Why Watching The News Isn’t Really Helping Your English!

NewsIf you are like most English students, you try to find English language materials in your daily life, from magazines to music to television to newspapers…or even people! But today I’d like to talk about one common mistake many English students make for practicing English:   listening to or watching the daily news report.

I know, I know… every week I tell you that listening to correctly spoken English is the best way to improve. And that’s true! So why would the news be any different?

It’s in English, right? It’s correct, right?

Yes and No. Of course the news is given in correct English, but if you are trying to become fluent in everyday spoken English, whether for work or for pleasure, you need to hear normal, everyday English. The problem with the news is that it often uses a special kind of English—usually quite formal, and often using the present perfect tense because the stories are either happening now, very recently , or are ongoing. The news is delivered very quickly, with advanced vocabulary and specific journalism formulas, and with little to no emotional context. While all this is perfectly correct, of course, I dare say that it isn’t the best choice for a listening exercise, and more importantly, it’s certainly NOT the best way to measure your level of understanding!

So if you have tried watching the news and you became frustrated because you couldn’t follow the stories, don’t worry! The news is a great source for many people, and when you are comfortable with it, it is a very interesting way to maintain a high level of English. But until you get there, relax! For many reasons, the news is not a very good tool to measure your level of English comprehension!

  • Have you ever tried to use such resources as CNN, BBC, or another English news source like a newspaper  to practice listening or reading?
  • Did you find it difficult to catch the details of the stories?

Have a look at these 3 newspaper headlines below from The New York Times this week. Notice how the language and structure of the phrases are NOT like everyday English…


See if you can decipher the meanings behind these headlines, and find the main verb or verbs, before reading the answers:

1.  “Rights Battle Rises as Businesses Decline to Serve Gays”

(meaning: Gay people are protesting even more for equal rights because more businesses refuse to provide them services. Verbs: rises, decline)

2.  “Korean Air Faces Flights Suspensions Over Nut Tantrum”

(meaning: The airline company Korean Air has suspended their flights because of a passenger becoming upset about nuts that were served on a flight. Verb: faces)

3.  “Iraq’s Premier Narrows Divide, but Challenges Loom”

(meaning: The prime minister of Iraq has made some peacemaking efforts, but there will be more challenges for him soon. Verbs: narrows, loom)


Where you able to decipher the headlines?

Newspaper headlines are written in a concise way that uses brief phrases and some unusual vocabulary and verb choices, in order to communicate the main idea as quickly and clearly as possible.  Did you notice the verb choices? When you speak English, whether for business or on holiday, chances are you will NOT be using this type of language, but rather an English that is more naturally spoken. So why should you torture yourself to learn something you won’t need to use yourself?

Let’s try another example, this time from a televised news report, the BBC’s One-Minute World News.  Watch the clip, and see if you can pick up the main subject and verb for each quick story:

Boy, that was some fast news!

  • Did you notice how the most common verb tense used in the news is the present perfect, to indicate that the event happened in the very recent past, is still happening, or may continue to happen? If you were telling one of these stories to a friend, you would probably use a simpler verb tense and sentence structure that sounds more natural.
  • Did you notice any advanced vocabulary that you didn’t know? The news uses formal vocabulary, often with word pairings that are very unlikely in everyday language. This provides a serious, intellectual and concise tone. You won’t learn much slang, regional dialect or expressions here, which are all very important for comprehension in real life situations.
  • Did you notice that there is very little emotion in the delivery of the news? We know that emotion is a key part of understanding in real life, helping to imprint the meaning of language onto your brain naturally. And because of the serious, monotonous tone of the news, and the speed with which the reporter must speak, there is almost no emphasis or emotion on the most important words in the sentence, which could be easily missed, or misunderstood, by a non-native speaker. When we speak English naturally, we tend to emphasize the main subject and verbs in a sentence.


So what should I watch or listen to every day in English besides the news?

Don’t get me wrong! The news can be a great activity or exercise when you have a high level of English, or if you are studying journalism in English!  But it should not be used as a tool to measure your English level for comprehension and speaking.  What you should use are sources that use everyday English!

  • Easy fiction novels
  • Children’s or young adult’s books
  • Popular TV series and films, or funny videos on You Tube
  • Conversations with a native speaker
  • Listening to and singing music that you love

These are are all fun and very effective ways to improve your English!

Remember, we learn faster and better when we are having fun… but the news is actually making us feel more worried and anxious, besides being difficult to follow!

So go easy on yourself… you deserve it!


Have you used the news as a self-study or listening exercise?

Did you find it helpful ? Or frustrating ?

What sources do you use for reading and listening to correct English every day?

We love to hear your comments and suggestions!

(photos courtesy of: huffingtonpost.com, thesiescomsblog.wordpress.com, greenegazette.com, gettyimages.com, respectively.)



April is an e-marketing specialist, English instructor and freelance writer living in Grenoble, France.
  1. Arkady Reply

    The misconception that watching the news is helping your English is discredited in detailed and in-depth analysis. Thank you very much. I would like to add one more fact to prove your deliberation. English learners comprehend incoming information exclusively by subconsciously translating it into the native tongue; that is why watching news inevitable becomes a very stressful process since learners don’t have enough time to do the subconscious translation and comprehend the news. The assumptions that learners will thus comprehend new words, and phrases are far from the truth; watching news is recommended only for advanced learners who have already overcome the tyranny of the mother tongue and can comprehend incoming information without translating it into the native language.

    • Soad Louissi Reply

      Someone recently showed me that we can turn on subtitles on CNN. Would that be an alternative solution Arkady?

  2. Elena Reply

    I definitely prefer watching films and series in English. I agree that listening to news is stressful and there are other ways to improve your English which are more fun. Thank you for this post.


    Watching or listening to news is not a matter of choice of interest. So, when you choose to read something, it means you are interested in it. So, understanding comes naturally.

Leave a Reply


captcha *