Using News and Old Time Radio Shows to Improve Language Skills

Okay, some of your students hate to read. Pronunciation OTRR_YoursTrulyJohnnyDollar_SinglesFortunately, there is another way to build their vocabulary and improve their  English proficiency – it all begins with radio.

Anyone who has ever learned a language is aware of how difficult it is to pick up actual meaning from target language conversations, news broadcasts, movies, radio, or the internet. Listening is a complex cognitive function, requiring the auditory stimuli to be processed in many ways: neurologically, linguistically, semantically, and finally, in order to arrive at meaning, pragmatically. Listening is a veritable Gordian Knot, yet each day language learners are trying to untie that knot so their auditory comprehension can match the functions of speech, reading and writing.

What Happens in the Classroom

In the classroom, students will often become used to the teacher’s speaking pattern, and perhaps even mimic it. Often students will pick up certain words used by their teacher and begin to incorporate them into their own language use. In class, too, they can get hints as to meaning from actions, gestures, and tone. The same conditions apply to television, videos, and movies, hence the universality of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be baaaack” or Jim Carrey’s “Alrighty, then.” While this type of listening input is valuable, it is not isolated or free of clues, whereby students can simply listen and try to understand.

Radio – A Source of Great Listening Material

Pronunciation NPRNews – I always suggest that students listen to NPR or BBC radio as part of their out-of-class practice, because the news stories and commentaries on these media are long enough and well spoken enough for students to gain both in understanding and in vocabulary, over time. In one community language class that I taught for new Spanish-speaking residents, NPR played a vital role in helping them begin to understand their English speaking employers, vendors, and service people. Beyond the listening features themselves, these radio and audio offerings have resources for students and teachers to enhance and extend audio comprehension.

Information – Teachers bless the day ted.com went online. This website has lectures on topics such as Technology, Entertainment, Design, Business, and Global Issues. Teachers, innovators, movers, musicians, planners, humanitarians, inventors, and leaders share their personal experiences using a wide array of media. In one example that riveted my students’ attention and had their ears practically waving in the breeze to catch every word, Marco Tempest talks about “The Magic of Truth and Lies.” While he gently manipulates three mobile devices, we watch flowers bloom across screens, butterflies take flight, and smiley faces grin. It’s a vastly entertaining five minutes about a topic guaranteed to have English language learners reaching for their dictionaries.

Good Stories Never Go Out of Style

Yet, like the salesman hawking chamois on an infomercial, the internet has even more. Across the net, students can find tales of suspense, mystery, and the human condition, allPronunciation The Legionnaire and the Lady told in dramatic, original form. Old time radio is alive and well and on the web decades after it died in real life. From Amos and Andy to the Lux Radio Theater, laughs and drama await the listener on a selection of sites. Yes, you too can listen to Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable in a tale of timeless romance, “The Legionnaire and the Lady.”

The benefits of these radio shows are many:

  1. Articulate speech – Actors of the early years of Hollywood were precise and measured in their speech, making for easy comprehension.
  2. Repetition – Students can replay portions of the story in order to comprehend at a higher level.
  3. Following Dialogue – In these stories the listener will hear a variety of voices as the actors play different roles. Being able to follow conversations without visual cues heightens listening proficiency.
  4. Motivation – Fascinating stories told by experts were the reason that the radio was the center of family life in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Listening to the evening’s entertainment was considered a privilege. Students tend to move happily from one tale to another, listening and learning almost unknowingly.
  5. Varied Speech Patterns – In the Lux Radio drama mentioned above, Marlene Dietrich starts off with a French accent and segues into a vague European version. Listeners will hear a full selection of speech patterns and accents.

While books are invaluable and the ability to read essential, radio programs afford infinite possibilities for language acquisition and entertainment. Turn the radio on, boys.

Originally published on Suite 101, Sept. 19, 2011
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