Vol. 7. No. 3 A-2 December 2003
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TV News in the EFL/ESL Classroom: Criteria for Selection

David M. Bell
Ohio University


Three broad categories for selecting TV news stories for the EFL/ESL classroom are examined: content schemata, formal schemata and linguistic difficulty. Content is distinguished according to "exogenous" context: specialized or universal prior knowledge required, and "endogenous" context: no prior knowledge required--the news film creates its own context. Universal exogenous contexts and endogenous contexts are likely to be more comprehensible than specialized exogenous contexts. As for formal schemata, the more varied and visual style of American network news together with the trend to "dramatic framing," narrative-based, and "perspectival" reporting make American network news more accessible to second language learners. Finally, linguistic difficulty is examined according to acoustic, lexical/syntactic and text-type processing difficulties. With regard to text-type, four types of juxtapositions of spoken and visual elements are identified: symbolic, referential, schematic, and iconic. Audiovisual texts with greater iconic juxtaposition are likely to be more comprehensible for second language learners.


In the last ten years, the output of TV news has exploded both in English and non-English speaking countries. In the UK, for example, a country long known for its limited number of channels, terrestrial and satellite services now provide more than 100 hours of TV news programming in a 24-hour real-time day (MacGregor, 1997). In Japan, the satellite channel NHK 1 alone provides more than 24 hours of TV news in English each week, including the news bulletins of CNN, ABC, BBC, ATV (Hong Kong), etc., as well as news magazine programs such as Nightline, This Week and The NewsHour. If we add the availability in Japan of twenty-four hour world news networks such as CNN, BBC World, Bloomberg, etc., terrestrial bilingual news broadcasts (Japanese news dubbed into English), and the growing accessibility of TV news on the Internet, the availability of TV news in English is truly all-encompassing. TV news programming in English is not only a vast and growing language learning resource which provides meaningful opportunities for non-reciprocal listening but a vital and immediate alternative source of information. The pedagogical and informative aspects of news broadcasts in English may therefore often and dramatically intersect.

Although much has already been written about selecting and using video material in general in the second language classroom (see for example, Cooper et al., 1991; Joiner, 1990; Rubin, 1995; Shrum & Glisan, 1994; Stempleski & Arcario, 1992; Stempleski & Tomalin, 1990), far less research has focused on the pedagogical problems of selecting and presenting TV news (but see Brinton & Gaskill, 1978; Couch et al., 1999; Cooper, 1996; Gruba, 1997; Meinhof, 1998; Phillips, 1991; Tchaicha, 1996). Given the burgeoning resource and accessibility of TV news in English, this paper examines the criteria for selecting TV news items for use in the second language classroom. In the course of the paper, I will also be discussing some ways of using TV news, but for the most part the paper deals with selectional criteria. [-1-]

Three broad categories for assessing the pedagogical value of TV news are identified:

Of course, the selection of any materials cannot proceed without reference to the listener characteristics of the intended audience. This research is based upon an elective course I have taught in current affairs to a group of male and female Japanese university seniors of low-intermediate to advanced proficiency (N=18). Although these students have low self-confidence with regard to their abilities to listen to authentic materials, they are highly motivated and have a high degree of interest in the materials. In terms of understanding TV news, factors such as interest, motivation and education may be more important than linguistic ability for native and non-native speakers alike (Wodak, 1987). Given that the infrequency of the class's schedule--just 3 hours per week--and its foreign language context, the responsibility for selection of materials fell mainly on the teacher. Table 1 lists the news items that were used in class.

Table 1: TV News Items Used in Class

  1. Senator John Glenn in Space, ABC (2.35 mins.)
  2. Children and Guns, ABC (2.31)
  3. Carry-on Luggage, ABC (2.01)
  4. TWA Flight 800, ABC (2.07)
  5. Getting a Bicycle for your Child, CNN(3.12)
  6. Landing on Mars, ABC (4.28)
  7. Census Data, ABC (1.30)

The research design of this paper is in the tradition of the hermeneutic paradigm of naturalistic and action research (Freeman, 1998). It focuses on three modes of enquiry. First, by introspection, it seeks to make explicit the process of material selection by the teacher-researcher. This is seen as part of an ongoing process in teacher research to articulate and represent what teachers know and are learning through their work in the classroom. Second, the paper reflects upon the use of selected materials in the classroom within the framework of action research. And, third, from the perspective of the emic principle of ethnographic research, I survey student perceptions of the difficulty of the materials selected and used during the course.

Content Schemata

Research in cognitive science suggests that knowledge is organized in the form of schemata (Rumelhart, 1980). Schemata consist of stereotypical scenarios, routines and action sequences, which are acquired in the course of an individual's life experience. Schemata have also been described in terms of frames and frame systems (Minsky, 1975) and scripts (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Weaver (1994) defines a schema as "an organized chunk of knowledge or experience, often accompanied by feelings" (p.18). Schemata aid the interpretation of both linguistic and non-linguistic sensory data by providing a context in order to predict meaning and fill in missing information, and this has been amply demonstrated by research in native speaker comprehension of TV news (see Bell, 1991). [-2-]

In L2 reading research, Carrell (1983, 1984, 1987) has confirmed the connection between comprehension and background knowledge established in L1 research. Non-native readers are often unable to make the necessary connections between text and background knowledge and so tend to rely more on linguistic cues than background knowledge. In L2 listening research, several studies have noted the link between topic familiarity and comprehension (Chiang & Dunkel, 1992; Long, 1990; Markham & Latham, 1987; Tchaicha, 1996; Weissenreider, 1987). The practical implication of studies of comprehension and background knowledge for the teaching of listening comprehension has been to stress the importance of activating appropriate schemata in pre-listening activities and grafting new information on to them. Here, I am concerned with how schema theory informs the selection of TV news items and how schemata interact with context.

In terms of video in general and TV news in particular, an important distinction can be made between what I will call "exogenous" context and "endogenous" context. Exogenous contexts require prior knowledge. The nature of this prior knowledge may be specialized or universal. Specialized contexts such as Enron, Northern Ireland, or Iraq require such massive prior knowledge that even many native speakers may lack the appropriate schemata. Decisions to use such materials in the L2 classroom are likely to be taken from the perspective of a content-oriented approach and require a large amount of schemata building. Universal exogenous contexts are contexts such as bicycles, umbrellas, sleeping, etc., sometimes referred to as "human interest" stories, where it may be assumed that learners will have the appropriate background knowledge and experience such that pre-listening activities can be geared to activating those schemata.

Endogenous contexts, such as news film of a sporting incident or natural disaster, require little or no prior knowledge in that they create their own contexts (although, of course, learners will need the appropriate vocabulary to be able to talk about what they see happening in the video sequence). In other words, the visuals speak for themselves. A classic example of an endogenous context was the incident in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics during the 3,000-meter race between the runners Mary Decker and Zola Budd. Towards the closing stages of the race, Decker and Budd seemed to become entangled and Decker fell and subsequently was out of the race. On TV, the incident was played in slow motion from various angles with voiceover commentary.

Of course, individual news items may be made up of degrees of exogenous and endogenous contexts. The news item TWA Flight 800 contained a simulation of what was believed to be the cause of the crash. (See below for a detailed discussion of this sequence.) Students reported that the simulation greatly aided their understanding of what was a specialized exogenous context. The combination of exogenous and endogenous context in one news story counters Cooper's (1996) preference for selecting what he calls non-episodic news stories similar to CBS News's "Eye on America" or ABC News's "A Closer Look." Non-episodic news stories are complete in themselves while episodic stories present the latest news or episode in an ongoing news story. According to Cooper, episodic stories are dependent on knowledge of the previous events in the story and so put special conditions on comprehension. Interestingly, Cooper cites the TWA tragedy as an example of an episodic story in progress. Clearly episodic news stories like the TWA tragedy have a high degree of intertextuality, but they still may contain elements of endogenous context which may compensate for lack of prior knowledge of the ongoing story. Similarly non-episodic news items, while not requiring knowledge of a prior story, may still require large amounts of background knowledge.

Student perceptions of the difficulty of the TV news items used in class bore out the importance of background knowledge. On the whole, Getting a Bicycle for your Child was considered easy because of its familiarity and because many students could empathize with the experience of a young girl in the news item who described an accident she had had while riding her bike. One student commented: "I also had a few accidents in the past so I was quite interested." In news items which required more declarative knowledge, the media literacy of individual students became a more important factor in understanding. While most students found Landing on Mars too specialized, one student commented: "This topic was also on Japanese news so I knew the issues and understood most of the video." For the most part, students suggested a causal link between prior knowledge, interest and understanding, although this interrelationship is complex (Carrell & Wise, 1998). With regard to the news item Senator John Glenn in Space, one student commented: "I wasn't interested because I didn't know John Glenn," while another wrote: "I understood the story because I was interested in the topic." Comments also confirmed that new knowledge can be grafted onto existing schemata. Commenting on the "Carry-on Luggage" news item, one student wrote: "When I was in a plane I didn't bother about bags but now I think this is quite a serious problem." [-3-]

From this discussion, certain pedagogical implications for material selection emerge. Endogenous contexts are likely to be the most exploitable type of news story in the language classroom, but such contexts are likely to account for a small fraction of the news items in any one bulletin. TV news items with universal exogenous contexts, though somewhat less accessible to students, are likely to be far more available. A key factor is the degree to which students can empathize with such items through their own experiences, for example having a bike accident or having a bike stolen, etc. I have found that a useful tool for assessing the likely success of a TV news item is to use an exploratory questionnaire, like the one in Table 2, which seeks to gauge student familiarity with and interest in the topic and the degree to which students can empathize with a topic because of a shared experience. A rule of thumb: If I can expect that my students are able to respond to at least four questions about the topic, especially with regards to shared experiences, then the TV news item is likely to work in class.

Table 2: Questionnaire -- Bikes

  1. Do you have a bike now or did you have a bike in the past?
  2. What do/did you use your bike for?
  3. What are the advantages/disadvantages of having a bike?
  4. Have you ever had your bike stolen? What happened?
  5. Have you ever had an accident on a bike? What happened?
  6. Do/did you wear a helmet?

However, a warning should be made with regard to overgeneralizing the teacher's own cultural experience. Whereas I was correct in assuming that all my students had traveled on an airplane and so were familiar with carry-on luggage and overhead bins, I was wrong in assuming that the problem of passengers bringing on too many carry-on bags could be generalized from North America to Japan. In other words, it is important to remember that schemata are socially constructed and therefore often culturally specific mental categories into which events and individuals are sorted. Although Japanese and North Americans may share the mental category of carry-on luggage, the content of that category may vary. Carry-on luggage in the North American mindset may be stereotypically associated with the frustration of flying brought on by both the need to carry on as much luggage as possible and the inadequacy of the space provided. From the Japanese perspective, carry-on luggage may be considered a convenience and passengers feel obliged to allow others space for their carry-on items. News items with imputed universal appeal may therefore facilitate understanding not only with regard to the discourse under study but on the larger level of cross-cultural communication.

The news, therefore, provides a particularly illuminating view of the stereotypical categories and preoccupations of a particular culture. The selection and treatment of news items reflects shared stereotypes of media producers and consumers of news within a particular social context; news may be seen as a creation of a journalistic process. A striking event will reinforce a stereotype, and, reciprocally, the firmer the stereotype, the more likely are relevant events to become news (Fowler, 1991). Media researchers refer to the criteria for selection of news items as "news values." Galtung and Ruge (1973) compiled an exhaustive list of news values or "criterial factors." Unexpected events like the TWA Flight 800 crash are more newsworthy. At the same time, events which people expect to happen (gun-related accidents in the U.S.) or want to happen (John Glenn returning to space) may also be newsworthy, and so on. For the most part, therefore, the actual content of these values is culturally determined. An awareness of the determining factors of news values can help the teacher both in the selection, trialing and presentation of news items. I have suggested that TV news items with universal exogenous contexts are likely to be the most available and the most accessible to students. Yet before such items are used in the classroom their appeal needs to be tested through such devices as questionnaires. And during their presentation their value as newsworthy items in the culture of origin needs to be made explicit. [-4-]

Formal Schemata

Formal or textual schemata refer to our knowledge of how discourse is organized, and with respect to TV news the formal structure is highly predictable though clearly variable according to program, channel and culture of origin (Meinhof, 1998; Phillips, 1991). TV news consists of varying combinations of multiple speakers with multiple speech styles: anchors, correspondents, experts, vox populi--"the man on the street," and multiple modalities of delivering the message: talking heads, voiceovers, graphics, captions, films, etc.

Yet despite this multiplicity of messenger and modality of delivery, TV journalism is still heavily influenced by the conventions of print journalism. TV news stories have been described as newspaper stories with moving pictures (Lewis, 1994). Like print journalism, TV news stories have a pyramidal discourse structure. (See van Dijk, 1988 for a detailed analysis of the discourse structure of print news stories.) Anchors present the main points of the story and then one or more correspondents provide a more detailed report of the story. TV news stories like print journalism tend to be non-narrative discontinuous fragments of information. However, unlike newspaper articles TV stories are usually summed up by a correspondent or anchor and the linearity of TV news places extra importance on the linking role of the anchor.

While the textual organization of TV news is highly predictable, there are significant differences in news formats within and between cultures (see Meinhof, 1998). Most studies have compared US and non-US news channels. Interestingly, the increasing populist trend in American network news--the so-called "dumbing down" of the news--has made American network news far more suitable as a pedagogical tool than other TV news sources. Below I discuss the ways that the formal structure of US news differs from non-US news and how these differences influence the use of American TV news in the classroom.

First, American TV news tends to be more visual and varied. There is a greater use of correspondents and interviews with experts and vox populi. American network news tends to contain more shots per news story: the Carry-on Luggage news story had 33 shots in 2 mins. The minimum and maximum times for shots may be taken as an indication of the assumptions by networks as to the audience's perceptual capacity and attention span. The faster cutting of American network news has often been attributed to the "dumbing down" of network news as it strives to compete with more sensationalist local news channels (Graber, 1994). Meinhof (1998) fears that in the face of such varied and often conflicting modalities of information, language learners are likely to tune out rather than work on the gist of the message. But this has to be set against the benefits to comprehension of the stimulating juxtaposition of words and images.

Second, as a further consequence of the competition with the populist and sensationalist treatment of news by local news channels, US news tends to use more dramatic framing or in other words, to treat the news as "infotainment." Here, stories are depicted primarily as dramatic events (Graber, 1994). The more obvious examples of this are the O.J. Simpson case and the ice-skating feud between Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. But it also includes the use of dramatic framing in more serious news items. The news story Children and Guns included a sequence from a police experiment that used hidden cameras to monitor children's reactions to finding a gun and the reactions of their parents behind a false mirror. It has been suggested that dramatic framing attracts viewers who might otherwise ignore newscasts by increasing their emotional involvement with important political issues and so stimulates them to think about these issues (Sniderman et al., 1991). Dramatic framing is likely to also hook the interests of second language learners who may or may not constitute the educated elite which more traditional news targets. [-5-]

Third, US news tends to more transparent perspectival reporting (Locher & Wortham, 1994; Pufahl, 1992). All news reporting is inherently perspectival in the sense that real objectivity is unattainable. It is generally accepted that "the news is not merely relaying an objective truth waiting out in the world to be 'gathered' but is instead selecting, shaping and producing its message" (MacGregor, 1997, p. 78). So if indeed "objectivity" is unattainable, it may therefore be considered more beneficial to comprehension if TV news makes more explicit how stories are intended to be interpreted. Comparing German and American TV news, Pufahl (1992) found that American network news gives far more explicit cues as to how the news is to be understood and interpreted by providing explicit information about how new information is related to already existing knowledge structures and expectations on the ideational, discoursal and interpersonal modes of communication. In contrast, in Germany, according to Pufahl, news reporting consists of stating the "facts" and letting viewers draw their own conclusions.

The difference is captured by Nimmo & Combs' (1985) distinction between the journalistic styles of "elitist/factual" reporting and "pluralist/feature." The "elitist/factual" style of reporting aims at an unemotional recounting of verifiable information to an intellectually mature audience. A "pluralist/feature" approach attempts to place an event into a larger context showing how it illustrates a recurrent pattern similar to a feature article. Here are two examples of pluralist/feature/perspectival reporting taken from ABC News. Both are extracts from the anchor Peter Jennings. In the first extract about airlines, Jennings first personalizes the extract by connecting it to the viewers' experience of flying at weekends and by giving the extract a byline "the frustration of flying," which aligns Jennings and the viewers, and further seeks to activate the appropriate interpretive schemata. Jennings then goes on to provide background information before the report begins:

Tonight, perhaps to remind you of your weekend we're going to take a closer look at the frustration of flying. With the economy as bountiful as it is for so many more Americans than ever before more Americans than ever are flying. So far this year airline flights overall have been taking off as full as any flights have been in fifty years. They've been landing that way too. And a lot of passengers are not very happy. Complaints this year are up 14%. First of all here's ABC's Michelle Norris on the connection.

The second extract introduces a report about the return of Senator John Glenn into space. Jennings cues in the viewers' interpretation of the upcoming report by a series of questions.

But is it a good idea? In other words, is it good for science? Is it good for the Senator? Is this the way NASA should be spending its money? Is it a gimmick to rejuvenate interest in the space program when money is tight? Let's start with ABC's Ned Potter.

It's not that non-American news reporting is never so transparently perspectival but that such feature-like reporting is more often found in news magazine programs rather than news bulletins.

Two pedagogical implications emerge from this discussion. Does an awareness of the textual organization of a newscast as it pertains to TV news in general and to a network in particular facilitate the task faced by a second language listener? Second, are there particular textual organizations which are more helpful to second language learners than others? Research into the effects of knowledge of textual schemata has been scant compared with that of content schemata. Weissenreider (1987) considered the effects of both textual and content schemata in a study of the listening comprehension of TV news by intermediate and advanced students of Spanish. Since most of the students were journalism majors, Weissenreider attributes their understanding to the interplay of textual and content schemata and effective listener strategies. Phillips (1991) reports on two introspective experiments with textual schemata in which subjects were required to identify the textual outline (introduction by anchor, introduction by correspondent, correspondent relates story over action footage, interview, etc.) of a newscast prior to dealing with the content of the newscasts. Subjects reported that textual schemata generating activities facilitated comprehension. Tchaicha (1996) supports Weissenreider's claim that it is the interplay of content knowledge and formal knowledge of the structure of American TV news which facilitates L2 comprehension.

Meinhof (1998) argues that second language learners' processing difficulties with TV news lie less with the linguistic complexity of the texts and more with lack of knowledge of the structural organization of TV news. Given the highly patterned genre of TV news, students can develop "metadiscursive" skills which allow them to anticipate meanings, to focus on key moments of a news story and to ignore others. Meinhof goes on to lay out the basic features of what she calls the "regularity principle" of TV news: [-6-]

  1. regularity of transmission time, length of news broadcast, and layout;

  2. regularity of story sequencing and type of story selected (news values);

  3. regularity of surface structure of individual news stories (studio presentations, voiceover visuals, on-site correspondents, etc.);

  4. regularity of schematic structures of new stories (strikes, diplomatic visits, natural disasters have conventionalized predictable story ingredients), and

  5. regularity of images--stock images tend to accompany particular news schemata.

Meinhof concludes:

[I]f learners become aware that they already apply some of these strategies when viewing TV news in their mother tongue, though largely in an unconscious manner, this will help to transfer those strategies to the foreign language [and] raise their analytical powers in relation to their own home news programs and thus encourage a wider media literacy. (1998, p.36)

One way of activating formal schemata that I have used successfully as a pre-listening exercise is to ask students to match extracts from the news report with the various speakers. This not only serves as a way of introducing the formal structure of news reports but also helps students anticipate the content and introduce key vocabulary. By making explicit the clues students use to match speaker and extract, latent textual knowledge can be exploited.

Table 3: Activating textual schemata

Match the speakers with what they say
a. Anchor d. Passenger
b. Reporter e. United Airlines spokesperson
c. Airline check-in clerk f. Passenger complaints activist
    1. You just get the impression that it's kind of more like a Greyhound Bus now than the luxurious thing it used to be.
    2. You do tend to get less when you pay less. We are saying to them, "Eh, we know it's tough out there from time to time, we're trying to make it better for you."
    3. Tonight, perhaps to remind you of your weekend, we're going to take a closer look at the frustration of flying.
    4. Looking at the passengers as human beings with legitimate concerns about the way they are treated is not a priority for them.
    5. Flights are oversold, terminals are crowded and these days boarding a plane can feel more like stepping onto a cattle car. Just ask anyone who is stuck in the center seat.
    6. All of the flights today are completely booked.


Alternatively, Cooper (1996) suggests focusing students' attention on the visual element of a news story first as a means of making transparent the formal structure of the story and as a bridge to the more demanding task of decoding the spoken text. Cooper suggests that students be first asked to count the number of speakers in a news story and then to try to identify their roles as anchors, reporters, experts, vox populi, etc.

Linguistic Difficulty

Following Rubin (1994), I discuss linguistic or textual difficulties under three headings of text characteristics: acoustic, lexis/syntax and text-type (which includes both visual and linguistic text). The primary area of interest is the juxtaposition of spoken and visual texts.

  1. Acoustic

    The acoustic characteristics of a text include speech-rate, pause phenomena, hesitation, sandhi (assimilation, mutation, contraction, liaison and elision), stress and rhythmic patterning. My students regularly indicated that anchors were easier to understand than other "talking heads," especially vox populi. An analysis of why this phenomenon should be the case provides a greater understanding of the difficulties of processing acoustic messages for second language learners.

    1. Standardized pronunciation : Vox populi display a greater variation of accents based on region, age, socio-economic class, race, and ethnic identity. The anchors of the three major networks, Peter Jennings (ABC), Tom Brokaw (NBC), and Dan Rather (CBS), although differing in their regional affiliations (Ontario, Canada, Nebraska and Texas, respectively) represent a standardized educated American accent.
    2. Clarity of enunciation and absence of ambient noise: Interviews with the vox populi, or "man on the street" often do take place on the street.
    3. Planned vs. spontaneous discourse : As opposed to the spontaneity of vox populi, the spoken text of anchors and correspondents, of course, is highly planned which leads to
    4. more predictable and simpler intonational and kinesic features and
    5. an absence of hesitations and repairs. And ultimately
    6. familiarity with the anchor's speech style facilitates comprehension (and this might be one argument along with conventionalizing the formal features of TV news for choosing news items from just one news network). Conversely the lack of familiarity with vox populi and their speech styles creates greater processing difficulties. Vox populi are often inadequately identified often lacking supercaptions and introductions. For the most part, vox populi lead-in thoughts are edited out, further decontextualizing them and so adding to the processing difficulty. The processing difficulty is compounded by the brief amount of time allotted to vox populi. In the Carry-on Luggage news item, whereas the preamble by the anchor took 17 seconds, the longest vox pop was 3 seconds.

    Yet from the perspective of structural and lexical simplicity vox pop talk is much simpler than anchors or correspondents. Here are two examples of vox populi with which my students had difficulties. In example A, taken from the Carry-on Luggage news item, the speaker is a middle-aged woman, and in example B, taken from Getting a Bicycle for your Child, the speaker is a 12 year-old-girl. Neither speaker has a marked regional accent.

     A  It hit me right on top of my head
     and knocked me straight to my knees.
     (Carry-on Luggage)
     B  I was riding my bike with my dad and my little sister
     and I was going down a hill awfully fast
     and I hit a manhole[1]
     and I went over my handlebars
     and fell right on top of my head
     and landed on the left side of my face.
     (Getting a Bicycle for your Child)

    Because examples like these combine structural/lexical simplicity with acoustic complexity, they provide excellent material for intensive listening. Lynch (1998) notes that pedagogic materials have overemphasized schema-based strategies. Cauldwell (1996) notes that "learners focus on words and what happens to them at speed, materials tend to focus on contextual factors aiding comprehension" (p. 521). Writers like Cauldwell (1996), Field (1997), Krashen (1996) and Tsui and Fullilove (1998) have argued for the benefits of more intensive work at the bottom. Using vox populi for intensive listening can help address these learner needs.

  1. Lexis/Syntax

    TV news as a whole and news items in particular contain a high degree of redundancy. Redundancy in input is generally understood to aid second language comprehension (Chaudron, 1983; Chiang & Dunkel, 1992). Chiang & Dunkel found that modification--repetition of constituents, paraphrase, and synonyms--works best with higher levels. The Carry-on Luggage TV news item contained the following example of modification: "people are cramming and stuffing and shoving and searching, looking for places for all that carry-on luggage." The amount of redundancy was further increased by the use of a shot of a passenger stowing a large bag in an overhead compartment. Simple redundancy--repetition of content words--works better with lower levels. The Carry-on Luggage TV news item used the following repetition and synonyms: carry-on baggage, carry-on bags (2), bags (2), carry-on luggage, luggage, carry-on (2). This was accompanied by 18 shots of carry-on luggage. News items, therefore, with this kind of thematic unity can be highly effective in terms of vocabulary development in a second language classroom.

    Brinton & Gaskill (1978) argue that one of the greatest advantages of using TV news is that of vocabulary development and the amount of recycling of vocabulary in episodic news items. My students did predictably better with more familiar lexical sets (bicycles) than with more specialized vocabulary (Landing on Mars). And they also seemed to comprehend more when the items in lexical sets had a componential relationship as is the case with guns, bicycles and airplanes and their various parts. One further beneficial effect of what Fairclough (1995) calls the "conversationalization" of TV news is the measured use of high frequency idioms by anchors and correspondents: "a pain in the neck" (Carry-on Luggage), "more bang for your buck" (Landing on Mars) and how these idioms can be targeted to enrich learner vocabularies. At the same time, vox populi were more likely to make what could be rather opaque cultural references: "You just get the impression that it's more like riding a Greyhound Bus"--a passenger describing air travel today. And finally numbers proved to be an especially difficult lexical item for my students to deal with, whether spoken or written.

  2. Text Type
    1. Narrative vs. non-narrative text

      Research into native speaker comprehension of TV news suggests that viewers experience substantial comprehension and recall difficulties (Bell, 1991; Gunter, 1987). Stories with a clear narrative story line tend to be processed better than those without, but for the most part TV news is made up of non-narrative text. In L2 listening comprehension research, Shohamy and Inbar (1991) found that when they compared the relative comprehensibility of three text types: a news broadcast using a prewritten, edited monologue; a mini-lecture consisting of a monologue based on written notes; and an interactive consultative dialogue, the news item was the most difficult to process. Brown (1995) has shown that narrative texts are easier for L2 learners to listen to and recall than expository texts are, and further, events described in chronological order are easier to recall than narratives with disrupted sequences or flashbacks. This suggests that that the general trend of network American TV news towards dramatic framing of news stories, news as "infotainment" and the conversationalization of TV news discourse is likely to have beneficial effects for L2 processing (leaving aside the question of whether what they are successfully processing is meaningful on a content level). [-9-]

    2. Talking Heads vs. Voiceovers

      The importance of kinesics features in second language listening comprehension has been long established (Antes, 1996; Kellerman, 1992; Pennycook, 1985; von Raffler-Engel, 1980). However, Gunter (1980) found that talking-head news presentations prompted less recall than voiceover visuals and even audio only. However, a key variable here is the function of the talking-head in the discourse structure. Robinson and Levy (1986) found that the shorter the studio presentation the better the comprehension of the news items. Meinhof (1998) argues that if listener schemata are already activated, introductions by anchors may not even be processed. However, talking-heads in the form of correspondents, interviews with celebrities, experts and vox populi, and recaps by the anchor are likely to be processed more intently. Indeed, multiple talking heads is one feature of the varied visual style of American network news. In the Carry-on Luggage news item, 52 seconds out of 2 minutes feature talking heads. The effectiveness of mixed formats is supported by Brosius (1991), who found that comprehension of television news is enhanced by use of film as opposed to "talking heads" only and by mixing up formats. Comprehension was lowest for talking head items in programs with unvaried format and best for film items in mixed format newscasts.

    3. The juxtaposition of spoken and visual texts

      Perhaps one of the least understood features of TV news broadcasts is the juxtaposition of words and pictures, especially which has primacy in the process of decoding. The established semiotic view exemplified by Barthes (1977) is to argue for the dependence of images on verbal text or, to be more exact, the "anchorage" or narrowing down of the multiplicity of imagistic interpretations by the spoken text. But writers like Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) have argued that visuals can be understood as having their own independent grammar.

      Many second language listening theorists have sided with Barthes' view and seen video in terms of the support the visual element gives to the understanding of the spoken text. But as Gruba (1997) notes, such a view appears to be simplistic. First, distinguishing between what we hear and what we see is not necessarily a difference between words and pictures but a difference in the way we receive the information though our eyes and ears (Meinhof, 1998). Inscriptions, captions, posters, diagrams for example appear on the visual track while the soundtrack may carry background noises and music as well as the spoken text. Second, it may be better to conceive of words and pictures creating "whole message units" (Salomon, 1979) rather than separate entities. Certainly, there will be instances when the linguistic text drives the comprehension of the visual input and there will also be instances where the visuals are dominant, but for the most part comprehension will depend on the interaction between the two. Gruba notes:

      [V]isual elements do not 'merely' provide support for verbal elements: they are better thought of as an integral element in videotext that interplay with verbal elements to influence a listener's emerging interpretation. (1997, p.134)

      In order to understand this integral role, Meinhof argues that "visuals have to be treated as a separate code of information whose relationship to the verbal needs to be recognized rather than taken as self-evident" (1998, p. 29). Below are three frameworks which have been used in second language listening to understand the relationship of words and images in news broadcasts, which will provide some insights into selectional criteria for TV news stories from this audiovisual perspective.

      Gruba (1997), following Saloman (1979, whose approach in turn is built on the work of Goodman,1968), sees media as a system of symbols which can be described according to different dimensions: notationality, repleteness or density, and resemblance. Notational symbols like mathematical symbols or musical notation suggest a close fit between the symbol and its referent. Written language is also considered a notational symbol but the degree of unambiguity between the symbol and the concept referred to is weaker. On the other end of the continuum, non-notational symbol systems like film, video and abstract art may suggest multiple meanings that may not consistently refer to specific concepts. Repleteness or density refers to the range or number of dimensions in a system which are used to impart information. International road signs are less replete than a detailed oil painting and so are consequently less open to subjective interpretation. Resemblance refers to the degree to which the symbol system, for example, a painting, photograph or a sculpture copies its referent or the degree of iconicity. However, Saloman (1979) suggests that it is not the similarity between symbol and referent that is key but the similarity with a person's mental representation or schema of the referent, which suggests a cultural element to the notion of resemblance. According to this framework, therefore, the juxtaposition of words and pictures can be seen as quite a volatile combination of more or less ambiguous meanings.

      Meinhof (1998) has identified three ways in which text and images can be said to interrelate: overlap, displacement, and dichotomy. When words and pictures overlap they are identical or in a metonymic relation. Text and images which can be described in terms of displacement refer to different action components, such as the cause and effect of an action. The images may be of the effects of an explosion while the spoken text discusses the causes. Other examples of displacement are the way that images can be used thematically to illustrate the spoken text or to comment on and draw inferences from the spoken text. Meinhof gives the example of a speech asking for more money to fight drugs with accompanying visuals of police raids and treatment centers, which make comments on how that money might be spent. And finally texts and images may be dichotomous where they refer to different actions altogether--the input from the visual channel may be unhelpful, distracting, or misleading. [-10-]

      The framework used in selecting material for my class from the point of view of word/image fit is based on the taxonomy used by the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG,1980). This approach reflects something of the editorial process of how the visual and spoken tracks are put together. The GUMG notes that the "the actual juxtapositioning of images in the visual track for the most part remains, by the normative rules of film making, extremely crude" (1980, p. 346). Because of the imperative to make the news as visually stimulating as possible, news stories are often edited hastily and separately from reporters, often using archival film clips which may or may not be germane to the spoken text. Building on GUMG's approach, there are four types of word/image relationships: symbolic, referential, schematic, and iconic.

      1. Symbolic: words and visuals are tangentially related, with visuals used mainly to illustrate the discourse/sentence topic. This is similar to Meinhof's notion of displacement. The example below taken from Senator John Glenn in Space illustrates the use of symbolic images.

        Table 4: Symbolic relationship of words and images

        Scene #
        Central visual feature
        Spoken voiceover text
        Audio source
        Start of a sprint race at a senior athletics meeting. Runners are in their blocks. Sound of starting gun Athletes look to be 60+
        Dr.Christine Cassel Reporter
        Same sprint race. Runners are sprinting in their lanes
        joins a chorus of aging specialists Reporter
        60+ athlete doing the long jump
        and others who doubt Reporter
        50+ woman competing in a swimming race
        that Glenn as guinea pig will provide breakthroughs Reporter
        Close up of 60+woman clenching her teeth in a walking race
        Nevertheless Reporter
        60+ man doing the pole-vault
        she applauds him for setting an example Reporter

        Symbolic images are perhaps the least helpful and most distracting to the second language learner. Sequences like this reveal more about the process of film editing and the imperative to engage viewers visually at all costs: the images have been taken from the film library and are cut in a rapid fire 6 shots in 11 seconds. Shot 5 is especially distracting in that the close-up of the woman athlete in her sixties clenching her teeth is especially expressive.

      2. Referential: visuals are used to illustrate people, places and things referred to in the audio text. So, for example, in Table 5, which details one segment of the news item Census Data, scene 2 shows a sales clerk making an imprint of a credit card as two customers wait, while at the same time the voiceover says: "People are using credit cards more." So the linguistic reference to credit card is matched by an illustration of a credit card on the visual track. Similarly, in scenes 5-7, reference is made to dogs and cats which is matched by the appropriate visual representation. Of course, the distinction between referential and symbolic images is not always clear-cut. In the Carry-on Luggage item, most of the 18 shots of carry-on luggage may be considered to fulfill more of a symbolic rather than a referential function.[-11-]
      3. Schematic: the use of diagrams, charts, tables, and captions, which offer a schematic representation of the audio text. The following example is taken from the Census Data news item.

        Table 5: Schematic relationship of words and images

        Scene # Central visual feature Caption
        Spoken voiceover text Audio source
        1 Crowds walking down sidewalk Median net worth
        The average family's net worth has gone up almost $4,000 in 3 years Anchor
        2 In a store. Close up of sales clerk making an imprint of a credit card. Camera draws back to show customers on other side of the counter 56% have credit cards
        28% hardly ever pay off
        People are using credit cards more. More than half say they use them now.Less than a third actually pay them off. Anchor
        3 Woman in a movie theater box office giving tickets to customer Entertainment spending
        The average family spends $1800 a year on entertainment, movies, books and video rentals included. Anchor

        Most of my students found the captions helpful but were overwhelmed by the statistics. The number of topics covered in just over 30 seconds also seemed to add to the processing load. Gruba (1997) in his study of the comprehension difficulties of a Japanese TV news item by second language learners notes how headlines and captions, which in certain contexts can help listeners anticipate a news story, may in other contexts distract listeners by providing another source of information that competes for limited cognitive resources. In the example, in Table 5. there are three competing sources of information: the image, the caption and the spoken text. In scene 1, the visual of a crowd walking along the sidewalk is symbolic and rather unhelpful. Scenes 5, 6 and 7 are also referential in that they provide clear visual referents to what is heard on the spoken track.

      4. Iconic: the use of videotaped incidents or simulations where the spoken text parallels the visual text. The following example is taken from the TWA Flight 800 news item. This part of the news item uses an animated sequence to illustrate how the investigators believe the plane crashed. The italicized clauses are dynamically illustrated in the animated simulation. Each animated action is precisely cued to its verbal description.

        Table 6: Iconic relationship of words and images

        Scene # Central visual feature
        Spoken voiceover text Audio source
        1 Workers sorting through the wreckage of TWA 800
        The FBI with help from the CIAput together an analysis of the flight to explain Reporter
        2 Animated simulation of the crash
        what eyewitnesses saw. Some 12 minutes after take-off, at about 13,400 feet,
        1 the center fuel-tank explodes.
        2 Seconds later the nose rips off.
        3 But the rest of the plane with engines running continues upwards,
        4 streams of fire spewing from the crippled jetliner. People looking up then mistook the flaming fuselage for a missile.
        5 The fuselage begins to fall and twist
        6 with the left wing breaking off.
        7 Jet fuel erupts into a fireball.
        At about the same time, the sound wave from the initial explosion hits the beach 9 miles away.
        That's when most of the eyewitnesses look up.
        3 Night time aerial view of ocean
        The streaks they see are a plane already on fire and breaking apart. Reporter

        In the student survey, this news item was considered to be the easiest to understand and students indicated that this particular sequence was very helpful to their understanding. There are several factors which can explain the perceived comprehensibility of this sequence. Wetzel et al. (1994), based on their survey of research into the uses of animation in instruction, argue that animation is most effective when its attributes of visualization, motion, and trajectory are congruent to the learning task. Key in this sequence is that it visually presents an event that was not only impossible to see in the real world but also remains a matter of speculation. What's more, the lack of repleteness of the animation helps remove unnecessary and distracting details that would complicate comprehension. The spoken narrative is similarly sparse: it consists of a series of foregrounded, chronologically ordered, event clauses, which use the present tense narrative form. It is interesting to note that the choice of the present tense here is not just motivated by stylistic effects of immediacy but rather has an exophoric function because of the existence of the animated simulation. A further element is that animation and scientific narration allow for high degree of contiguity or fit (Mayer & Anderson, 1991). From a processing point of view, one can speculate that second language learner decoding delay is reduced due to the parallel visual representation of each event clause. (For a detailed processing model of animation and narrative from a first language perspective, see Mayer and Sims 1994). Other examples of iconic sequences would be processes or procedures where the spoken text is closely matched to the visual text.

      It is not solely the iconic nature of the visuals with regard to the spoken text but the degree of fit between the words and the images. Fairclough (1995) gives an example of a past-event narrative of a case of vigilantism: a crowd of several hundred attacked the house of the parents of two teenagers accused of the brutal murder of an elderly woman. The story is told through a combination of words and a filmed reconstruction of the incident in question in which the crowd is played by actors. Fairclough argues that the images have primacy over the words in the sense that the events are first visually enacted before the audio track describes them in words. So we see a missile thrown before we hear "a shower of missiles." Fairclough notes that there are apparent inconsistencies between the visual and the spoken texts. While responsibility for the violence is clear in the visual account, in the linguistic account responsibility is mitigated. Fairclough notes the use of passives and ergatives in the spoken text as a means of deflecting blame away from the agents of the actions: "an ugly scene was played out," "a shower of missiles drove the families from their homes." Furthermore, while the visual track shows a canonical sequence of actions, the audio track shifts between narrating the events of the attack on the house and background information on events that led up to the vigilante attack. Fairclough comments that "the notion of "good television" perhaps favours the image of frightening violence in the film which, is unambivalent, but which can be partly "balanced" by mitigating language" (pp. 7-8).

      Clearly the visual track in such an example is likely to have the most salient effect on comprehension for native and non-native speakers alike and the connotation of the visual grammar displace the connotation of the linguistic grammar. If, as Halliday (1985) suggests, grammar "enables human beings to build mental pictures of reality, to make sense of their experience of what goes on around them and inside them" (p. 101), then the grammatical concept conveyed by an image is likely to replace the mental picture which is built from decoding the grammar of the verbal message. So in Fairclough's example, the image, which focuses on the crowd as agents attacking the house, may have primacy over the hedged passive grammar constructions of the verbal text. Indeed, the visual grammar may not only displace the interpretation of the spoken text, it may short-circuit the decoding process of the spoken text or misinterpret the verbal message according to the visual image, and encourage a cognitive passivity limiting the production of mental images (Hammerly, 1994).

      The degree of fit, therefore, between words and images is crucial to comprehension. After surveying the research into the comprehension of video materials by native speakers, Wetzel et al. (1994) conclude that whereas audio-video material is on the whole more comprehensible than audio material, in the area of TV news the visual element is not always found to be a help to comprehension. Information recall from the news seems to be positively affected by the degree to which the auditory and visual elements meaningfully correspond and negatively affected when they are incongruent. Gruba (1997), studying L2 learners comprehension of a Japanese TV news item found that more proficient viewers were less dependent on visuals for comprehension of the text--a finding which supports earlier work with other visual material (Mueller, 1980, Wolff, 1987)--and favored the audio track if the visual element mismatched. Gruba notes that there was a sense that the listeners knew that the "real story" was in the audio track and that images were misleading. Although more proficient listeners tended to rely less on the visual elements for comprehension, they nevertheless noticed more detail in the visuals than less proficient viewers, who were far more dependent on visuals for comprehension. Visual elements were more closely attended to when they were judged to be salient or provided novel information to the listener. Gruba found evidence to suggest that images and words worked together to confirm a listener's understanding of a particular element: audio clues could be confirmed by visuals and vice-versa, visual clues could be confirmed by the spoken track. [-13-]

      The ramifications of the above discussion for the exploitation of TV news material in the second language classroom are therefore twofold in terms of criteria for selection and criteria for use. All news items are made up of varying degrees of symbolic, referential, schematic and iconic relationships between words and images. However, TV items which have more of an iconic or overlap relationship between words and pictures are likely to be better understood. In an overlap or iconic situation the viewer may be able to pick up cues from both image and wording. And the more iconic the relationship between words and pictures the more likely the TV news item is to provide an endogenous context. But again, as the Fairclough example suggests, and Wetzel (1994) has pointed out, it is the degree of fit between words and pictures which is crucial. In sum, the more iconic the relationship between words and images, the greater the likelihood that words and images will be self-supporting; the more symbolic the relationship between words and images (and this is more often the case with TV news), the greater the likelihood that the relationship will be dichotomous.

      There appears to be a need to work with the images as much as the words. Meinhof (1998) suggests that in the face of conflicting modalities of information--images vs. words--language learners are likely to tune out rather than work on the gist of the message. The language learner, therefore, needs to learn when visual information can be a distraction from, rather than a support for, the processing of a news item. She calls this strategy "reading images" and refers to the explicit study of the conventionalized images used for stock news stories. Such a study of images is not only aimed at familiarizing learners with visual signs and their denotation but also what they connote from an ideological or cultural perspective. Tuffs and Tudor (1990) comparing native speaker and non-native speaker interpretations of visual images used in British television, argue that non-native speaker comprehension is seriously disadvantaged by their lack of familiarity with both the denotation and connotation of these images in British culture. As such the isolation of pertinent visual images can be a powerful tool for the teaching of cultural aspects of the target language. Cooper (1996) suggests focusing students' attention primarily on the visual channel and using their speculations about the meanings of these images as a way of structuring the listening task. Cooper notes that such an approach brings to the surface not only the students' knowledge of how their countries' media work but how media works in the target language culture. Meinhof (1998) suggests that such "metadiscursive" knowledge can have a wider learning effect by not only supporting language and cultural learning but also by helping learners critically assess TV itself, both in their own culture and in the target culture.


Although we can agree with Phillips (1991) that there is no strict hierarchy of texts, we can at least begin to detail those elements in TV news which make a particular news item suitable pedagogical material for the second language classroom.

First, universal exogenous contexts and endogenous contexts are likely to be more accessible to students than specialized exogenous contexts, which may require massive schema building. While endogenous contexts require little or no prior knowledge, these kinds of news stories tend to be less common. Universal exogenous contexts also require prior knowledge, but it is a prior-knowledge that we can expect our students to already have, even though they may not have the vocabulary to express that knowledge. Questionnaires are a good way of monitoring whether students have the expected prior knowledge of universal topics such as bicycles, umbrellas, sleep, etc. At the same time, a caveat exists about expecting that the existence of a shared mental category presumes that the category will contain the same knowledge. For example, Japanese and North American perceptions of carry-on luggage may differ markedly. Such divergent interpretations of the same experience might be a source of cross-cultural enquiry that could shed light on both the target and the student's own culture.

Second, particular formal features of TV news can have important effects on student comprehension. The trends in American network news towards dramatic framing and the news as infotainment make network news more accessible to second language learners. The more visual and varied style of American TV news, the tendency to more narrative texts, and the tendency towards more perspectival reporting aids student listening comprehension. At the same time, raising students' consciousness of these formal features of TV news in both the target and student culture could have beneficial results for both listening comprehension in particular and in media literacy in general. [-14-]

Third is the issue of criteria in linguistic difficulty. First, regarding the acoustic dimension, TV items with vox populi exposed students to a variety of speech-styles. Vox populi often made ideal material for intensive listening because they provide short examples of lexical and syntactic simplicity together with complex and unfamiliar prosody. Intensive listening fulfilled students' needs to work on bottom-up processing difficulties and balanced more strategy-type, top-down approaches to listening comprehension. Selectional criteria based on lexis suggests that news items that use non-specialized, componential lexical sets will be easier for second language learners. The conversationalization of American TV news also makes anchors and reporters good sources of high-frequency idiomatic language. Redundancy, both linguistic and visual, are important in selecting appropriate material, and increased redundancy is often found in news stories with a high degree of thematic unity.

With regard to text type, many difficulties in processing TV news, even for native speakers, can be assigned to the non-narrative structure of the news. News as infotainment and the use of dramatic framing tend to "narrativize" TV news and make it more accessible for native and non-native speakers alike. A further element of text type is the mix of talking heads and voiceover visuals. Second language learners may best benefit from a balance of delivery modes. Finally, with respect to the complex interplay of words and images, the iconic relationship of words and images is likely to have the greatest degree of fit between the visual and spoken channels, and this together with the higher likelihood that iconic word/image relationships will appear more in narrative texts, makes iconic audiovisual texts easier to process for second language learners. News items consist of combinations of iconic, schematic, referential and symbolic relationships between words and pictures. Symbolic relationships between words and images are more likely to be dichotomous, driving language learners either to seek understanding in the visual or the audio tracks depending on their proficiency.

I hope this has given teachers a checklist of factors to help in the selection of appropriate TV news material for the second language classroom. Nothing is guaranteed by these criteria, just the claim that where these criteria coalesce, the greater the possibility that these selections will prove to be accessible and stimulating and will provide meaningful material for both linguistic development and cultural understanding.


[1] I had thought that manhole would be a problem for my Japanese students but it turns out to be a loan word in Japanese.


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About the Author

David Bell is Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Ohio University. He teaches courses in Methodology, Materials Development and Pedagogical Grammar and supervises the teaching practicum. He has taught EFL in Britain, Italy, Japan and the USA. Besides listening comprehension, his research interests are TESOL methodology, language and movement, and pragmatics.

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