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Learning From Articles: A Simple Algorithm

Now I’m trying to carve out some time for reanimating my French, and I’m using news articles for this. Articles are great because they are relatively short, can be of a vast variety of topics and the language is not always that easy (it’s authentic and not adapted like in course books). So they are good for increasing one’s vocabulary range and improving reading skills, especially starting from B1+ level.

News articles are a bit specific, though, because it works better if you follow the news in general and know what’s happening in the world. I’m not a big fan of news, and sometimes I struggle. But on the other hand, I’m interested in how Europe is going to cope with its energy crisis, so I try to plough through the information about it and understand how the economy works. And I’ve also found fun information about the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris (not all in the news is about politics, economy or bad accidents).

If you don’t like the news, any other articles will do, from blogs or media resources like magazine, for example.

Let’s look at the algorithm.

The algorithm

In short, the steps are the following:

  • Find something interesting;
  • Look through it before you read it to try and get hte main idea and check how difficult it may be;
  • Read it once for the general understanding;
  • Read it again and highlight some useful language;
  • Take notes on it;
  • Involve some speaking – either read the article out loud, or even discuss it with someone;
  • Do some follow-up on the topic.

And now the same with explanations, details and examples.

1. Open the website and look attentively (!) at the headlines. Sometimes they are transparent, but not always. Plus, in English, there’s a special style the headlines follow, in terms of both grammar and vocab, and it may take a while to understand what is meant. And don’t choose the first thing you see (really, some of my students tend to do exactly this), but find something that seems really interesting or relevant to you.

2. Once you’ve found what to read, go to the article. But don’t start reading it straight away. Scroll the page to see how long it is. Look at the pics and quotes to get the main idea. Check the introduction and conclusion for more info. Maybe that will be enough and you won’t want to go into much detail.

But even if everything seems to be fine, scan the text to see how many unknown words there are. If I’m not mistaken, we can comfortably guess the unknown words from the context when we understand at least 95% (better 98-99%) of the text very well.

So, when I work with articles, it’s something fewer than 10 completely new words per article, more often about 5. In this case, the steps I’m giving here will take less than an hour. If you have to look up words from every paragraph, it will be much longer and probably less fun. And it will be much more difficult to discuss the article and retain new vocab.

Scanning the article beforehand will save you time (and it will prepare you linguistically). Sometimes there’s an accompanying short video on the topic. Watching it also may help. 

3. If you still decide to read the article in detail and do some language work, maybe it makes sense to print it out. Usually it’s recommended to read the text in full once without checking any unknown words to understand the main message before you start any language work.

I fully support this approach, but what I do depends on how much time I have. If not much, I skip this step and start reading both for comprehension and language (but I’m an experienced language learner and I can do this). I don’t skip the first two steps, though. They really help.

4. Reading in detail (slowly and carefully) and paying attention to the language. Now we want to understand the article as well as possible, and to possibly learn some good language with it. For this, as I read, I use different types of underlining (why I’m suggesting you work with paper – it’s easier to do the highlighting of the language): 

  • new words (a curved line), but I don’t check them straight away, but try to guess the meaning by the context;
  • useful/ interesting phrases (a single line). This can be anything that catches my attention – from the key vocab, to nice usage of language, to something that may be on my mind and I need to check the right language for it (e.g. is it energy or energetic crisis?)
  • some grammar (a double line or in circle), like articles, prepositions or the use of tenses. It’s something that I find difficult to learn with rules and instead I try to accumulate examples of how it’s used (and maybe deduce the rules instead). The idea here is not so much to remember the examples as to remember what grammar causes difficulties, notice it and check my knowledge and understanding. 
  • quotes/ interesting facts (a single line with square brackets). As much as I like to highlight new language, I read primarily for the content. So I want to find and somehow remember the key points of the article to talk about it later if the opportunity presents itself.

If that seems too much, you may focus on What are the key phrases here? What will help me discuss these ideas/ facts (or whatever you’re reading about) if needed?” and choose something that both carries the meaning and is good vocab for the topic. 

Instead of underlining, you may use various colours, or invent something else. Anyway, I believe that this way of highlighting language is extremely useful as it teaches you to

  1. notice what language is used and how (some learners only focus on new words, often isolated, but starting from B1 what we want to learn is how words can be combined, in other words, we focus on phrases, collocations and so on, up to sentence structures),
  2. you learn to prioritise and to make choices where to focus, because highlighting every other word in the text is not going to be helpful,
  3. if you do this regularly, it becomes a habit, and from a single text you may learn to pick lots of good language and activate it straight away. 

5. The next step is about taking notes on the language you’ve highlighted. I may do this in my notebook or right alongside/ after the article (on the other side of the sheet). I have enough time, I make a list of phrases that may be useful for summarising the article. If I don’t have the time, I sometimes skip this step, but I can definitely say that then I find it much harder to remember some facts from the article or use some new language. Writing really helps me memorise things.  

I put the phrases in the order that looks logical to me, and not necessarily how they appear in the text. I may also combine phrases into groups (for example, synonyms). This is also when I check the unknown words. While doing this, I usually read the whole text or parts of it again or even several times. 

Below are the photos of the article I worked with about the marathon route for The Olympics in Paris. Notice, how rough and ready my notes are) 

What I especially liked about the text is how they described the route. The idea is simple: first the athletes will go along this street and then that one. But it would be boring to use the same verb to describe the intricacies of a 42 km route. So, instead, in the article we see lots of variations of “take this street”. That is some excellent use of synonyms (about 13 similar verbs), and I wrote them out.

In general, I find that writing (not typing!) makes me pronounce the phrases to myself, so later it’s much easier to say them even if I don’t read anything aloud. So I should point out here that because I did all that writing, it was pretty easy to discuss the article (and I even liked how I spoke =))

6. Finally, I decide on which language should be taken away from this article. Maybe they are new, maybe just interesting. I’ll probably pick not more than 10 phrases. Ideally, we want to stimulate the associative memory here: if the phrases are connected to the main topic and you’ve worked with the article for some time, it’s likely that the topic will become the link to retrieving the language you worked with. 

7. Ideally, it would be great to read the article out loud, but I don’t usually have time or energy for this. However, as I present the article to my language learning partner, I like to pick some quotes and read them to him. It’s a lazy shortcut compared to quality reading aloud, but why not? It’s good both for activating the vocab and for pronunciation. 

If you too can discuss the article with somebody, that’s perfect. If not, you may share it on social media or with a friend adding a comment of your own.

(8.) This may be the end of working with an article. Or, if you really like the topic, you may follow it up and watch some videos, to hear how people speak about it. It’s very useful because spoken and written language are not the same. I actually found out about an interesting page from French history – The Women’s March on Versailles, which was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. The marathon route is to commemorate this event and pay hommage to women.

And how do you work with text? Do you do any revision or just move on? (I usually move on).

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

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