May 2013 E-News from Elizabeth Claire
Click here if you'd like to unsubscribe.
Contents of the May E-News:
Writing easy English
It's easy to make something difficult. It's difficult to make something
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 English...it 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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
Contents of Easy English
NEWS for May 2013
What is the President's Cabinet?
Social Media: Facebook
in May covered in Easy English NEWS:
Your Health: Obesity--the
- Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage
- May Day
- Cinco de Mayo
- The Kentucky Derby
- Mother's Day
- Armed Forces Day
- Memorial Day
Ask a Speech Coach: Distinguishing
fool and full
Beautiful: The Shores of
Heroes and History: Benjamin Franklin, Founding
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)
here to go to the Amazon Kindle Store at my website
- Voices of our New Neighbors Volume Two ($0.99)
- Voices of our new Neighbors Volume Three ($0.99)
- English Language Learners in the Mainstream
(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)
Carry on your good work!
© Elizabeth Claire 2013.