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Simple English Wikipedia

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In this post, let’s not debate the validity of Wikipedia as a useful tool (though I will pause to recommend my online friend’s new book, How Wikipedia Works). What I want to talk about is the Simple English version of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is available in many languages. Sometimes, if I need to explain a complex subject to someone quickly, I look up the topic in Wikipedia and then check the sidebar on the left to see if their language is listed. If so, I click on that, eyeball the article to see if it looks like it’s probably okay, and then pass it on. It’s very convenient for times when a direct translation doesn’t suffice–if the article exists in the language you need. Logically enough, many topics that are specific to English-speaking areas (such a town in Scotland or a landmark in California) have not been translated into other languages.

An option that shows up on some pages is the “language” of Simple English. Simple English pages are supposed to be written in a direct, straightforward way, without complex grammar; a limited vocabulary should be used. This is a terrific idea in theory. Those US-specific topics and others can be presented here, or a user can practice reading English by reading an article in her native language and then in Simple English. Ideally, it could be the richest free source of reading for beginning and lower-intermediate English learners in the world.

In practice, though, there are not a lot of good Simple English articles. Some are just a sentence or two. Others have been written by users who clearly didn’t read the guidelines for Simple English, and are just doing their own versions of “toning it down.” This is understandable–it’s hard to realize how and how much to simplify your language when you first start working with beginners. I know I’m still learning how to write for beginners, especially since I tend toward really long, overly complex sentences. Writing with a restricted vocabulary is also extremely difficult, particularly if you still want your topic to remain interesting (as anyone who’s tried to write a leveled reader knows!).

My sense from reading discussion pages at Simple English Wikipedia is that most editors mean well but do not have teaching or linguistics backgrounds, as evidenced by the user who claimed that the English place name “Rochester” is pronounced exactly as it’s spelled and thus needs no IPA pronunciation guide. Never mind how many ways the letter combination “ro” can be pronounced in English, for starters … Many editors are not personally familiar with the needs of English learners, I suspect, or have not had experience with non-European learners (though SE Wikipedia does have many non-native speakers of English serving as editors, which is excellent). At any rate, Simple English Wikipedia could use your attention.

One of my projects for next year will be adding new Simple English articles and trying to improve existing ones. I hope other TESOL professionals who have experience in writing beginner-friendly English will join me. Many of you have a lot more experience doing this than I do, and you could make wonderful contributions here. This is a great way to help aspiring English learners, almost like volunteer work for those of us who are short on time or money. If you want to get started right now, check out How to Write Simple English articles. See you there!

Connecting With Other Researchers

One of the most exciting things about the TESOL field, to me, is that there is so much research ready and waiting to be done. Working with other like-minded people, either officially or just by having casual discussions, makes doing research a lot easier. However, if you’re not in a graduate program right now, or if you’re operating a distance from yours, etc., it can be hard to find people to talk to .

Today I got a message from the excellent Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list about a new project called Graduate Junction. Here’s what it said:

The Graduate Junction

The Graduate Junction,, is the first website to bring together Masters, Doctoral and Postdoctoral researchers from any discipline around the globe. It aims to provide an easy way to meet and communicate with others who share common research interests in a global multi-disciplinary environment. Through The Graduate Junction you can learn about current research being undertaken by other graduate researchers all over the world. The Graduate Junction also aims to become a central source of relevant information.

This new free online resource has been developed by graduate researchers at Durham and Oxford University (UK). They have designed a simple, easy to use platform which only provides relevant information and functionality. More information about The Graduate Junction’s vision, its Team and university testimonials are available online.

Launched in May 2008, early versions of The Graduate Junction, with limited publicity, attracted more than 8000 researchers from over 70 countries to register. Now with a redesigned site, an expanded Team and articles in well established press such as The Chronicle of Higher Education (US) and The Times Higher Education (UK), the community is growing rapidly.

Please help us to build an online global graduate research community. If presently you cannot find exact matches to your research interests, fill in some very basic details about your own research and as the news spreads, others will be able to find and contact you! The information listings have only just been added so it will take some time to provide comprehensive coverage. If you are organizing a conference or involved with a graduate journal and want to list it for free please contact us. If you support our vision please help us spread the news to other researchers at your institution.

I definitely support their vision and am very pleased that it’s an international effort. Please join up if you’re interested–this kind of project only succeeds when lots and lots of people join. There are plenty of TESOL-related keywords already in the system when you set up your profile (which I’m still doing), so it seems to be a TESOL-friendly place! Come on in…

Comparisons and Politics

Sorry I’m still not blogging much. Some family health issues have popped up and I’m very short on time and energy. In a couple of weeks, things should clear up.

Briefly, though, if you have students who are interested in American politics or if you’re teaching compare-contrast writing, now’s a great time! I’ve had a couple of Japanese clients ask me for some insight on the current elections. Our system and our political reality is very different from theirs. One client remarked that he finally understands why Americans get so worked up about politics: because our presidential election is likely to result in direct effects on our lives. He doesn’t feel that the Japanese elections do much of anything, and for that matter, their prime ministers aren’t elected by the people. They’re appointed by the party in control–not to mention that the last two have resigned after only a year in office! Right now Japan doesn’t have a prime minister at all.

Because of these big differences, I guess, some of my clients are pretty interested in the process. One asked me to explain Obama’s and McCain’s positions simply. That’s a tall order! I directed him to the Summary Chart at, but many of the questions are hard to explain. Some I don’t quite understand myself. Today’s USA Today had a nice comparison of the candidates’ energy positions, though. Each subtopic is written in a classic mini-essay style, complete with a thesis statement. I rarely recommend journalistic writing to students–for some reason, many teachers use newspaper articles as models for students who are learning to write academic essays. I think this is a terrible idea because most newspaper articles are written in a style that simply does not match up to the style of essay that students are expected to produce. (Students should get to see expert student essays as models, but that’s a rant for another time.) This article is also not a perfect model for student essays; for example, one introductory paragraph includes the sentence “But Obama’s plan is more aggressive.” Most academic writing instructors wouldn’t allow this kind of sentence.

Anyway, “To Win The Race, It Takes Energy” is available online. The comparison part really starts under the subheading “Oil Drilling.” I hope the other topics are online and are as useful! I’ve underlined the thesis statements and paragraph topic sentences, so we’ll be talking about that today.

Since I have my own tutoring business and am not in a classroom, I’m totally free to talk about my own politics. I try not to emphasize that, and I don’t try to convince students that I’m right. However, my clients know that I have political opinions and that I will share them if asked, since they’re sometimes curious. I make sure to preface my statements with phrases such as “In my opinion…” and “I think…” and “It seems to me…” I also remind them that many other Americans have totally different opinions.

I agree with critical pedagogy theorists who feel there is no such thing as a politics-free classroom. Even if you try to avoid all explicit mention of politics, your politics and the surrounding politics will manifest one way or the other. (For example, teachers who spend a lot of time unquestioningly teaching pure test preparation are endorsing a certain political attitude. Other teachers subconsciously choose readings that only reflect their own worldview.) Although the discussion on this topic got very heated and angry in my MA course, I feel that politics are unavoidable to some degree, and thus are better if they’re somewhat out in the open. This lets students know you’re human; that these are real issues; and that it’s normal to be informed and have an opinion. It’s also easier for students to reject a position if the teacher acknowledges that she has that position, rather than trying to conceal it–does that make sense?

Of course, this assumes that a teacher can make herself be fair, and won’t really push her own views or punish students for expressing different views. It’s a delicate subject, but when handled carefully, I think it’s fine for politics to come in one way or the other. You can always leave it up to the students to decide, such as when my husband gave a word problem to his math students in which they examined the initial cost and possible future savings in buying a hybrid car. He encouraged students to take into account all possible factors, not just purely numeric ones–would they need to then buy a second car because they need more cargo space? Would it be different if they mostly drive in town as opposed to their classmates who commute long distances over the highway? What if the cost of gas goes up to $5/gallon next year? This semester he’s also assigned a graphing problem in which students look at when women’s wages for equal work will be exactly the same as men’s if past trends continue. This lets students look at information themselves. If they ask him what he thinks about these topics, I expect that he’ll tell them. But I don’t think they’ll be intimidated into changing their positions because of his answers, because he has established an open and safe classroom environment (unlike a couple of my undergrad professors, who were definitely doing the politics thing the wrong way!).

Okay, back to preparation for me! Feel free to leave your thoughts on this thorny issue in the comments.