Elizabeth Claire's E-News

May 2013 E-News from Elizabeth Claire

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Contents of the May E-News:

Writing in easy English

Contents of May's Easy English NEWS

Writing easy English

It's easy to make something difficult. It's difficult to make something easy.

When we are writing letters to our friends, or articles for native English speakers, what comes out is a series of long sentences (like this one), with clauses, phrases, compound dependent clauses, and all sorts of idiomatic phraseology and low-frequency vocabulary that will be readily understood by educated adult English speakers.

There, that was easy for me...and probably easy for you to decipher.

But for our new speakers of is wretchedly difficult to read such sentences with multiple subjects, multiple verbs, and explanatory clauses hanging off any part of the sentence (not to mention parenthetical observations and passive constructions).

Over the years, I've noticed that it does not come naturally, even for ESL teachers, to write easy English. I look at one of my own first books for the ESL audience, What's So Funny? (An Introduction to American Humor) I am aghast at the length and complexity of some of my sentences and the challenges that intermediate students would have with them.

For example, here is a sentence from What's So Funny? (My intended audience was upper intermediate to advanced ESL students grades 8 to adult):

While students learning English in America frequently find much to laugh at with their new American friends, the structured humor of jokes remains very difficult to understand.

What's difficult about this sentence for my intended readers?

Quite a few things. Where shall I begin?

I'll begin with counting.

Sentence length: 27 words
Clauses: 3
Verbs: 5
Prepositional phrases: 5
Starting a sentence with a dependent clause
Low-frequency words: 1
Ellipses (missing words): 2 [students learning = students who are learning; much = many things]

To make it easy will take some insight into the second-language student's abilities and a few extra seconds...I usually try to remember back to the time I was in high school, studying Spanish or Latin, in my second year. What were the structures I had command of at that time? This helps me now to write sentences in English for students who are at about that same level. Or if I am writing for my own class of students, I keep in mind one of my average students reading each sentence that I write. Will that student glide or will he or she stumble? My job is to have the student feel smart and glide through the sentences, getting the content I'm trying to convey.

Let's fix that awful sentence from What's so Funny? without changing the meaning or in any way dumbing it down:

English language learners may find a lot to laugh at with their new American friends. However, it is often very difficult to understand American jokes.

Sentences: 2
Sentence lengths: 15 and 10 words
Prepositional phrases: 2
Verbs per sentence: 2 and 2
Word order: Subject, verb, object
Clauses per sentence: 1

In Easy English NEWS, my purpose is to get across adult concepts in fully comprehensible language. Here are some of the guidelines I follow in writing for intermediate level readers:

First, I research and gather information. I cut it down and rearrange it into a logical development of ideas. I provide the background that newcomers to the country might not be aware of. I cut, cut, cut, and cut some more down to the essentials. Every sentence has to carry its own weight. No padding.

Most sentences must be short without giving the impression of choppiness. A long, complex sentence is an opportunity for cutting the sentence into two sentences. Where I can write shorter sentences, I do.

Most of my sentences follow the standard word order: subject, verb, object.

I avoid passive constructions wherever possible.

I avoid subordinate clauses. If I use them, then one per paragraph. Short sentences follow longer complex sentences to give the reader some breathing room.

I never start a sentence with a gerund or participle.

I generally limit myself to two prepositional phrases per sentence.

White space gives relief to the brain. I break long paragraphs into shorter ones.

I use a larger type face than an ordinary newspaper: 14- and 12-point type as compared with 8- and 9-point type in a typical newspaper.

I turn off automatic hyphens. English language learners have trouble if words are split at the ends of lines.

I justify only on the left, leaving the right side unjustified, or "ragged right." Fully-justified text may look pretty at a distance, or with 8-point type, but it causes irregular spacing between words and within words in a column...this slows down reading.

Where possible, I use bold-faced headings to introduce the ideas of the next few paragraphs.

I choose high-frequency words wherever possible. This is a "gut feeling" that comes after teaching ESL for 40 years. I don't consult a word list. I boldface and asterisk those words that I presume will not be in the reader's vocabulary, and define them elsewhere, in simple English. This means that the length of a word is not what determines its difficulty as it might for a native English speaker. Little words such as cord, fuel, gain, pasta, sour, and urge are lower frequency than business, occupation, community, and government. Where a word has a high-frequency meaning that I presume is known to the reader, but I am using a lower-frequency meaning, that low-frequency meaning is defined: head (of an organization), secretary (of defense), store (to put away), saying (a proverb), and play (a drama).

I avoid idiomatic constructions. These are tricky...many people aren't aware that they are using idioms. When an idiom is called for, I define it, knowing that the reader may recognize each of the words in them, but not the meaning of the whole: pass away, in good hands, take it easy, learn by heart, get off the ground, point of view.

I prefer to have no more than one low-frequency word per sentence. I know I'll have to define such words in word help, and keep them all on one page. That means no more than about 165 difficult words per issue. Dr. Ali's articles are heavy with such words. I try to keep This Is Your Page very light. This is helped by the articles being written by our readers...they naturally use short sentences and easy words. (Though Dr. Corigliano and I do have to rearrange things, cut, and spiff up the grammar.)

When I have a choice of vocabulary to use, I'll choose a longer Latinate word over a shorter Old English word. Education vs. schooling; knowing that many of my readers are Hispanic and such words are more likely to be cognates for them.

Given enough time in a month, I recheck (and my editors examine) every sentence in the paper to see if it meets the target: it conveys the content without taxing or slowing down the reader.

Native English speakers can zip through Easy English NEWS in a half hour...they may presume that because it's easy to read that it's easy to write.

I think I have clarified that a bit: It's easy to make something difficult...but it's difficult--or at least it takes a lot more time--to make something easy.

Contents of Easy English NEWS for May 2013

What is the President's Cabinet?

Social Media: Facebook

Events in May covered in Easy English NEWS:
    • Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
    • May Day
    • Cinco de Mayo
    • The Kentucky Derby
    • Mother's Day
    • Armed Forces Day
    • Memorial Day
Your Health: Obesity--the Insulin Connection

Ask a Speech Coach: Distinguishing fool and full

America the Beautiful: The Shores of Lake Superior

Heroes and History:
Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father

Essay: "More than just a 'person-who-can't-speak-English'"

Plus our regular features: This Is Your Page (readers' stories),  Funny Stuff, Idioms, the Crossword Puzzle, Let's Talk About It, and Word Help.

For May's Cloze exercises, click here.

For May's Short Answer tests, click here

Click here for the FREE 24-page generic "How To" with 9 reproducible graphic organizers.

Elizabeth Claire books on Kindle at low introductory prices (Prices will increase June 30, 2013):

  • ESL Teacher's Activities Kit Part One ($0.99)
  • ESL Teacher's Activities Kit Part Two ($0.99)
  • ESL Teacher's Activities Kit Part Three ($0.99)
  • Kristina, 1904, the Greenhorn Girl ($0.99)
  • Voices of Our New Neighbors Volume One ($0.99)
  • Voices of our New Neighbors Volume Two ($0.99)
  • Voices of our new Neighbors Volume Three ($0.99)
  • English Language Learners in the Mainstream Class
    (from Classroom Teacher's ESL Survival Guide) ($3.99)
  • What's So Funny? An International Student's Introduction to American Humor. ($0.99)
  • Phonics for English Language Learners? What the ESL Teacher Needs to Know ($0.99)
Click here to go to the Amazon Kindle Store at my website

Carry on your good work!

Elizabeth Claire

© Elizabeth Claire 2013.
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