Thursday, 18 June 2009

Google News for ESP grammar

Last week I was looking for an up-to-date news story to provide some practice of third conditionals and to put the language into an interesting context. (My students had requested it).

Google News is perfect for things like this. Maybe you've been using it for years, but I only discovered in a few months ago. (I'd assumed the 'News' tab on Google would lead me to news about Google). Different national Google sites will generate different news stories, so I always switch from my default version ( to the UK version (

So I typed in "would have" (in inverted commas) into the search box, and got a huge list of great news stories, most of which contained third conditionals. (Go on, give it a try now – I’ll wait here for you.)

Here’s the story I chose, based on five rather superficial criteria:

a. It’s short.
b. It’s interesting in terms of content, and therefore should generate some good discussion.
c. It contains two third conditionals, plus plenty of other nice tense-related structures (reported speech, present perfect, etc.).
d. It’s loosely connected with legal English, so I can justify using it with my lawyers.
e. It’s also (arguably) an example of media spin/bias/slant (i.e. we get a rather negative impression of the teacher, perhaps because that will attract more readers, whereas perhaps another version of the same story might present her as a victim). Therefore I can use it with my media exec 1 to 1.

So what can you do with a text like this? (It’s a good idea to have
the story open in a separate window, or to print it out, so you can follow my points).

When you print it out, use the printable version, which most news sites seem offer. [I’ll talk about copyright issues in another post, but suffice to say I included all the details about the author, date and web address in my printout.]

Then in the classroom, first of all, get students to read the title to predict what the story is going to be about. Discuss the three meanings of branch (partof a tree; an office of a large firm; and a sector of industry). Check students understand the verb sue, and imagine who a teacher might be suing and why. (One of my students suggested she might be suing the tree).

A simple while-reading task is to check those predictions, but you could add more questions (What exactly happened? What injuries did she suffer? What were the long-term consequences? Whose fault was the incident?) After reading, students can discuss in pairs before you open up the discussion. Do the teacher’s symptoms (tiredness, memory loss and problems multi-tasking) sound serious to you? How could they be assessed / proved? Does she have a chance of getting the money? Is this an example of Britain becoming a
litigious society, or does the teacher have a good case? Does the article present a balanced view of the story, or are we being manipulated by the choice of language and the structure of the text?

Now is the time to check vocabulary problems, including drawing attention to useful collocations (to sustain an injury, an impaired memory, a high threshold, to deny liability), prepositions (to sue sb for sth, to glance at sth, adjacent to sth, to deal with sth, reliant on sb, to have an impact on sth) and idioms (it’s with our solicitors = we’re preparing to fight this case in court). This would actually work well as a matching exercise, matching the first part of these collocations in one column (or on slips of paper) with the second parts.

As a grammar lover, I can’t resist analysing al the great grammar in this story – but it’s important only to do this with students who also like grammar.

  • Reduced relative clause: A teacher (who was) injured by a falling branch is suing …
  • Preposition + verb + ing in passive: Since being injured, she has not worked (= Since she was injured …)
  • Reported speech: Her solicitor said she had not worked and suffered from …
  • Subject-to-subject raising: She is said to have trouble multi-tasking (= It is said that she has trouble)
  • Third conditionals: If there had been …; If someone had just walked along …
  • What-clefting for emphasis: What we’re trying to do is to restore … (= We’re trying to restore).

The nice thing about all of those structures is that they're great for transformations, so an obvious exercise would be an FCE-style transformations exercise:

  1. A falling branch injured a schoolteacher, who is suing the EA. [BY] (A schoolteacher ...)
  2. "Since she was injured, she hasn't worked" said her solicitor. [BEING] (Her solicitor ...)

You get the idea.

A final task would be to copy the whole text into a word document, and replace all the tensed verbs with gaps: A schoolteacher injured by a falling branch _____ (sue) the EA ...

I say 'would be', because copying and changing someone else's work is right on the borderline between what's acceptable and what's not in terms of copyright. It might be safer to use a black marker on a printout of the original ...

So there you have it - a quick and easy grammar lesson. Not especially authentic or heavy (in terms of legal English), so I wouldn't build a whole course out of texts like these, but from time to time they do the job well. Comments are very welcome, especially if you can think of any other things to ask Google News to generate grammar lesson.

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