather than specialised sub-areas due to the limited size of specialist markets. In rapidly-changing technical areas, textbooks can be out of date on publication. Specialist journals can be too technical for teachers to utilise (and sometimes too technical for the learners), and materials writing for single courses is time- consuming. Newspapers on CD-ROM can provide some solutions for ESP materials production in many areas. Newspaper articles cover a surprisingly wide range of specialist, technical, and professional areas. To illustrate this, I conducted a number of searches of both general and specialised areas typically covered in ESP courses. The figures show how many articles were found with mentions of the terms below for The Independent on CD-ROM January-October 1993.

Table 2. Results of a sample search for ESP articles

   Insurance  1873   Actuary                   33
   Medicine    629   Obstetrics               834
   Education  2432   History teaching         166
   Tourism     314   Skiing                   241
   Computers   565   Artificial Intelligence   15

The advantage of using newspaper articles is that they are up-to-date, inform the reader of recent developments in the subject area and are written either for the general reader or for the subject specialist but without the excessive technical jargon often encountered in journals. All of the articles can be sorted and accessed in a matter of seconds.

Having located texts in the learners specific area, the ESP teacher can then utilise the texts as a basis for materials design. Alternatively, the texts can be used as a basis for language learning exercises, project work, CALL and conversation classes as detailed above.

8. How do you run newspapers on CD-ROM?

You need:

a) An IBM AT compatible computer with hard disc as a minimum requirement. [-6-]

b) A subscription to a newspaper on CD-ROM. Most suppliers give educational discounts, and the prices of the papers seem to vary considerably. Normally you receive four CDs per year, one at the end of each quarter. You are also supplied with software to load onto your hard disc which enables your computer to work with the CD-ROM.

c) A CD-ROM drive. This can be an internal or external drive and you should ensure that it will work with your computer and run your newspaper on CD-ROM before buying it.

d) Someone who knows enough about computers to fit items (a), (b), and (c) together and get them working. Newspapers on CD-ROM come complete with installation software and documentation, so an experienced PC user should be able to complete the installation.

9. Note on suppliers

TESL-EJ is not permitted to publish commercial information. Anyone who is unable to find a supplier of newspapers on CD-ROM in their country is welcome to contact the author for addresses of suppliers in the U.K. and U.S.A.

10. Note on copyright

According to the manufacturers of The Independent on CD-ROM, none of the activities descibed above infringe upon copyright, provided they are used for educational purposes. If any materials prepared in such ways were sold or used for commercial purposes, however, they would then be in breach of copyright.

Individual manufacturers of newspapers on CD-ROM may have differing copyright restrictions, so any teachers wishing to try any of the above activities would be well advised to check with the manufacturers before purchase.

Paul Seedhouse has taught English as a Foreign Language in Austria, Thailand, Brunei and Spain, and is currently Director of Studies at the Norwegian Study Centre, The University of York, England. His research interests are in classroom communication and computer assisted language learning.

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