How to teach and use the language of newspaper headlines

Summary: Lessons to help students understand newspaper headlines

Many textbook reading tasks start with asking students to look at the title of the piece and predict what they will read from it. This is much more difficult with a newspaper article because the headline is often the most difficult part of the article to understand, and the same is at least as true for students reading on their own. For students who already read the news quite a lot, headline words can also be difficult to use in everyday speech or even be best avoided. The activities below aim to teach them the words they will often come across and show them if and how that vocabulary can be used in their own writing and speech.

The differences between headlines and other uses of English include:

- A greater incidence of some words

- Words having different (most common) meanings when used in headlines

- Some words often having an unusual part of speech in headlines, e.g. the verb “to pen”

- A greater incidence of puns (especially in certain sections and certain kinds of news sources), often punning on cultural knowledge that students (and teachers) might not have such as names of TV series

- Greater incidence of quotation marks to express doubt

- Different collocations or number of incidences of them (lift + embargo, life + ban, etc)

- Greater incidence of some grammatical forms, e.g. to… for most future meanings

- Other grammatical changes such as particular words usually being left out

There is a list of common words and phrases at the bottom of this article. Activities to raise awareness of all these points are given below.

News headlines bluff

This is probably the most fun game to play with headlines language (although most of the activities below could be turned into games by scoring points). Bluff basically consists of the teacher and/ or students telling a mix of true and false stories, with the person listening trying to work out which is which. If you give students some true stories with their headlines, they can make up other stories which match the headlines but otherwise have no relation to the real stories. They can then either explain all the stories (meaning real and made up for each headline) or explain only the real one or only the made up one for each headline. The same can also be done with students making up false headlines for real stories, or false stories and headlines using real headlines vocabulary.

Something similar can also be done with headlines of spoof stories, with students trying to guess just from the headlines which stories aren’t true and then reading the stories to check their answers.

Find synonyms in the text

Although by no means as fun as the ideas above, this is probably the most useful way of presenting headlines language and more commonly used ways of saying the same thing. Students search for words in the text that mean the same as words in the headline, with the first few examples maybe having words in the text and/ or headline underlined to help them.

Another version is for the teacher to swap the word in the headline and the word in the text for students to find the synonyms and swap them over.

Put headlines words in the text

Although it doesn’t happen as often as you might think and it is good written style to avoid it at least near the beginning of the piece, many news stories have the exact words in the headlines somewhere in the story. Students can read through and put these words back in, although the teacher usually needs to make some more effort to write the exercise. This is because it is unlikely that more than two or three such words are in the text and they are likely to be very different from each other, making the basic version of this task much too easy. One possibility is to also leave other gaps, e.g. ones like a typical TEFL open cloze activity such as prepositions and determiners. Students then add a mix of words from the headline and their own ideas. Another possibility is to do something similar where there are multiple choice options for the gaps, one of which is always a word from the same headline. For a really challenging task, you could also give the text with the words taken out but no gap to show where from.

Get rid of the headlines words

This is the ultimate practice for the small group of people who try to overuse headlines language that they have learnt. The teacher gives them a text, e.g. an informal email, in which there is newspaper headlines language where synonyms such as more informal conversational words would be suitable. Perhaps with the list of more suitable words to help them, students edit the text to make it more consistent in style.

Predict how common in headlines

Students look at some headlines (e.g. in a single newspaper, on a news aggregation site or on a worksheet made by the teacher) and predict which words in those headlines are likely to more common in headlines than in other situations, then search both news sites and normal internet search to see which is more common (using a base word such as “get” in both cases to compare it to).

Predict how common the meaning is in headlines

The same thing as above can also be done to raise awareness of the most common meaning in headlines not always being the most common meaning in other situations. Students choose words in headlines where they think that could be the case, then search for the given word in a general internet search function and in a news search function. Whenever they are sure they have found a pair, they are given (paper) dictionaries to match the meanings in those results, seeing if the incidences of the various definitions in the dictionary varying between the two.

Predict which news source

Students are given a collection of headlines from at least three news sources organised in sections but not labelled, with at least five examples of each. They predict which headlines come from which news source (perhaps from a list of possible publications, including some red herrings), then search to check. Patterns they might be surprised by include online news sources tending to avoid special headlines words more (mainly to match typical search terms) and papers in non-English speaking countries tending to use them more (perhaps because the journalists and editors have studied exactly these kinds of points).

Predict where

This is similar to Predict How Common above, but has a different approach to finding a more or less scientific result to confirm or deny students’ predictions. Students predict which from a list of words have a greater incidence of being more common in newspaper headlines than in other kinds of written English. They then search for all the words and see for which the greatest percentage of results on the first two pages are newspaper headlines.

Put the grammar back in the headlines

Students try to write out headlines as full grammatical sentences, then check their answers. They can then analyse which kinds of words are usually missing. As well as being a good way of raising awareness of headlines language (and so comprehension of what headlines actually mean), this is good practice of the kinds of words that students also often miss out such as determiners.

Take the grammar out of the headlines

Students would need to be really interested in this point to make this worthwhile, but they could also try to make headlines out of grammatical sentences. They could then give these to other groups for them to change back to full grammatical sentences, or simply compare their ideas with the original headlines.

Ambiguous headlines

There are many examples online of headlines that have two possible meanings, usually one of which is amusing. The reason is often grammatical, so students writing the two possible meanings out in full can help clear up what the two differences are – but again this is probably not the main priority for many classes of students unless they are really interested in journalism or perhaps other kinds of writing such as translation.

Write the headlines

This is kind of a more creative form of Take the Grammar Out of the Headlines above, but is much more useful because it is also a good test of general or detailed understanding of the news stories they are trying to write headlines for.

Predict the story from the headline

This is the common TEFL reading prediction task that is mentioned in the introduction – students predict as much as they can from just the headline, the read and check. This can be linked to analysing and learning the language of headlines by choosing ones that are typical in their use of grammar (e.g. some passives), have typical headlines vocabulary, include puns, etc.

Predict today’s headline words

From their knowledge of the news, students predict from a list which words are likely to be most common in this morning’s news. They then check from newspapers, a print out from a news aggregation service, etc. The same thing can also be done with students matching lists of words from today’s headlines to the individual stories, kinds of news, etc.

Predict the parts of speech

Students predict which part of speech of some words is likely to be most common when they search a news site or news search site, then do so and check. This can include both words that actually only have one part of speech, in which case they can try to guess the other part(s) of speech of those words and then search to check.

Predict the definitions

Students look up some typical headline words (perhaps from whole headlines) and choose which of the dictionary definitions they think the word has in each case. They can then read the stories to quickly check their predictions.

Match the similar headlines

Students match headlines for the same story to the different articles on it by the level of formality, political leaning of the newspaper, etc.

Puns in headlines activities

For all but the highest level students or ones who come across such things everyday, puns in headlines are best simply to avoid or ignore. For Proficiency-level students and people of at least Intermediate level who live in an English speaking country and often read a paper, however, there are useful things you can do with them. Perhaps the main skill they need is to spot a pun so that they can ignore it, so you could give them a mix of headlines with puns and without and get them to underline what they imagine to be silly jokes (perhaps with at least an extract from the accompanying stories to help them).

Although there are much easier ways of doing it, puns can also be used to present and/ or practise homophones and minimal pairs (because many puns are actually based on words which are pronounced a little differently).

Headlines pairwork

Versions of many of the tasks above can be done as pairwork speaking tasks, for example giving one student the headlines and the other student the stories for them to match up as quickly as possible without showing each other their texts. The same thing can also be done with one student having just key words from the headlines and the other person having the texts, or perhaps the other student having gapped versions of the headlines that those words were taken from as well as or instead of the texts. These tasks can also be made more fun by making them running dictations, shouting dictations or mingling activities.

Put the headlines together

Split some headlines in half , splitting up collocations (e.g. “Conservatives out” “to increase share of vote by 15%”). If possible, it should be possible for the students to match them up by both guessing the story and guessing the collocation. This can also be made more fun and more manageable by splitting the headlines of a whole page up dominoes style, meaning that after students put them together than can discuss if they would have prioritised them in the same way.

Playing editors with headlines

The last task above can also be done without splitting the headlines into halves. Students look at some recent headlines (chosen to have useful vocabulary in them) and discuss how would priortise those stories. They then compare with the real webpage, page of a newspaper or whole newspaper.

Headlines and similar

Students match up headlines and the accompanying bylines (meaning a kind of secondary headline) and/ or captions, then identify which one is which.

Speaking tasks with headlines vocabulary

It is fairly easy to write discussion questions based on headlines vocabulary, such as “What can be done about politicians making claims they know to be false?”, but you’ll need to be careful that the words do actually sound natural in those sentences.

Useful vocabulary to teach

An unscientific selection of some words which are more common in headlines and/ or have different uses there, with the most common parts of speech in headlines:

acquit (v)

aid (n/ v)

alert (n)


appeal (n/ v)

axe (v)

back (v)

battle (n/ v)

besiege (v)

bid (n/ v)

blast (n/ v)

blaze (n)

boycott (n/ v)

breakthrough (n)

bystander (n)

case (n)

charge (n/ v)

cite (v)

claim (n/ v)

clash (n/ v)

condemn (v)

crackdown/ crack down (on) (n/ v)

curb (n/ v)

cut (n/ v)

demand (n/ v)

deny (v)

deploy (v)

detain (v)

dispute (n/ v)

doubt (n/ v)

drama (n)

duo (n)

enquiry (n)

envoy (n)

eye (v)

face (v)

flee (v)

forecast (n/ v)

gunman/ gunmen (n)

haul (n)

head (n/ v)

hearing (n)

hike (n)

hit (v)

imminent (adj)

ink (v)

jolt (v)

key (adj)

launch (n/ v)

lawmaker (n)

loom (v)

lull (n)

maim (v)

obstacle (n)

offer (n/ v)

official (n)

ordeal (n)

oust (v)

to oversee (v)

pen (v)

plea (n)

plot (n/ v)

poll (n)

probe (n/ v)

proceed (v)

propose (v)

protest (n/ v)

pull out (v)

review (n/ v)

riddle (n)

rock (v)

rout (n)

rumour (n/ v)

safeguard (n/ v)

scare (n)


seek (v)

sentence (n/ v)

slam (v)

sleuth (n)

slip (v)

spare (v)

spat (n)

stand (for…) (v)

stand trial (v + n)

standoff (n)

step down (v)

step up (v)

strife (n)

stun (v)

suspect (n/ v)

swoop (v)

talks (n)

target (n/ v)

tensions (n)

threat (n)/ threaten (v)

tsar (n)

unrest (n)

urge (v)

vow (v)

Copyright © 2013

Written by Alex Case for

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