Bringing National Geographic to Life

Bringing National Geographic to Life: what makes Life different for an ELT author

by Helen Stephenson (Beginner and Intermediate)


Where to begin?
Exploiting the content of National Geographic for learners of English – users of Life – confronts the author with a number of tantalizing dilemmas:
• How to whittle down hundreds of gorgeous images into the few dozen I can squeeze into one book?
• How to select only a few topics from the dozens of interesting articles and stories in the magazines and on the website?
• And having settled on a topic or a story, how to pick just one photo from the gallery of images, all of which tell a great story?

So, you get the idea. For an ELT author, National Geographic can feel like an embarrassment of riches.

Words and pictures
One of the biggest differences between writing for Life and writing other ELT materials is the fact that the text source materials are so completely integrated with visual and video elements. In other ELT material I have worked on, these strands can be quite independent of each other: a photo researcher will find agency images that illustrate the topics you choose to write about, for example. Writing for Life, we begin from the whole package of text + images + (very often) video, as well as a wealth of links and background material. This means that we can provide a lot more support within the unit for the learner – there’s no cognitive gap between text and image, no need to work out just how the two relate to each other. I’ve found that users of Life can very easily use the images to start to build their ideas of the context, topic and story before they start to deal with the text. This kind of mental framework is useful enough for native speakers but is invaluable for learners.

The ‘wow’ factor – something to talk about
Of course, from an author’s point of view, it’s a delight to work with images that have already been selected by National Geographic photo editors to showcase some of the best photography available. You can feel confident that users of Life will be just as interested in reading about the photos as you are. I tend to overuse ‘Wow!’ when I’m researching for Life – these are the images that win international photography prizes,  after all – but I’m pretty sure that there’ll be a few ‘wow’s in the classroom too. Where a learner might find their motivation fading as they hit the doldrums a few weeks into a course, I hope that with Life they’ll at least find images that will provide a spark and make the lesson interesting and memorable. In Life, I’m able to draw on photos that variously deal with something completely new to the student, and to me, too; something that may resonate with their own experience or that reminds them of something they have heard about. In almost all cases, I’m confident that the images will speak to the student in some way that I can exploit on the page and that will lead to interaction in the classroom.

Something for everyone
Drawing texts from National Geographic means I can use articles that have a broad appeal, and which are neither too specialised nor too superficial or generic. National Geographic has an international readership and its tone is inclusive and relevant to most of the adult English learners you are likely to encounter. 

As published National Geographic texts, the articles are written to a high standard and have a clear sense of who the reader is. Being authentic texts, they are jam-packed with contextualised examples of the kind of language – both lexis and structure – I need to present to learners. Equally, there’s a range of text types available to me: from short news items to long personal essays; from explanations of diagrams and processes to expedition blogs; from interviews to reportage. And it’s all the kind of language that easily lets students generate new, simplified or parallel texts of their own.

All this makes my job much easier, and more interesting. There is plenty of topic content to exploit in the form of comprehension tasks, the students’ personal responses to the texts and productive spoken or written tasks. It’s much easier to see how to move the student through the various stages towards their own productive output in the learning cycle.  Within the units and the individual lessons, the factual or informational context of the articles is given as much weight as the language development work. These are two sides of the same coin: when we have information we usually want to do something with it – process it and share it or simply store it for future reference. And the students are, after all, learning English in order to communicate, to convey information, whether that is factual or affective in nature. So these content-rich National Geographic texts allow me as the author to build the learning cycle based on receiving, processing, transforming and transmitting the ‘data’.

What does all this mean?
I can probably best illustrate how this works in the writing process with an example from Life Intermediate. Unit 10 of this level is called 'No Limits' and takes the broad theme of how, both as individuals and as a species, we push ourselves up to and even beyond our limits. In lesson 10b, an original National Geographic graphic illustrates the theory of ‘terra-forming’ Mars – how we could transform the surface of Mars into a human-friendly place. The graphic tells the story quite clearly, and the short integrated captions introduce the language you need to talk about this process. This type of material caters for a type of learner (and learning) that is often neglected in ELT course books, whereby the images help you to understand the language and vice versa. Some can find this type of activity cognitively demanding – it is! – but in fact you have an in-built way of checking whether your students really have understood the language with material like this. It’s a bit like the instructions for an IKEA flat pack – now there’s a cognitive challenge! Yet, if your bookcase doesn’t fall over, you have understood! In the Life lesson, the text accompanying the graphic discusses the Mars theory with quotes from NASA scientists among others. This is the perfect vehicle for work on the second conditional and leads easily into personalised discussions of what ‘a new Life’ might consist of. The following lesson, 10c, brings the students back to Earth with astonishing accounts of what ‘no limits’ can mean on a personal level to two remarkable people. Here the tasks focus on a high frequency item – take – and on reading between the lines of the incredible stories. Thus, National Geographic gives me, as the author, the opportunity to bring together a series of contrasting and thought-provoking articles which I hope will really engage students and lead to meaningful dialogue in the classroom.

The final cut
I can’t finish without mentioning video. It’s been fascinating to work with the video material and shape the commentaries so that students can get the most out of the short films. It’s been an even bigger privilege to make my own cut of original  National Geographic footage of the elephants in Samburu Reserve in Kenya. It’s the combination of all these exciting privileges and challenges that makes this project different for this ELT author!