Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tabloid Fever: Rousing Students’ Zeal for Emotion Vocabulary

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

College Life– I’ll put that one in pile A.  Recycling– Pile B.  Male-Female Communication– That one should probably also go there in pile A.  Fast Food– I’ll add that to pile B, at least for now. Celebrity Gossip– Definitely pile C.

ESL Lessons and Newspaper/ Magazine Articles: Piles A, B, and C

Like many of you, I suspect, I have developed an ESL teacher’s eye for newspaper and magazine articles.  Even when I read one out of personal interest or idle curiosity, I speculate by reflex about how I might use some of it in an ESL lesson.  I tear out and stockpile articles, or pages from articles, that strike me as worthy reading material.  In pile A go the current, student-relevant, and interestingly controversial pieces.  Pile B contains pieces on significant but comparatively stale topics, pieces I usually consider “emergency reading material.”  The pieces that end up in pile C are worth less or worthless; I can’t always decide.  We’re talking gutter press, basically.  The pages in pile C present scandalous or shocking news and they are loaded with hyperbole.  Ordinarily, I’d use pile C items only to illustrate variety in media language.

But that changed recently…

Tapping the Potential of Pile C (AKA “The Tabloid Pile”) 

Though they typically lack factual accuracy and real substance, tabloid or sensational articles can rouse in students something more than vacant curiosity about juicy facts obtained by intrusive means and presented in inflammatory or exaggerated language.

Such articles can serve as vehicles for learning and practicing English emotion vocabulary – the vocabulary we do in fact often use when describing people’s more extreme behaviors.

A Class Activity Using Tabloids

Instead of asking students to recall and write on some dramatic or emotional event from their experience again, we can furnish them with a potentially dramatic topic and assign them the job of writing, as a tabloid journalist, a brief report containing strong language which is both emotional and idiomatic.

Like this…

The whole class gets a general topic, let’s say: “A (Xxxx) Day at the Amusement Park.” (Students decide on a dramatic adjective to modify “Day.”)  Then students are divided into three groups, each of which pretends to have interviewed park visitors who had a variety of emotional experiences at the place. Of course, the experiences may be, and somehow often naturally are, entertainingly extreme. Students are provided with a vocabulary sheet including helpful synonymous expressions like those here:

  • That visitor was extremely angry: “lost his temper,” “hit the roof,” “went berserk,” “saw red,” etc.
  • That visitor was truly scared: “was as white as sheet,” “trembled,” “was speechless,” “jumped out of her skin,” etc.
  • That visitor was highly amused: “burst out laughing,” “laughed his head off, “chuckled,” “was hysterical,” etc.

Student groups should end up with short tabloid articles charged with emotional language. This activity may even take the form of a competition to produce the most authentic, tabloidish piece.

I think mainly because the task allows for some natural freedom of emotional expression, my students have tended to be enthusiastic about creating an exaggerated piece, one which they recognize requires certain emotionally extreme, but very contextually appropriate, vocabulary.

A Final Word: One Academic’s Thoughts on the Place of Tabloids

In his 2011 New York Times article ‘Why We Need the Tabloids,” Ryan Linkof, a lecturer in history at the University of Southern California, defends the role of tabloids. He claims that even though their practices may sometimes be questionable, tabloids conduct their investigations “in the service of a popular desire to see behind the facade of public life. They rely on the appeal (a very human one) of seeing elements of our societies that are often shamefully hidden away from view.”

Here’s the link to the whole text (a pile A article?):

Any emotions or thoughts to share?

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