The Internet TESL Journal

Using Advice Columns in ESL/EFL Classes

Shu-min Hsieh
floramouse ('at')
Yuanpei University (HsinChu, Taiwan)


Advice columns stand out as a good source of teaching materials. They are written as letters using simple, modern spoken English. Since the questions that readers ask the columnists about are volatile, they also offer a wide variety of topics that ESL/EFL students are concerned about. Additionally, through the communicative correspondence between the columnists and readers towards the issues raised, advice columns introduce language learners to the cultures and the values of English-speakers. If used and applied properly, they can even raise students awareness of their own culture and values. This paper discusses how to select proper materials from advice columns and develop some strategies for highly effective teaching.

Advice Columns and Selecting Pertinent Materials

An advice column is colloquially known (in British English) as an agony aunt. It is so named because the words of wisdom and comforting words are usually offered by the stereotyped image of an old lady that reminds people of their aunts. An advice columnist, sometimes a team of editors, and sometimes a single person, counsels readers’ personal questions by providing wise advice and sensible answers. Many advice columns are syndicated and appear in numerous newspapers, such as the famous Dear Ann Landers and Dear Abby.

Since the queries are written and sent by readers from all walks of life, the column covers various issues including relationships, health, education, family, and sexual issues.  However, some of these issues are not age-appropriate to younger students. Another thing to consider is that the columnist’s advice now appears on the Internet as well, which invites visitors to comment upon problems. While posted problems may receive many good suggestions, more often, “replies are posted by those who seek to poke fun or worse, which can be upsetting for the genuine thread posters. These sites must therefore be closely monitored.” (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) Bearing these facts in mind, teachers should be cautious and be aware of the impact on their students when choosing and using the advice column in class.

The first crucial thing to consider when selecting articles from an advice column is if the content is age appropriate to the students. Readers from different age groups have different problems and dilemmas they face in their lives. The advice they read should be about issues they are familiar with and may encounter in the world they live in. It would be no point for teenage students to discuss how to solve snoring problem of one’s spouse; likewise it would be difficult to touch an adult student personally if the issue being dealt with is about whether to wear makeup to class.

Next, the materials chosen should be able to motivate students to read, to think and to discuss. Eskey (2000) mentioned that texts that are interesting to students and relevant to their individual needs are most likely to engage them to read. Take college students for example. Themes about relationships are normally intriguing to them because they are at the stage of courting, dating and falling in love. In the process of building relationships, when passion gradually dies out, they face practical problems: money. Who should pay for the date? If they live together, on top of money issue, trivial things such as cleaning and living habits will bring them to reality.  Parents’ attitude towards their relation plays an important role as well. College students feel involved in reading texts that tackle situations and circumstances that coincide with the dilemma they are confronting. They are eager to know what opinions and solutions those advice columnists will offer.

While considering various levels of ESL/EFL classes, it is essential to select articles that meet students’ ability linguistically. Gee (1999) suggested “the five-finger test—more than five hard words per page can be too difficult—is sometimes recommended for younger children” (p.6) Articles that are beyond or below students’ ability either frustrate them or bore them easily. Accordingly, teachers either have to spend hours explicitly explaining the articles if they are too difficult or face a group of students who would not listen because the texts are too easy for them.

Last and not least, some queries in advice columns touch rather personal and sensitive problems like weight and special customs in some cultures. Letters about overweight travelers being discriminated against when taking flights, for instance, will probably bring embarrassment to students of the same group. Texts criticizing a certain ethnic group should be avoided especially in a classroom where students come from diverse nationalities.

Strategies on Using Advice Columns in Class

Prior to selecting the proper texts from an advice column, a teacher’s job is to “know” as much about the students as possible—their age, major, background, linguistic level, and interest—in order that the texts chosen will be age-appropriate, meet students’ personal needs and language ability level. I used to go to the library to browse and scan advice columns from the most recent two months, then collect the letters covering issues that match the background and interests of the students. Fortunately, the advent of the Internet era has taken away this time-consuming work. Now there are some currently popular sites where teachers can locate advice columns.

Preparations before Class

The first step after collecting all the pertinent texts is to sort them out according to the themes. I find it useful to enhance vocabulary learning by teaching 3-6 texts of the same theme together because “key words in topic-related passages tend to reoccur, easing the lexical burden on readers as they become familiar with this vocabulary.” (Hwang & Nation, 1989 in Schmitt and Carter, 2000, p.5) For example, if my students are college students, and my focus is “relationship”, the texts selected are supposed to center around this topic: courting, dating, conflicts between parents and their offspring over the qualities of a suitable mate, issues about living together and so on.

The next step is to separate the query letters from the responses, blot out the salutation of the responses and leave a space there (Dear ____,) for students to fill in for the first activity—matching.

The third preparation job is to design two to three pre-reading questions for each reader’s letter to help develop skills in anticipation and prediction for the reading.

Activities in Class

1.    Scanning and skimming are two reading skills that help students to locate specific information and get the gist respectively so that they can reach higher levels of proficiency in reading. The first activity is thus designed to foster the two skills. Students skim or scan the texts to match the letters from the readers and the responses from the advice columnists. This can be done in less than three minutes for skilled readers.

2.    The second activity, answering the pre-reading questions, is intended to help students form the basic idea about what they are going to read so that students can comprehend the text better. For example, if the question is “On a date, should the couple go Dutch?” students will be somehow prepared to read the materials related to this topic. As students in many Asian cultures do not tend to express their opinions in public, teachers often experience a collective silence when it comes to a question and answer activity in class.  Group discussion is a good way to guide the activity in a class where students rarely volunteer to answer teachers’ questions. The representative of each group will express their views after members of the group exchange their ideas. However, as I have observed, most representatives are too reserved to speak loud enough for everyone in class to hear their opinions. To improve such a situation, an alternative is to ask them to write their ideas on the blackboard. I usually find it effective and satisfactory after slightly modifying the activity this way. Students become more attentive readers when they have to compare their answers with others on the board.

3.    Following pre-reading questions, teachers guide the students to read the query letters. For low level students, they need more emphasis on words, phrases and useful expressions. For advanced level ESL/EFL students, a few comprehensive questions to check their understanding are enough.

4.    The fourth activity is role playing. Each group of students will be asked to play the role of the advice columnist. They have to come up with the solutions to the reader’s problem, and then either the speaker of each group presents them in front of class or they just hand in a reply letter. The whole process of discussing, compromising, justifying and organizing views exposes students to new perspectives, cultivates them to think critically, and facilitates their skills in interacting with others.  At this point, students’ curiosity towards the advice from the columnist is aroused and they are eager to read the responses.

5.    After reading the response letter from the columnist, students can compare and contrast their views with not only their peers' but also the experts’. It will be an eye-opening experience for them to see how differently other people approach, react and interpret on the same issue. Wu (2008) argued that Young Adult books “offer ESL students a kaleidoscopic view to see the issue from multiple points of view that they may not otherwise have had access to in their own lives.” It is very true indeed. Nevertheless, in my opinion, an advice column that demonstrates and reflects the everyday life of common people offers more immediate and realistic cases for students to ponder upon. By reading the texts from advice columns, students come to understand the cultures and values of English speaking societies. When they reflect and compare them to their own culture, they can find parallels and differences.

Homework after Class—Role playing  

In the course of using advice columns as teaching materials, a complimentary writing assignment can bring the whole class together in an advanced class. Since life is not always favorable and almost every student might confront some vexing problems once in a while, it is recommendable that he/she seeks help by writing a letter to an advice columnist using a pseudo name. Teachers either collect the letters in printing, or in a more convenient way, on their blogs. Then, switching from roles of vexed young adults, students now act as advisors to solve their peers’ problems. Every student is responsible for replying to a letter assigned by the teacher or drawn by luck. To provide wise advice at a young age is a challenge for college students. However, there are a number of people they can turn to: teachers, parents, other adults at home or work, and counselors at student counseling centers. Additionally, they can do research by reading books or searching on the Internet. The whole process of problem-solving involves students in thinking, analyzing, and decision making, which is good for fostering their critical thinking skills. For the final touch, teachers post all the query letters and responses on their blogs so that every student can read them. If the whole class think a certain problem is too complicated to be solved, they can send it to a real advice columnist to seek professional help.


Advice columns are a resourcee that language teachers can readily draw materials from. The topics discussed in them are so diverse that there are always letters to fit students from different age groups. The problems and responses in the columns provide a window for ESL/EFL students to have a glimpse of English speaking societies, to better understand their cultures and their values. The nature of advice columns also provides teachers a great number of problem-solving activities that not only pique and satisfy students’ curiosity but also foster their critical thinking skills. Though it may be time-consuming to select pertinent texts, teachers will find satisfaction and enjoy the value of it when students express their amazement and eagerness to learn from advice columns in a different language.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, January 2010