Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

You're tall? And left-handed? Congratulations on still being alive!

I’m six foot one (about 1.85m) and left-handed. But only partly. I write left-handed, eat left-handed, but throw a ball and play tennis right-handed. I also have erratic sleep patterns, which mean I’m sometimes awake from about 2am to 3.30am, and I’m a glass half-full sort of person. Until quite recently, I didn’t think that any of this was particularly noteworthy.

But it is. And I will tell you why. But some more information first…

I get my email via British Telecom. For some peculiar reason, BT have an arrangement whereby your trash mail is only accessible if you go to Yahoo. So I go to Yahoo two or three times a week, because in amongst the detritus of Viagra advertisements and offers to share millions of dollars with the widows of African dictators, there lurk genuine emails, which otherwise I would miss.

When I go through this convoluted process to check the trash, I could skip the Yahoo home page, and go straight to Yahoo mail, but I don’t. I’m addicted to the home page, with its illustrated main ‘news’ stories.

Yahoo’s idea of ‘news’ is standard tabloid red-top. Disasters like earthquakes, floods or plane crashes will always be their lead photo-story, but in the absence of something like that, they lead with celebrity stories and other similar lowest common denominator stuff, some of which I can only describe as medical scare stories.

Thanks to the Yahoo home page, I now know that I’m lucky to be alive. Because left-handed people die younger than right-handed people, and partly left-handed people like me die even younger than the totally left-handed. So do people whose sleep patterns are disturbed. What is more, as a tall guy, I am much more likely to get testicular cancer.

Leaving aside the possible dangers to your sanity and anxiety levels of reading this kind of stuff, there ARE things about the Yahoo home page that may be useful in class, the main thing being the brilliant way they tease you into reading the lead story. Here are three examples to show you what I mean.


In each case, I opened up the article to read more.

When I do this, I’m always reminded of a meeting I had a few years ago with a publishing team. We were discussing content for a course book series.

At the beginning of a project, publishers are enthusiastic and ebullient.

“We need something new, something GROUND-BREAKING and DIFFERENT!” they say, waving a sandwich in the air (yes, all we get is sandwiches these days. Oh, how I miss the lunches in restaurants we poor underfed writers used to be invited to.)

Once I had an idea that I thought was, well, if not GROUND-BREAKING, then at least DIFFERENT.

ELT books are usually divided into units. And the units usually start with a double-page spread, so they start on the left-hand page, what is known as the verso page. Once I suggested that we could start the unit on the recto page, and use the first page as a teaser for the contents of the main unit.

There was general puzzlement at this idea. Sandwiches were not being waved in delight.

“What’s the point of that?” asked one of the editorial team.

“Well,” I stumbled on, convinced that the idea was dying on its feet. “Let’s say the unit is about geography, and there are photos of famous rivers, mountains. Let’s have a small detail of the photos on the first page, the recto page, and a caption saying ‘Do you know where this is?’

Silence.

“And we could also take a sentence out of a reading text, and ask if the reader can guess the context. And put an example of the key grammar, or vocabulary – in a way to make the students want to hunt around and find the answer.”

“But you can do this anyway, just by looking at the picture, or before you read the article. Why do you need an extra page for it?” asked the commissioning editor.

“And don’t forget you have to pay more if you use a photographic image twice,” said the production manager. “Anyway, it’s a waste of a page,” she added, having calculated how much this brainless idea would cost in extra paper.

So it didn’t happen. And I got the distinct impression that the team were worried about my tabloid mentality.

I do have a tabloid mentality. Although I find celebrity stuff a bit dull, I like the kind of teaser campaign that makes you want to find out more. Tabloid newspapers and most glossy magazines use their front pages the way Yahoo uses the home page. The front page headline and information about the inside contents is one big tease.

No one did this better in the old days than the American publication National Enquirer.

I remember my first introduction to the Enquirer. It was at a supermarket check-out in the suburban town on Long Island NY, where my wife Dede grew up. I picked it up as we were waiting to pay, and was so taken with it that I added it to our basket of goodies.

In the old days, you could find the most wonderful and totally bonkers stories in the Enquirer and a similar publication called the Weekly World News. I mean, who WOULDN’T want to read a story like this?

It's true, folks! Hillary Clinton really DOES care...

 

I once found a story about a two-headed Polish singer, who could sing harmony with himself. According to the story, it was only a matter of time before his doctors and family agreed to let him become an international star. I used the story at a Polish conference once. The teachers were a bit stunned by it, but read every word avidly.

Nowadays the Enquirer is much less interesting. It’s just another celebrity magazine, and looks like this.

Ladies'n'gennelmen - the next president of the US of A!

 

So – what is the message of this garbled post? Firstly, tabloid rubbish can make interesting reading. More importantly, more ‘serious’ content can be made more palatable to your tabloid-minded students (and I reckon there are lots of them around), if you can work out a way to tease the students into engaging with it.

I found these references to back up two of the Yahoo scare stories.

Left-handers die younger – http://bit.ly/2HhRKB

Tall men and testicular cancer – http://bit.ly/aclNkH

I couldn’t find anything to back up the story about disturbed sleep patterns being fatal, but this Daily Mail shock-horror story (You can get cancer if you turn on the bathroom light at night) isn’t bad – http://bit.ly/9Pst6A Thanks to Emma Herrod for giving me the link.

And why is being a glass-half-full kind of person important in all of this? Because my nature is to be optimistic about things and after all this scare-mongering, I’m just really enjoying still being alive.😛

PS Many thanks to Cecilia Coelho for reminding me of this excellent article ‘The News Can Kill You’ – http://bit.ly/92dn2n

__________________________________

Coming soon – the theory of the adjacent possible and how it can revolutionise your teaching.


Comments on: "The Yahoo home page – dull, scary or engaging?" (20)

  1. Hi Ken,

    Great post and sorry publishers can’t see it – the idea of a teaser page or box NOT on the same page is one that comes up in many comments against coursebooks I have made at one time or another and it is such an obvious thing to do – you could even have a front page of a unit or two page spread with all your teasers and prediction activities and it would make so much more sense pedagogically as well as in practical teacher prep time terms – teachers usually find they have to lift stuff off the coursebook page and print photos or show a powerpoint or use their board for that very reason.

    It’s not even about saving paper – may be publishers ought to hire better editors? Or give them better brain food for lunches rather than boring old sandwiches?

    Marisa

    • And I do go off to look for that time traveller story !🙂

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Marisa,

      to give them credit, some publishers have seen the value of going down-market a bit to engage readers’ interest. The contents page of Global, for example, is magazine-format, something that would have been unheard of in a ‘serious’ adult course in the past.

  2. lclandfield said:

    Hi Ken

    I too always click on those Yahoo stories, even when I’m not remotely interested. That question they have is quite effective.

    I think that’s a very good idea for the teaser page for a unit. It would be a dream to do prediction from, and you could have some of those photos a lot bigger anyway.

    But it strikes me that I have seen similar stuff in secondary course books. Aren’t there other books which have a “first page” teaser type thing per unit? Not as ingenious as you suggest, but there anyway? Maybe it’s filled more with stuff like Grammar points and Unit Objectives. Don’t know.

    Of course, with digital delivery of materials (like through a projector or IWB) there could be a “teaser” montage that could be shown at the beginning of a lesson and would work in the same way. I know I know we aren’t there yet …

    I think also we have to distinguish between tabloid mentality and tabloid content. What you suggest is using real world and educational content while taking a leaf from the tabloid style of marketing it. Although not just tabloids, I think it’s a good design feature. And a very good idea.

    Anyway, enough wittering on from me on a Sunday. Thanks for the post and thoughts Ken!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Lindsay,

      I think there are several courses that do indeed have a kind of at-a-glance unit recto contents page, but my idea is a very dumbed down version of the kind of thing I mean.

  3. Hi Ken,

    Being the big sucker I am for teasers I wholeheartedly agree with you. I used to work in advertising (in a past life) and have worked with media literacy and ad-busting with my students, so I know how manipulative teasers can be. But I just don’t care!😉

    I have bought magazines and books for the teaser, as well as watched films for the same reason (trailers) only to be disappointed at times. But teasers can do wonders in the ELT classroom, because it ignites the thinking, even if the topic is not of special interest to the student, he’ll think about it before actually reading/discussing it.

    On a different note, I get a kick out of what I hear/read on the news. You read it and some time later read something else that goes completely against it, that takes it down. So when somebody comes up to me and tells me I should stop drinking coke zero because it will give me cancer (apparently everything will give you cancer – I have stopped paying attention to it a long time ago), I just tell them to wait some time just to make sure it really does😉

    Great, fun post!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Cecilia –

      you’ve raised another key point – ‘teasers can do wonders in the ELT classroom, because it ignites the thinking, even if the topic is not of special interest to the student’.

      There is no way we can be sure that every student will be interested in the topic – we HAVE to use these methods to engage them. And if the book won’t do it for us, we resourceful teachers have to do it ourselves.

      It’s time course materials learned the lesson of the world of advertising!😛

  4. I think the idea of a ‘teaser’ page would work wonders in a multimedia setting (similar to what Lindsay mentioned with the IWBs) with each photo/’headline’ linking to a text or video activity, very much in the way the Yahoo! page is set up I suppose!

    Tabloid news is good for a chuckle but it can be annoying – it even dictates content for the mainstream evening news here in Turkey and if you believed all the cancer stories, you may well die of starvation!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Dave,

      good point – tabloid news IS annoying and too much of it can be very off-putting. What we need to do, as noted above, is use tabloid techniques to make more serious content palatable to the average student.

  5. Ken, I am so happy to say I agree with you 100% on the direction/idea you are advocating here. So much so, in fact, that…

    http://jasonrenshaw.typepad.com/jason_renshaws_web_log/2010/11/ken-wilsons-tabloid-recto-teaser-idea-not-as-bizarre-as-it-sounds.html

    Hope it gives you some retrospective ammo!

    – J

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks Jason,

      as so often happens when I get a good idea, i find that the Aussie Raven has got their first. I thoroughly recommend everyone to go directly to Jason’s blog and read ‘How I Got There Before Ken Wilson’😛

      Here’s the link – http://bit.ly/bP2XuL

      And Jason, I thoroughly recommend you check out the joys of using http://www.tinyurl.com🙂

      • Not sure I got there first, Ken — only that (perhaps) I managed to get lucky with a similar idea before you did!

        Point noted about tiny URLs…

        – J

  6. Ken,

    I’m also sorry you didn’t get far with this idea, because I think it’s a very good one, and your reasoning is very sound.

    I’ve used it on several series, Format (for Poland) New Standard College English (for China), Discover China (for learners of Chinese), and no one has questioned it. But instead of calling it a teaser, I call it a cover page, often designed as a Cosmo style front cover, and which suggests that the whole unit is like mini-magazine of material. We also make sure there is some exploitation of the photos

    The term ‘magazine format’ has been around at least as a term for as long as I’ve been writing, and often used to distinguish it from a storyline course, or to refer to part of a unit where the content was more eclectic and chosen to appeal to students’ different interests.

    Simon

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks, Simon…

      yes, lots of books have very good teaser pages – I particularly like your Format one, and Marta Rosińska and I wanted to reproduce something similar when we wrote Matura Masters.

      The problem with the project I described above is that I think I wanted to REALLY dumb down the page – and it made people a bit nervous.

      Emboldened by the support I have received here, I will continue to aim for the highest level content material, coupled with the lowest common denominator presentation style.😛

  7. I like your last sentence >the highest level content material, coupled with the lowest common denominator presentation style.< Seriously, we're talking about good content combined with good design, and it's something we should all be striving for.

    Just show them the precedents, stress how it can be exploited in the TB, and say it's an extremely serious device for eliciting motivation, and getting over the 'Now open your books and turn to page 00 and read something you haven't chosen to read' blip at the beginning of any materials-led lesson.

    Simon

    • Love it Ken. Scrolled all the way down. But OMG – I have disturbed sleep patterns and get up in the middle of the night and turn the bathroom light on. And use my left hand far more than a right hander is supposed to. Thank goodness I’m not a tall man….

      My rows with publishers have always been : Why the hell does every unit have to have the same format and exactly the same page length.. But no, it has to start with a dialogue, then go on to vocab development, then etc etc And if unit one is five pages long and unit two three, then unit one has to be cut and unit two expanded.

      As a teacher I hate coursebooks like that and have frequently turned down writing projects because I can’t bear to work to the restrictions. Do the majority of teachers out there really, really want every unit to be identical?

      • Ken Wilson said:

        Hi Sue…

        ooooh – I can hear the tin opener being taken out of the drawer and the can of worms lid coming off. Oxford (UP) presented me with pages and pages of research amongst the teachers who were going to use the book I was about to write, and there it was in black and white. A huge majority of teachers worldwide prefer books to have a stable unit format. An even huger group complain when the unit format is tampered with.

        You can’t argue with the stats, but I did try…

  8. Kate Bell said:

    Not particularly on-topic, but reading this post I thought of the coverage on sleep research which I heard recently. It has a vague tie-in to dying younger:
    http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201010086

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Gee, thanks Kate! Now I feel MUCH better!😛

      • Kate Bell said:

        “I couldn’t find anything to back up the story about disturbed sleep patterns being fatal”

        You kind of asked for it, didn’t you? Just trying to be helpful😉

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