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NaNoWriMo: Noveling

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November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an international event in which people of all kinds attempt to write 50,000 words’ worth of a novel. If that sparks all kinds of questions in your mind, check out What is NaNoWriMo? and How NaNoWriMo Works. The goal is not to turn out a perfectly formed, exactly 50,000-word short novel that is publishable and beautiful and perfect (although all of these folks managed to turn their NaNos into something that DID get published!). It’s just to get people writing and, even better, writing more than they probably ever thought they could. We all know how thrilled students are when they achieve something significant like their first letter, essay, speech, or phone call in English. Imagine writing your first novel…

I’ve tried it once before and didn’t get too far, but I met some really great people–one of the keys to the thing is that having other people around you at write-ins and so on really helps you push forward! I’m still friends with some of the people I met. Yesterday, I went to a pre-kickoff “meet’n'greet” event in San Jose. There were tons of people there, and it was pretty exciting.

“But wait,” you may be thinking, “I don’t even live in North America!” No problem–there are groups all over the place. Check out NaNo Near You for groups in Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, Ireland, Japan, Spain, etc. etc.–there are about 500 chapters around the world.

My crazy idea is actually to write something that’s for English learners. I really like some of the extensive readers on the market, but there aren’t enough out there (particularly original ones rather than re-writes). There’s also not enough that’s in American English. I think I’d like to take a stab at it. I’m pretty sure that even if I manage 50,000 words, many of them won’t be usable. However, that’s better than just continuing to do nothing but think about it. It’s the same principle as when we encourage students to stop thinking everything over and just speak. I don’t know if I can pull it off, but I’m planning to give it a good try!

Annie Rizzuto at Prestwick House also wrote about “the most wonderful time of the year” and how exciting it could be to work with students. NaNoWriMo has a Young Writers Program, in which students can set their own word count goal, and an educators’ guide including lesson plans, a forum, and more.

I wonder if anyone at the Office of Letters and Light (the people behind NaNoWriMo) is interested in hosting a similar, flexible-goal version of NaNoWriMo for language learners … L2NoWriMo sounds good to me.

Anyway, if you’re doing it too, let me know!

P. S. This is my 100th post! I wanted it to be on something more serious, but I’m serious about both ER and writing. So this will do! Oddly enough, it comes just after my 100th post over at Readable Blog.

Simple English Wikipedia

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!