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Archive for the 'Recommendations' Category

Tuesday - September 28, 2010

Reading English at the Intermediate Level

Reading in English, together with (combined with) listening in English, will help you improve your English a lot. It’s important to read things you can understand fairly easily, without taking out the dictionary at all or very often. The important thing is to understand the meaning of what you are reading, even if you don’t know every single word. However, for people who are not yet reading at the native-speaker adult level, there is one major obstacle (barrier; difficulty):  How do you find books that you can understand AND that are interesting to an adult?  This issue is a major one for language learners, no matter what language they are trying to learn.

The logical (reasonable; clear) solution, at least as far as finding books at the right level is concerned, is to select books intended for (written for) children or teenagers.  The downside (problem) is that these books may have themes or subjects that are too juvenile (childish) for an adult.  One solution may be to select Newbery Medal award-winning books to read.

The Newbery Medal is an award given each year to the best American literature (quality stories/books) for children.  Yes, these are still books written for children and most of the protagonists (main characters) are children, but after reading many of these Newbery Medal winners in translation in the languages I’m trying to learn, I can say that many of the books have sophisticated (high-level; complex) themes that may still appeal to (be attractive to)  adults.

You can find a list of these books here.  Perhaps even more useful is this research article, in which the authors have calculated (computed; worked out) the grade-level of each of these books, using several commonly-used methods and scales (measurements) (see the last three pages of the article for a list).  Obviously, the lower the grade-level, the easier the language, although these lists do not take into account (consider) the reader’s background knowledge or knowledge they already have about the book’s topic, which helps a lot in understanding what we read.

I’ve read only a few on this list, in English or in other languages, and some of them I read too long ago to remember well.  However, as a starting point (place to begin), I would recommend these:

1999: Holes
by Louis Sachar (Publisher:  Frances Foster)
This is an adventure and mystery story involving a group of boys being made to dig holes as punishment. They eventually find out the real reason for the holes they dig.

1994: The Giver by Lois Lowry (Publisher:  Houghton)
This is a science fiction story set in the future about a world that has eliminated (gotten rid of; no longer have) pain and suffering.  However, one person is selected to keep the memories for this society, and it is not an easy job, especially for a young boy.

1992: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Publisher:  Atheneum)
This is a story about a boy who wants a dog very badly, and finds one that has been poorly treated by its owner.  He wants to do the right thing.  Should he give it back or keep it?

1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary (Publisher:  Morrow)
This is a book in the form of letters written by a boy to an author of children’s books. The boy moves to a new town and his thoughts and difficulties about adjusting to his new family and school situation is told in these letters.

1961: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (Publisher:  Houghton)
A young woman and her brother are the only survivors (remaining people living) left on an island.  The young woman must find a way to live.  This book is based on a true story.

I understand that books in English may be difficult to find in other countries.  However, because these are award-winning books in English, perhaps they will be a little easier to find, especially on major book-selling websites like Amazon.  (I understand, however, that they may be expensive to buy.)  If you have read other books you liked that may be appropriate for people not yet reading at the adult level, please tell us about them by posting a comment.

Update:  Be sure to read Warren’s blog post about finding reading materials at the intermediate level. He provides a way for you to look at the book’s pages before you decide whether you want to read it, making sure it is right for you.  Read it here:  Warren’s blog post.  Thanks, Warren!

~ Lucy

Thursday - July 29, 2010

Summer Reading: What I’m Bringing to the Beach

In many countries, August is a popular time for vacations, and for me vacations have always meant (been associated with) reading lots of books. Here are some of the books that I have either read recently or plan on reading in the next few weeks.

These aren’t necessarily recommendations for your reading, since reading books in a second language depends on (is determined by) your general vocabulary, interests, and especially background knowledge (what you know already about a topic).  (Look here if you want to get some ideas on what to read in English.)  But I always enjoy hearing what other people are reading, so I thought I would share (tell you) some of my current “reads” (books).  (And, no, my list doesn’t include The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions, as featured in a recent Internet video.)

Some of the topics I’m interested in include economics, psychology, technology, productivity (how to use your time best in planning projects; how to get organized), Internet commerce (business), the art world, ancient Greek and Roman history, and financial planning (how to invest your money; practical advice on money matters).  Here’s my current list:

  • The Invisible Gorilla: and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive (trick; fool) Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  The authors of this book are psychology professors (I think at a little university called Harvard) who discuss recent research on the way we perceive (look at; see) and understand the world around us.  The book has a very broad range (covering many different topics), all of them related to the notion (idea) that the human mind isn’t always as powerful or as reliable (dependable) as we think.
  • 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam.  This book falls into (is part of) the category of productivity, specifically time management.  There are 168 hours in every week, yet (however) many of us think that we don’t have time to do the things we want to do.  The author challenges (questions; criticizes) this idea by showing that people work less and waste more time than they realize.  (Note: Still reading this one — haven’t had time to finish it!)
  • Hamlet ‘s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers.  Powers is a journalist who looks at how computers and the Internet have changed our lives and the way we relate and communicate with each other.  (Hamlet is a character from a play by Shakespeare of the same name, and a Blackberry is a kind of  “smartphone” that allows you to send email as well as make telephone calls.)  I just started reading this one, but it looks good.  (I should tell you that I typically read two or three books at a time (at the same time), which I probably shouldn’t do, but I get bored easily).
  • Why We Buy: the Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill.  This book, written about 10 years ago, uses what we may call an anthropological approach to understanding how people make their decisions when they go to a store to shop (to buy things).  Anthropologists observe how people act and react in a certain environment, and tries to describe and understand how and why they do what they do.  This book takes an experience common to all of us — shopping — and shows how the physical design of a store influences us in small but important ways.  Why We Buy is really a mix of economics, psychology, and anthropology, but written from the perspective (point of view) of a businessperson.  (It’s more interesting and less confusing than I’m making it sound (describing it).)

So, what are you reading, either in English or your own language?  Share with the rest of us your current reading list of either nonfiction (true events; not stories) or fiction (stories; novels) books.


Illustration: “California Beach, 1905”  Wikipedia PD-US

Thursday - December 3, 2009

An Easier Way for Internet Reading

I hate reading things online. I don’t mind (am not bothered by) reading short articles and emails, or a paragraph here and there from a blog post, but if the article is more than one or two pages long, I hit the “Print” button and read it the old-fashioned (out-of-date, no longer popular) way: on a piece of paper.  And yes, this is probably bad for the environment (imagine all the trees I’m killing!), but I don’t think I’m the only person who hates reading a 20-page article by looking up at a computer screen at one’s desk.

Here’s the problem with my approach: Web pages have lots of things on them besides (other than, in addition to) the text I want to read.  There are links, graphics, photos, menus – all things I don’t need to print out or even have on my screen in order to read the actual article.  Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to look at a web page and have just the actual text (words) of the article I wanted to read, without all of the other things on that page?

Now there is.  It’s called Readability, a free web service that magically gets rid of (eliminates) everything on the web page but the words of the article you want to read.  It’s an amazing service! I’ve been using it for about three months.  Whenever I want to read something online or (more likely) print something out to read from a web page that doesn’t have a “printer-friendly” option (the ability to print out only the article, without all the extra stuff on the web page), I just click on a special link on my browser and the page appears with just the actual article.  I can then read it online, print it, or email a link for that page to a friend.

How do you use this service?  There is an excellent explanation in simple English here from Warren Ediger’s website for ESL students,  Take a look at how it works and an example of the magic Readability can perform.

One more thing: Readable means “able to be read,” or “something that can be read without difficulty.”  Readability is technically the measurement of how easy something is to read, often expressed in school grade levels (for example, when we say something is at a “second-grade reading level”).  While Readability won’t make the English easier to read,  it will make it easier for your eyes to see what you want to see on the page.


P.S. Thanks to listener Pedro who told me about this service several months ago.

Tuesday - February 3, 2009

Historical Fiction About the American Frontier

Fiction refers to stories not based on true events.  Historical fiction is made-up (not real) stories that are set (located) in the past and may be based on real events, real situations, or real people from the past.

In this week’s English Cafe 175, Jeff talks about Appalachia, a region (area) of the eastern United States.  There is a lot of historical fiction about Appalachia and other parts of the American frontier, the areas in the United States before very many people went there or lived there. Here are four books about the frontier that I would recommend.

christy.jpgThe first book is called Christy by Catherine Marshall. The book is actually inspired by (influenced by) the author’s own mother who as a young woman, went to the Appalachian Mountains to teach in a missionary (religious) school in 1912. The people who lived in these mountains were very poor but strong, and the book does a very good job of showing the everyday lives of these Appalachian people and the struggles they went through. Christy, the teacher, herself is a strong, smart woman who is able to achieve a lot while teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. This book was later made into an American television series, but I haven’t seen that yet.


Another novel (fiction book) about a teacher on the frontier is a book called Tisha written by Robert Specht and Anne Purdy. Like Christy, this novel is based on true events. Anne Purdy, one of the authors, went to teach in a very small town in Alaska at the age of 19 in 1927. This is a story about her experience, but also one about the gold miners and Native Americans who lived there and the fate (one’s life events or outcome) of mixed-race children (children of white and Native American parents) at that time. This is a very interesting story.


The book Giants in the Earth was written by the Norwegian American author Ole Edvart Rolvaag. The author, a writer and professor, was born in Norway and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 20. He wrote this book based in part on his own experience, when he and his family settled (moved to live) in South Dakota, which was at that time–around 1900–mainly unsettled prairie (flat grassland). The U.S. government, wanting more people to move to these areas and to develop them, gave land to anyone who asked for it, and many people from Europe (including Scandinavia) moved there to farm. This book is about a family who moves there with three other families to start a new town and a new life. As you can imagine, life was not easy for these early pioneers (people who are the first to do something).

theseismywords_1910.jpgFinally, the book These is My Words by Nancy E. Turner is a book about Sarah Prine who, with her family, moves to the outskirts (the outer parts of a town or city) of Tucson around 1880 to live and to farm.  If the title sounds strange to you, it’s because it should read “These are My Words.”  When the story begins, Sarah is not highly literate (cannot read and write well), and the title reflects (shows) this, since the book is written as a diary (daily or regular writing you do about yourself).  However, her literacy improves quickly and the book is not difficult to read, even in the early chapters. Like the pioneers in the other three books, life for Sarah and her family is difficult and precarious (not secure; dangerous).  This novel is engrossing (difficult to stop reading), with well-drawn characters (characters that seem real), and for those with a tender (soft) heart, there is also a nice love story.

I recommend all four books. Not only did I think they were well-written and entertaining stories, I learned a lot about the American frontier. Check them out if you’re interested in the American frontier or just like a good story.

~ Lucy

Wednesday - July 23, 2008

Is iTunes U for You?

iTunes UAs some of you probably know already, iTunes has a special section for university lectures and classes.  Different universities, including some of the best in the United States, provide free lectures and demonstrations on a variety of topics from some of their best professors.  You can find the free courses by clicking on iTunes U in the menu of the iTunes Store.

These videos audio lectures are especially good for those of you studying for the TOEFL or IELTS exams, since you will get a lot of native speaker speech on topics similar to those found on the tests.  Of course, you want to start with a subject you know something about, and (with luck) a professor who speaks clearly.

For some useful advice on how to use iTunes U, take a look at Warren Ediger’s Successful English website where he has a special section on the TOEFL.


Wednesday - May 7, 2008

More Good Resources for Improving Your English

As many of you know, California has many immigrants who speak English as a second language. The State of California has developed a special website to help adults learn English online. It is full of short, interesting news stories with additional materials to help you improve your English. These stories are good for both intermediate and advanced students. The site is called the California Distance Learning Project (CDLP).

How to use this site: Warren Ediger, one of the best ESL classroom teachers and online tutors I know, has detailed suggestions on how you can use this site to help improve your English. Warren gives you specific steps on how to make the best use of the articles and stories you will find on the CDLP website.

Warren’s website,, also has other good ideas on learning English through reading, on preparing for the TOEFL, and on some common questions related to English learning and teaching.

Take a look at both the CDLP and today for some good resources.


Monday - February 4, 2008

“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith

images-1.jpegI like reading fiction (stories not based on fact or real events) and some of my favorite books are mysteries. Mysteries are fiction stories where a crime–usually murder (killing)–is committed and a detective, such as a police officer or a private detective, finds out who committed the crime. That’s why a mystery novel (fiction book) is sometimes called a “Who done it?” – Who has done this crime?

I recently read a book called, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency written by Alexander McCall Smith. The setting (location) of this book is Africa, in the country of Botswana. (The author was born in Botswana and now lives in Scotland.)

The main character in this novel is a woman named Precious Ramotswe who opens a detective agency (business). She is a smart woman who understands human nature, or the way people naturally think and act. This book, and the other six books in the series with the same characters, are about the cases she solves and also about her life and the lives of the people around her. The simple mysteries are, in many ways, not the center of the novels; her insights (deep understandings) into people and the events of people around her take precedence (priority; are most important). These books are simply-written and are charming (attractive; delightful).

There are many types of mysteries stories. Hard-boiled detective stories have tough men who carry guns and solve crimes with brains, but also with brawn (physical strength). In contrast, a cozy mystery has little violence and usually focuses on a small community of people, often in a village or small town. If you are familiar with the classic mystery writer Agatha Christie, then you know what a cozy is. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (and the other books in this series) are cozies.

If you like mysteries and are looking for books that are not too difficult to read in English, check this out.

~ Lucy