Using The Economist’s covers to teach idiomatic language

Business English activity

The Economist, that venerable magazine that so many of my learners swear by and in all probability have never read. The Economist tends to have really creative covers with interesting allusions and clever word play. Here’s an activity that’s perfect for business contexts that exploits these covers to explore idiomatic language, practise speaking, and doesn’t require learners to dive into those sometimes dense articles.


Materials

You’ll need covers from the Economist and you can get them for current and previous issues from this site.  You could then either display it on a slide or print it out or as I prefer, take the print copies of the magazine in (but of course you’ll need a subscription for that).

Preparation 

You’ll find a variety of of interesting language features on the covers including idioms, allusions, word play, metaphors, and tongue in cheek subverting of all of these.  Choose ones that are appropriate for your learners. For some of the writing courses I teach on business thought leadership, I focus on covers that use allusions and metaphors. But the ones in this post are for exploring idiomatic language.

Procedure

  • Get learners into small groups and distribute the covers to them.
  • There are several ways of doing this. You could give each group all the covers you’ve selected or have each group look at the same cover and discuss it before moving on to the next one or you could do it like a jigsaw task and assign a different cover to each group. You could also assign the covers using slides without physically distributing any printouts.

The activity has four steps:

  • Step 1: Ask groups to guess the idiom being referenced by the cover image and text and what it might mean.
  • Step 2: Give groups the idiomatic language but with gaps such as “Paper ______” and then get learners to match the idiom to the cover.
  • Step 3: Ask learners to use the frame “The Economist claim(s) that _______________ + [idiomatic expression] because …” and complete it with what they think the Economist might be saying. For example, “The Economist claim(s) that India under Prime Minister Modi is a paper tiger because …”
  • Step 4: Ask groups to discuss what they  know about the subject and if they know enough about it, whether they agree or disagree with The Economist’s perspective.

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Key

  1. Paper tiger: something that seems very strong and threatening but is actually weak and ineffectual.
  2. To walk on water: to perform superhuman feats (this one’s also a Biblical allusion).
  3. To dig yourself into a hole: to get yourself into a difficult situation.
  4. Keep your fingers crossed: hope that things will go well or the way you want them to.
  5. A long and winding road: a complicated and difficult future path (strictly speaking, this might be a fixed expression but still useful for learners)
  6. This could either be “to go the way of the dinosaur” (not a frequently heard idiom) or “to be a dinosaur” in the sense of “your phone is a bit of dinosaur” but both refer to something that’s become outdated or past its prime.
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3 thoughts on “Using The Economist’s covers to teach idiomatic language

  1. In this particular instance, it probably helps that my academic background is in economics. Something that I regretted for the longest time but now realize that it might actually be a strength.

    Like

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