Trending with IELTS Task 1: a web journalism project21-May-2012
Any teacher who has spent time teaching IELTS Task 1 has probably faced the same problem: that students writing about trends in the chart or table often fail to… actually write about the trends! They learn key phrases, like ‘it increased’ and ‘there was a decrease’, but then just use these to list the details without really giving a sense of the overarching trends evident in the data set. In other words, the language is disembodied from its communicative function.
It struck me recently that perhaps the problem lies with how the data is presented to the students: also in a disembodied way. It is not shown as part of a wider research cycle and no context is really given for the data interpretation. In ‘real life’ we might see this kind of chart-based information in news stories where the results of specific research are reported and interpreted, with the ‘main news angle’ extracted from the data to anchor the story in the headline. But in our IELTS Task 1 preparation materials we were not giving students a context for the research findings and therefore no sense of why this research might be carried out. To find out what? We were also not giving them a clear rationale for what to do with the data; no real sense of an audience and our role in helping this audience make sense of the data.
This is when I came up with the idea of practicing Task 1 in a richer, less piecemeal way as part of a web journalism project. This would hopefully take the lessons learnt from the journalistic analogy above and help students to really get the point of the task. We would choose an area to research, do surveys to get the data we needed, build our own charts, and then interpret and communicate our findings in a final web journalism piece.
The project involved a number of steps, although these can easily be adapted to suit time constraints and language requirements.
Gathering the data: Survey Monkey and a good use of Facebook!
First, each student chose an area to research trends in. This could be anything from cinema-going habits to travel preferences. They then had to get a questionnaire together in order to gather the data. To increase our data ranges, we decided to use the free and very easy to use online questionnaire builder Survey Monkey.
All we had to do was compile the surveys and then put the links on our Facebook pages and email them to friends. People could then quickly complete the surveys, with the results being automatically collated in Survey Monkey. It really is a very simple and efficient process.
And straight from the outset, the idea that we were looking for trends from our research was crystal clear. The students knew that they needed to find the news angles for their stories; to find their headlines, basically.
Presenting the data: infographics and the inverted pyramid
Once the data was gathered, students could make their own charts to graphically represent their findings. Some used Microsoft Excel, while others opted for simple online chart making websites such as Chart Tool. A more exciting option I am planning to use in future is for the students to design their own infographics using tools like Easel.ly. These are an outstanding way to really highlight trends and I will be focusing more on them in my post on student presentations next week.
Once the data collection and visual representations were done, the students then had to write their news stories. This is where we called on the inverted pyramid approach – a method used for structuring news stories so that they have the most impactful communicative effect on the audience. It is called the inverted pyramid because the most important information is given first (in the headline and the lead), with supporting details then given at ever decreasing levels of significance.
In this model, the concept of needing to isolate the most significant trends, or newsworthy information, is again made clear to students. The inverted pyramid approach dictates that the overarching trend must be made explicit from the outset and that supporting details are then required to add credence to the headline. It seems to me that this might provide a really effective way of conceptualizing the communicative purpose of an IELTS Task 1 response.
In order to display our work, we decided to extend the project and create our own multimedia journalism websites using Wix, a free website building service. The support page has some useful tutorial videos that will help you get started. The students designed their own sites like this one on cinema trends and even filmed video interviews and wrote feature stories on their topics. This was a great way to display their work and to provide many opportunities for language practice, though these extra activities could be cut if teachers wish to focus exclusively on Task 1.
Though IELTS teachers and students are always under pressure to adequately cover the different task types before the exam, I feel it is imperative that we still take time out to clearly conceptualize what it is we are asking them to do and why. Maybe this would be another newsworthy trend worth investigating further…
Next week: Creative presentations with Prezi and infographics! (Monday 28th May)