Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Plain English

This week, Wikipedia has been my best friend and worst enemy. Ok, that may be a bit melodramatic, but I have seen it's good and bad side. (Impressive, for a 2 day week!)

My 7th graders have been working on creating a documentary on topics of their choice. In one of my classes, I have a blind student. I've been working with his Visual Impairment teacher to help modify lessons so he can participate. (First of all, you'd be amazed how much work it is to use a computer completely without a mouse or visual cues of where you're at.) The part of the project the kids are working on right now is using Google to effectively search for information. His teacher told me that web searching is sort of a mess for the visually impaired since websites are all designed differently, so screen-reading software reads them all differently. So, I decided simply to find one basic website, and let the screen reader read him the information that he was looking for about WWI. Where did I turn? Wikipedia.

I got to the website for him, set him up, and let it go. When I came back, he said he didn't understand any of it, so I listened for a second. It turns out that every time text is a link, a screen reader says "Link" before it reads that word. Hence, a wikipedia entry might sound like this:

Long-term causes, such as link imperialistic foreign policies of the great powers of link Europe, such as the link German Empire, the link Austro-Hungarian Empire, the link Ottoman Empire, the link Russian Empire, the link British Empire, link France and link Italy, played a major role.

Needless to say, I can understand why that would be confusing. So, I spent the rest of class (while managing 30 other kids) trying to find a website that didn't sound ridiculous and have unnecessary links. (I failed.)
However, my faith in Wikipedia was restored today when I found a student looking at a picture of the bus that Rosa Parks rode on. I looked at the picture and started to read the caption when I realized it was in French. I asked why he was reading in French (which he doesn't speak), and he said he must have accidentally clicked on the language button on the left side of the page. As we scanned the list of languages, I noticed one listed as "Simple English." I clicked on it, and it "translated" the page into plain English. As I read the page, it occurred to me that it is PERFECT for ELL students learning English and younger students who need less complex sentences and words. (When I translated the page back into the regular English entry, it included more information and in more complex forms.) Simple English Wikipedia has over 65,000 articles, which is, of course, not close to the nearly 3.5 million articles the standard version has, but still a substantial number. About 80% of the things I was looking for were there.

While it does still have plenty of links, and is therefore not very suitable for my blind student, it is perfect for many, many other students. I particularly like that the homepage says that it is meant to be simple wording and descriptions of things that may not be simple concepts, which makes it particularly suitable for older students learning English or who may have learning disabilities. Also, students can add to it. If they know more information that isn't included on a topic, they can submit it. If a page they're looking for isn't there, they can create it. You just can't beat plain English!

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