Sunday, February 22, 2015

Newspaper articles made simpler

The website "The Times in Plain English" has articles from the New York Times that have been rewritten in simpler language and format than the original articles. This is very useful for students who are not very advanced in reading skills, and it can also be useful for showing students the differences in writing for different audiences.

The website:

The different topic sections are:
  • check inside
  • health & education
  • immigration
  • in brief
  • law
  • money & work
  • New York
  • news
  • of interest
  • opinion
  • politics

Each article includes a link to the original article. Teachers can decide which article to introduce first. For example, they can have students first read the simpler article, then read the original for more information (since they already know what the article is about). Or - students can first read the original article to see how much they understand, then read the simpler article to check their comprehension.

This material is also good for making students aware of the concept of audience. Choosing an article in each version will help teachers illustrate to students the differences in writing for two different audiences. Students can focus on the information in each article - what has been included and what has been left out (and speculate why). They can also analyze the differences between the language in each article.

Of course, this website includes a wide range of articles - not only those of interest to engineering students. But considering how much news is focused on new technology and on updates in the companies that provide new innovations, there are certainly plenty of articles to choose from for teaching English to engineers.

For example, the article Using "Kill Switches to Kill Smartphone Theft (June 29, 2014), which is the simpler version of the New York Times article, Smartphones Embracing 'Kill Switches' as Theft Defense (June 19, 2014), and is about one-quarter as long as the original.

In the original article, the "kill switch" is described this way:

"A kill switch is software that lets consumers lock down a phone after the device has been reported stolen; users can reactivate the phone only with the correct password or personal identification number. That makes it difficult to sell on the black market."

The "plain English" version is:

"A kill switch lets owners lock down a phone after it has been stolen. The phone can only work with the correct password or personal identification number. This makes the phone of no value to a thief who was going to resell it on the black market."

The sentences are not only grammatically simpler, but certain phrases have been simplified.

Another example refers to a quote from New York's attorney general (referred to only as a "government official" in the simplified version):

"'The introduction of kill switches has clearly had an effect on the conduct of smartphone thieves,' Eric T. Schneiderman, New York's attorney general, said in an interview. 'If these can be canceled like the equivalent of canceling a credit card, these are going to be the equivalent of stealing a paperweight.'"

The simpler version: "A government official said phones reported as stolen would be cancelled like credit cards."

Another useful feature is the "Translate this page" function, with more than 80 languages from Afrikaans to Zulu, including:
  • Arabic
  • Chinese
  • French
  • German
  • Greek
  • Japanese
  • Russian
  • Spanish
  • Thai
  • Turkish
  • Ukrainian
  • Urdu
In many ways, this is certainly a useful website for both teachers and students of English for engineering.

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