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Using News Headlines to Increase Vocabulary

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Language Focus: NEWS HEADLINES

In Memoriam

Celebrated drummer Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones died on August 24, 2021 at the age of 80.

Noticing English words, phrases and idioms in news headlines about legendary musicians such as Mr. Watts can be a useful and interesting way to increase your English vocabulary. Check your answers to the quizzes and share your answers to the challenges on my website:!

Let’s get started!


HEADLINE: LONDON (AP) Drummer Charlie Watts, Rolling Stones Backbone, dies at 80; By Jill lawless and Gregory Katz August 24, 2021

Backbone is a noun. It’s countable or uncountable, depending on how you use it.

Click here for the pronunciation of backbone. Listen and repeat.

A backbone is another word for a spine, or the row of small bones that are connected together down the middle of the back of a human or vertebrate animal.

· Sample sentence: When I clean freshly caught fish, I take out the backbone.

Backbone can also mean the most im

portant part of a system or an organization, that gives it support and strength

· Sample sentence: Agriculture is the backbone of the U.S. economy.

Backbone in its uncountable form can also mean the strength of character that you need to do something difficult

· Sample sentence: He doesn't have the backbone to confront his boss.

Quiz: Which meaning does the writer use in this headline?

a. Spine

b. The most important and supportive part of an organization or system

c. Strong character

Challenge: Talk with a friend: Who’s

the backbone of your band, orchestra, ensemble or choir? What do they do that makes you say that?

HEADLINE: NY Times: Charlie Watts, Bedrock Drummer for the Rolling Stones, Dies at 80 – By Gavin Edwards, Aug. 24, 2021

Bedrock can be used as a noun or as an adjective

Click here for the pronunciation of bedrock. Listen and repeat.

As a noun, bedrock means the solid rock in the ground below the loose soil and sand.

· Sample sentence: The workers dug down 100 feet before they reached bedrock.

Bedrock used as an adjective means solidly fundamental, basic, or reliable.

· Sample sentence: Objective news reporting is built on two bedrock principles: report the truth, and don’t pick sides. — Gilad Edelman, Wired, 10

March, 2020

Quiz: Which part of speech - adjective or noun - is bedrock in the headline?


· Use the word bedrock as a noun and adjective in your own sentences.

· Compare the meanings of backbone and bedrock. Speak them aloud. What connotations (ideas or feelings) do these words invoke? Would you describe yourself using these words? Why/Why not?


There are hundreds of phrasal verbs in English, so learn as many as you can to increase your vocabulary rapidly! A phrasal verb is a verb plus another element such as a preposition or adverb, and creates a phrase that has its o

wn meaning.

For example:

Break + up = break up, which means to end a relationship.

· Sample sentence: Jean and Charlie broke up after dating for three years.

Break + down = break down, which means to stop functioning.

· Sample sentence: I’m afraid my old computer will break down if I install Pro Tools on it.

HEADLINE: Dead at eighty, Rolling Stones legend Charlie Watts laid down the beat of a generation by Martin Phillips, August 25, 2021

Phrasal verb: lay down: to place something in position (usually at the bottom, to be built upon); to record tracks in a music studio

· Sample sentence: Charlie Watts laid down the beat for The Rolling Stones onstage and in recordings.

But did you catch the play on words for a deeper meaning of this headline? Using his unique style, deeply influenced by his passion for jazz, Watts helped define the rhythmic sound of a generation, so to speak. What a legacy!


· List 3 ways in English that yo

u work to improve your rhythmic precision and feel. (For example, some musicians use the metronome in creative ways.)

· Talk with a friend: What kind of musical legacy do you want to leave? (Teaching? Mentoring? Composing? Developing a new instrument or technique? Racial Reconciliation? ETC!)


The first paragraph of the news article from the NY Times article above states: “Mr. Watts, who had no taste for the life of a pop idol, was an unflashy but essential presence with the band and brought to it a swinging style.”

To have a taste for something can mean: To have a preference, inclination, or desire for some particular kind of food or drink

· Sample sentence: I’ve always had a taste for garlic since I grew up eating it as a child.

Or, to have a taste for someth

ing can mean: To have a strong preference, inclination, or desire to do or acquire something.

· Sample sentence: Tom has a strong taste for playing hard rock, but also loves listening to Beethoven’s late string quartets.

Note that this headline uses the negative form: Mr. Watts had no taste for the life of a pop idol…

Quiz: Which meaning of “to have no taste for” does the writer of this headline use?


· Brainstorm: Set a timer for one minut

e. Write as many synonyms as you can for have a taste for. Do the same task for have no taste for.

· Speaking: What foods or drinks do you have a taste for? What kind of life and/or career do you have a taste for?

· Writing: Use the NY Times opening sentence as a model. Write a sentence about your favorite musician about what they have a taste for or have no taste for.

Next Steps: Read an article this week and find new vocabulary. Send me a message on my website and tell me what you learned!


News articles referenced above

Oxford Learners’ Dictionaries for English Language Learners

Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

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