Free Tools Challenge #24: Accessible Content with Wikipedia’s Simple English

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This is the 24th post in the “30 days to using the best of the web’s free tools for educators” series. Be sure to subscribe to the Teacher Challenge blog by RSS, like us on facebook, and follow us on twitter to keep up with future challenge posts as they are published.

This guest post was written by Dierdre Shetler.

Objective:

In this post, you will explore:

  1. The benefits of using Wikipedia’s Simple English section
  2. How Simple English works
  3. Ways you can use it in the classroom

Overview:

Simple English WikipediaIn this day and age, the vast majority of teachers have had a student who was an English language learner. Oftentimes, this creates a situation where teachers need to work double-time to assist these students in accessing the grade-level content in language that is meaningful to them.

Wikipedia’s Simple English feature is one of a number of solutions for this challenge.

This is a side project of Wikipedia, focusing on those learning English. Standard Wikipedia articles don’t run through a translation “engine” for this (which can create many headaches), but users submit their versions of articles in basic English.

Having taught middle grade English-learning students for several years, I was always on the lookout for texts that were about relevant content, but that were written at a lower level. Too often, teachers are forced to either give these students relevant texts that are way over their head so all meaning is lost or to give them books that are at their reading level, but that are five years below their developmental level and not content-related.

Simple English Wikipedia (simple.wikipedia.org) is the beginning of a solution to this problem.

According to the Simple English homepage,

Simple does not mean short. Writing in Simple English means that simple words are used. It does not mean readers want basic information. Articles do not have to be short to be simple; expand articles, add details, but use basic vocabulary.”

Not only does Simple English address the needs of those learning English, it functions as accessible content for students with learning disabilities who may need simpler wording and syntax to grasp the content. In addition, it can function as a comprehension tool for students with a more complete understanding of English, since they can submit basic articles to add to Simple English’s collection.

How To Use Simple English Wikipedia

Wikipedia has articles in dozens of languages, which you can see as you scroll down the left side of any article on Wikipedia. As you go down the list, many times you’ll see a “language” listed as “Simple English.”

While it doesn’t have a simple version for every article on Wikipedia, it has over 70,000 articles, which is a good starting point. You’ll find many basic topics covered, including things like the desert, Michael Jackson, World War II, and Jupiter.

Getting To simple EnglishYou can get to the Simple English Wikipedia by either “translating” the article from the standard Wikipedia with the link in the language list, as depicted in the image; or you can go to the Simple English homepage to search for a particular topic.

Some articles are quite extensive covering many angles of a topic, while others may only be a paragraph.

Again, this can be useful in both respects, depending on who is looking for the information. I had 7th grader looking for information on World War 1, and was just overwhelmed by the technical description of war strategy and it’s impact, and the Simple English version literally had him breathing a sigh of relief at something that was much more comprehensible to his English-learning brain.

To help your students who have a higher comprehension of a topic, submitting an article to the Simple English Wikipedia is an excellent extension activity. Entire classes could even participate, all researching an animal, a historical event, or just editing/lengthening existing articles.

I created this article on the rock cycle, which my 7th graders were learning about. It’s not particularly in-depth, but it gives a basic understanding of the concept, without using too many big words or overly-complex syntax.

When you click the “Schools Gateway” link under the search bar on the homepage, it directs you to create an account from an IP address that should be acceptable to most school web-blockers.

Simple English website

It then points you to a brief set of kid-friendly instructions on how exactly to create an article. Should you want to include formatting such as bold, italics, links, etc., there are a few rules to follow, which may seem a bit intimidating, but are as basic as adding a few punctuation marks (i.e., to add a link to a Wikipedia article, put the [[word]] in double brackets).

In addition, if you’re a bit nervous about trying your hand (or your students’) at creating/editing articles, they can try it out first in the “Sandbox” mode, which allows you access to all the editing features which can show you the final product (and any potential errors), before actually publishing it to the web.

Challenge

Try writing a Simple English Wikipedia article about a new topic that isn’t covered already on the site as follows:

Step 1: Create an account in the upper right corner of the homepage. (You will have to verify the account through an email link.)

Create an account

Step 2: Choose a topic to search. If no article exists, you’ll see this: Click the red link to create the new article.

No article found

Step 3: Research and write your article in the text box. Use original words, a neutral point of view, and of course, simple vocabulary and syntax. Use the student tutorial for basic instructions. Try the Sandbox first, if you’re unsure of yourself.

Step 4: Click “Show Preview” to check what the article looks like. When you’re satisfied, click “Save Changes.”

Step 5: Share the link to your finished article in a blog post, describe your experience, and explain if it could be useful in your classroom.

Can you think of a student that you have had at some point that could have benefited from the Simple English feature? Leave a comment on this post describing the circumstances.

Help and Tips

  • The formatting/link tools can be a bit scary, but if you bite the bullet and do it following the directions, it’s no harder than learning the keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste.  Here’s an excellent set of starter links for help.
  • A simple way to get started might be to have students edit an existing article by adding more information.
  • Be aware that any work submitted to Wikipedia is a wiki, and is therefore available to be edited by others.
  • Have students create pages for various places (cities, landmarks, etc.) They could be local or distant. If they are unknown to students, they could write business letters to the places requesting information.
  • Have students compare and contrast a standard wikipedia article and a Simple English version. With older students, have them discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  • Have students write articles on related topics (e.g., important people, places, events, etc. from the Civil War) and then have them complete a scavenger hunt about the information from the articles they wrote.
  • Have students create or add to existing articles about authors. This could be a good place to practice the “neutral point of view” that Wikipedia encourages it’s authors to use.

Extending the Discussion

Wikipedia is sometimes considered an “invalid source”.  Yet educators and students can gain from using it.

Please leave a comment so we can all reflect on our feelings about Wikipedia:

  • Why is Wikipedia sometimes considered an “invalid source?”
  • How is it that studies show that Wikipedia is just as reliable as a print encyclopedia?
  • When is it appropriate to use Wikipedia? When is it not?
  • How can we have this discussion with students?

About the Author

Deirdre ShetlerDierdre Shetler is a traveling middle school technology teacher in Phoenix, Arizona.

She took on this job after five years in the regular classroom with 6th and 7th graders.

She completed a Master’s of Educational Technology last year at Northern Arizona University and is passionate about helping teachers find ways to integrate technology into the content and online learning. She tweets at @dierdreshetler and writes the Lessons Learned blog.

9 thoughts on “Free Tools Challenge #24: Accessible Content with Wikipedia’s Simple English

  1. Pingback: And Don’t Use Wikipedia! | The Edublogger

  2. I’ve always thought it would be a great idea to have students submit their research to Wikipedia as an authentic purpose/audience; but, I did not know about the Simple English Feature. This is a fabulous share!

    Kind regards,
    Tracy Watanabe

  3. See “Citing Wikipedia”

    A caution before citing Wikipedia

    As with any source, especially one of unknown authorship, you should be wary and independently verify the accuracy of Wikipedia information if possible. For many purposes, but particularly in academia, Wikipedia may not be an acceptable source;[1] indeed, some professors and teachers may reject Wikipedia-sourced material completely. This is especially true when it is used without corroboration. However, much of the content on Wikipedia is itself referenced, so an alternative is to cite the reliable source rather than the article itself.

    We advise special caution when using Wikipedia as a source for research projects. Normal academic usage of Wikipedia and other encyclopedias is for getting the general facts of a problem and to gather keywords, references and bibliographical pointers, but not as a source in itself. Remember that Wikipedia is a wiki, which means that anyone in the world can edit an article, deleting accurate information or adding false information, which the reader may not recognize.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citing_Wikipedia

    See “Ten Things You May Not Know About Wikipedia,” where it says:

    “We do not expect you to trust us. It is in the nature of an ever-changing work like Wikipedia that, while some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish. We are fully aware of this. We work hard to keep the ratio of the greatest to the worst as high as possible, of course, and to find helpful ways to tell you in what state an article currently is. Even at its best, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, with all the limitations that entails. It is not a primary source. We ask you not to criticize Wikipedia indiscriminately for its content model but to use it with an informed understanding of what it is and what it isn’t. Also, because some articles may contain errors, please do not use Wikipedia to make critical decisions.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Ten_things_you_may_not_know_about_Wikipedia

    See Also “Using Wikipedia as a research tool,” which reads:

    “Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start: they may contain false or debatable information. Indeed, many articles start their lives as displaying a single viewpoint; and, after a long process of discussion, debate, and argument, they gradually take on a neutral point of view reached through consensus. Others may, for a while, become caught up in a heavily unbalanced viewpoint which can take some time—months perhaps—to achieve better balanced coverage of their subject. In part, this is because editors often contribute content in which they have a particular interest and do not attempt to make each article that they edit comprehensive….While the overall trend is toward improvement, it is important to use Wikipedia carefully if it is intended to be used as a research source, since individual articles will, by their nature, vary in quality and maturity.”

    • Mark,

      Along with your extended copy-and-paste of Wikipedia’s criticisms of itself, you might want to clearly disclose your role as Founder and CEO of Dulcinea Media, a commercial service attempting to compete with Wikipedia and Simple English Wikipedia.

      Just let people consider the source, as any critical reader of any web content should.

      Thanks!

  4. Mark,
    Thanks for your notes on the validity of Wikipedia information. I agree that it must be used with caution. Using Wikipedia for background information is a good opener to a discussion with students about why we can’t assume that everything on the internet is true. It’s also important though that we help them see that it doesn’t mean that everything on the internet is a lie. When we give students the skills to think critically about what they’re reading (no matter the source), we teach them a valuable life skill.

    This tool however (Simple English), is meant to be a starting point for information for students. The advantages and drawbacks for using Simple English are very clear on the homepage (simple.wikipedia.org), as it clearly requests students and schools to submit articles. I think it’s valuable as a tool for students to share what they know and for others to get a brief, general idea of a topic.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Hi Dierdre,

    Thanks for posting this about Simple English Wikipedia. I’ve been active there for several months (the website for this comment is my user page) and I really like it. I teach EFL at universities in Japan where many students just do not have the reading speed to handle long, complex articles. I tend to send them to specific article on Simple Wikipedia that I’ve already vetted (or written) but they branch out from there.

    It really is student-friendly. It is almost impossible for a language learner to make a valuable contribution to regular Wikipedia, but learners are welcome (and needed) on Simple English.

    It is a great site and I always try to get other teachers to get involved. Thanks again!

    • Hi Mark!
      I’m so glad to hear how well Simple English is working for you. That definitely seems like a perfect setting for it’s use. I have a majority of English language learners in my setting as well, and it’s saved me lots of time trying to explain some PhD level vocabulary from traditional Wikipedia. :-)

  6. Pingback: Wikipedia and the Wisdom of the Masses « Edumacation

  7. Regarding the thoughts about Wikipedia, I have to say that even though they state that they have the most complete information in their articles, it happens to be extremely biased. Just for an example, the article on Barack Obama clearly does not want certain information placed within the article. Such important information as his ‘other’ name he used, Barry Soetoro. When Barack moved to Indonesia, Indonesia would not allow Barack to attend school there because he was not a citizen of Indonesia, and they would not allow dual-citizenships. So, his mother and step-father changed his name to Barry Soetoro and thus Barry Soetoro became a citizen of Indonesia. This is all documented and proven. And, to make matters even more complex, all of the paperwork states that “Barry Soetoro” was shown as his religion being ‘Islam’. One final thought on this is that in order to become President of the US, you can never give up your citizenship. Just kind of funny because all that hoopla that those republicans made about Barack being born outside had nothing to do with the above. Kind of like chasing the wrong thing?

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