EESE 2/2008


   Discovering VOA Special English

      Bill Templer (University of Malaya)


 Voice of America's Special English program is arguably the most unique and successful program in the history of international broadcasting by the United States, and yet hardly anyone in this country ever has heard of it (Lewis, 1999b, p. 1).

It's almost like Hemingway. You can write something easy and direct, and it’s more powerful that way (Shelley Gollust, VOA Special English chief, quoted in Goodman, 2007)



1. Introduction

This paper contributes to the first extended discussion in the TESOL literature1 on the importance of VOA Special English -- a prime paradigm of a 'graded' American English, at low intermediate level, based on 1,500 word families, simplified for global listening and reading. I wish to argue that it is imperative that Special English be explored in multiple ways as a simplified form of English as an International Language (EIL) for the greater multitude of ordinary learner/users. Soon to celebrate its 50th birthday on shortwave broadcasting and nearly a decade online, Special English remains a kind of 'Cinderella' in EIL research and everyday teaching practice. My guiding thesis is that Special English (SE) is a prime example of "pleasurable comprehensible input" in the sense of Krashen (2004c, pp. 28-34) and his concept of free voluntary reading (ibid., 1-17). Cho (2005, p. 3) stresses that "there is tremendous evidence supporting the efficacy of pleasure reading. Those who read more read better, write better, have larger vocabularies, and do better on tests of grammar. In the case of language and literacy development, what is good for you also feels good." He notes: "Light reading provides a bridge that makes the reading of more demanding literature comprehensible. It is the missing link in nearly all second and foreign language teaching programs” (2003, p. 5). SE fits this bill. My secondary thesis here is that its expanded application for Extensive Reading2 and Extensive Listening (Waring & Brown, 2003) should be discussed, experimented with in diverse settings, and investigated in serious empirical research. The SE archive now online, a storehouse of over 5,000 texts on many topics, is voluminous, but as preliminary interview research of my own suggests, is barely utilized by teachers and students.

1.1 Toward a pedagogy of equity

Central to my own perspective is that Special English offers a time-tested model of a simpler model of the language, not just for reading/listening but for active production - that can be focused on for developing genuine fluency, an instrument for "global communicative competence" (Grzega, 2006) at a scaled-down 'plateau level' for the greater multitude of ordinary EFL learners, especially from non-privileged social backgrounds. It is a linguistic power tool with strong discursive leverage, where learners can learn to say and write virtually anything that needs to be said, in 'lean' syntax and high-frequency lexis.

Basic human rights in the 21st century suggest that ideally, all individuals on this planet should have an opportunity – if not a right - to learn an efficient, compact lingua franca for trans-cultural communication. In most rural and low-income learning environments, few students have the time or means to climb the ladder to more advanced proficiency in 'full' English. We need a mode of simpler English better attuned to the grassroots life worlds (Prakash & Esteva, 1998) and repertoires of practice among the minimally privileged—a 'lower-energy' language3 for a more sustainable 'discursive commons.' This might be termed 'reclaiming the commons of discourse' (Templer, 2008a). Privileged ELF learners can climb to whatever levels of upscale proficiency they aspire to. The question is how to better address the authentic literacy needs of the majority. Other options need hands-on experimentation, as exemplified by work on Basic Global English as a teaching tool in elementary education in Bavaria (Grzega & Schöner, 2007). Krashen stresses: "The cure for English fever is a program in English that does not threaten first language development, and that is relatively easy to do, one that does not require the advantages of being upper middle class" (2003, p. 9). In any event, from a good mastery at lower-intermediate level, students who wish to advance can move on working in a more autonomous mode (Krashen, 2004b). For this aim, which I think helps promote greater equity in EFL instruction, less dependent on the classroom, overt teaching and access to qualified teachers, SE (not mentioned by Krashen) can be of central relevance, and is as yet too little tapped.

1.2 Research dearth

Despite its huge potential, VOA Special English is almost invisible in EIL research and everyday teaching practice. Though directly relevant to inquiry on English as a Lingua Franca (Jenkins 2005; 2007; McKay 2002; Seidlhofer 2002; Templer 2005; 2007), it has been scarcely mentioned in the growing body of ELF research. Advocates of simplification and vocabulary control in ESL pedagogy (Nation, 2001, pp. 161-173; Nation, 2007b; Nation & Deweerdt, 2001; Krashen, 1997) make no mention of Special English. It is absent in Graddol's (2006) influential book on globalizing English, and not touched on by Maley (2001). Though there is substantial research on graded readers and simplification in language-teaching materials, there is no published work detailing empirical analysis of SE as a graded-discourse learning tool (personal communications, Shelley Gollust, 2 Nov. 2006; Paul Nation, 19 March 2007), or from other perspectives (Templer, 2007; 2008a). Investigation on simplification and SLA such as Leow (1997) and Tickoo (1993) makes no mention of SE, nor does work on 'easy' bible translation of Wycliffe Associates (Betts, 2005). There is no reported current research on SE even in the People’s Republic of China, where there are numerous locally produced books and CDs utilizing VOA texts available in the urban PRC market (Damon Anderson, RELO Beijing, personal communications, 15 April, 5 June 2008). Among rare papers in the literature looking at Special English, Bedjou (2006) develops brief suggestions for classroom exercises using SE. Significantly, Sikkhagit (2007) touches on the use of SE in the provincial Thai ELF classroom for listening comprehension, with empirical data on positive student improvement. Listening comprehension is an especially acute problem for many Thai ELLs.

1.3 Paper overview

This programmatic paper continues with a section (2.) introducing Special English, followed by (3.) a historical overview. It then (4.) explores several areas central for potential intensified use of Special English as a teaching tool:

  • (4.1) for extensive reading and listening
  • (4.2) for active production, a possible scaled-down 'plateau of proficiency'
  • (4.3) utilizing 'authentic' textual materials
  • (4.4) for applications in rural EFL pedagogies
  • (4.5) for more autonomous learning environments
  • (4.6) within the context of class in the classroom and 'working-class ELF pedagogies'
  • (4.7) for a mosaic of texts on American life and culture in plainer language
  • (4.8) for a kind of 'ESP Lite,' easier technical and academic texts

In (5.), I look at SE as an analogue to Plain Language discourse, in (6.) comment on other kindred simplified modes, like Basic 850. Section (7.) suggests some R & D desiderata for Special English, and (8.) briefly explores a paradigm for a possible more socially critical mode of simpler English online, better attuned to critical ideas on global issues, in the spirit of IATEFL GISIG.4

2. What is Special English?

Special English5 rigorously employs a 1,500 word-family vocabulary, with simpler syntax, and very few idioms. Newscasts and topical reports generally utilize short sentences averaging 14 words, normally expressing a single proposition or "idea." All texts are structured to enhance readability. There is an online Special English Word Book with simple definitions. Broadcasters undergo extensive special training over six months in SE enunciation and delivery, at 90 words per minute, which is about 30 percent slower than normal broadcast speed. In addition to the 10 minutes of daily news, the SE half-hour broadcast includes two slow-speed 'features' in its 30-minute broadcast (see Appendix 1). These features, in 14 categories, are available as print texts and with audio, and many can be downloaded as MP3 files, for intensive and extensive listening (Krashen, 1996). Brief (370-1,380 words) and informative, they cover a wide range of topics from education, history, American biography and music, to health, science, economics and development. Articles have high interest value, and often deal with topics of global significance currently in the news. The genre is multimodal, combining text, image and sound (Bateman, 2008; Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001), where text on-screen can reinforce aural input and vice versa.6

All past feature articles since 1 January 2001 are accessible in print form in the SE archive online at the site, now with 5,400+ articles, some with accompanying audio. The texts are based about 97.5 percent on vocabulary contained in or derivable from the Special English Word Book, and include some 2-3 percent of less familiar lexical items not in the Word Book and relevant to the subject. This is also in keeping with the finding that learners read and listen most comfortably and for pleasure if they know some 98 percent of the lexis (Nation, 2001, p. 7; Hu & Nation, 2000), with roughly one unfamiliar word for every 50-60 running words of text. SE fits that requirement, though often there is one lexeme beyond the Word Book core vocabulary in every 30-40 running words of text. A feature article on the Red Cross7 exemplifies how basic vocabulary is recycled, and content structured in readily transparent sections; most sentences contain only a single proposition.8 Events are foregrounded, with a textual focus on action. This article contains only 10 adjectives in a total of 1,287 words, and just seven adverbs. Some lower-frequency lexis, such as 'disaster' (level 4,000 in Thorndike & Lorge, 1944) or 'starvation' (level 7,000), is included here, and is contained in the 1,500 headwords of the Work Book as part of news reporting vocabulary. A comparison reveals that the Work Book differs by some 30 percent from the General Service List of 2,000 word families (West, 1953), often utilizing vocabulary more common in news broadcasting and technical reporting.9 This article scores at high 9th grade on Flesch-Kincaid grade scale for readability, with Reading Ease of 49, a range common for many SE articles.10

3. Historical overview: Voice of America and Special English

The VOA went on the air 79 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into WW II, when William Hale, in its first broadcast beamed to Germany, said what became a memorable VOA motto: "Today, and daily from now on, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good for us. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth" (Heil, 2003, p. 32).11 By 1944, the VOA was broadcasting in some 40 languages (VOA, 2007), as an integral part of the war effort. Special English, a simpler lect for world broadcasting inside VOA, was launched in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, the brainchild of Charles Loomis, VOA director (1958-1965), journalist Dick Borden and program manager Barry Zorthian (Lewis, 1999a). They were assisted by a recognized consulting British linguist, René James Quinault (Heil, 2003, p. 274), whose impact on shaping SE needs to be further researched. Quinault, who helped develop the BBC's 'English by Radio' during WW II, was later closely associated with Randolph Quirk on the Survey of English Usage. Significant as a precursor to Special English broadcasting is the 1943 vision of linguist Charles K. Ogden: five minutes of international news in simple Basic English (some 900 core words) broadcast on shortwave "every hour on the hour - to give everyone the feeling that this little earth was pulling itself together" (1968, p. 92).12 Barry Zorthian talks about the birth of SE in a brief audio clip.13

3.1 A classic shortwave medium now in cyberspace

Special English was limited for nearly four decades solely to international world band shortwave VOA broadcasting, which some observers feel is now going "the way of the horse and buggy" (Brown, 2007) under the impact of new satellite TV technologies and the Internet. In the past, the spatial geography of world band reception remained specific. That shaped where the VOA and SE were readily received and used by teachers and learners before the advent of the Internet. Good-quality shortwave receivers were (and generally still are) common in China, Russia, India, some nations of the old Eastern Bloc, and across Africa, but were rare in a number of other countries. SE is widely known in China, according to evidence from letters written to the VOA central office (personal communication, Shelley Gollust, 2 November 2006) and other narrative input from listeners, such as the testimonial "I owe my life to you!" (Heil, 2003, p. 9). An Indian listener wrote in 2006:

I wonder if the U.S. policy-makers ever knew that the total population of shortwave radio listeners in India alone is more than total number of U.S. voters on any given day. Unlike me, most of these listeners live in areas where they have just "zero" or not enough access to TV, FM or Internet. Shortwave radio has, for decades, been their main source of information (quoted in Arsenault, 2006).

Political analyst Helle Dale (2006) has stressed: "There is nothing wrong with Internet and television, but wide swaths of rural populations throughout the world have no access to the Internet or even television. Yet, they, too, benefit from learning English by listening to VOA." Special English broadcasting enjoys an especially large listening audience in Africa (Lewis, 1999b), and is also popular in Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Sanford Ungar (2005, p. 2) notes: "Throughout much of Asia and Africa, a generation of young people learned to speak 'American' by listening to the VOA's slow, limited-vocabulary 'Special English' broadcasts, which often served as teaching tools for Peace Corps volunteers." Little of that experience has been researched empirically. In shortwave journalism research at the height of the Cold War, a pioneering study by O'Keefe (1971) looked at VOA Special English, contrasting its "listenability" (patterned on Flesch-Kincaid formulae for "readability") compared with VOA regular English news, BBC, and West German and Soviet shortwave news broadcasts in English. Of all shortwave broadcasting examined by O'Keefe, Special English was clearly the most "listenable." World band shortwave receivers are uncommon in Thailand, and interviews I have conducted indicate that Special English remains little known among Thai or Malaysian EFL learners or their teachers, even today. Access via Internet will change this picture, though empirical research is needed on current utilization patterns.

3.2 Not for ELLs stateside

The Smith-Mundt Act (1948) prohibits the VOA from broadcasting inside the United States (Chmela, 2006), including Special English. Special English Chief Shelley Gollust has emphasized that this restrictive law needs review: "If new immigrants could turn on their radios at 8 o'clock and listen to a half-hour of Special English to listen to the news, it would be very beneficial" (Chmela, 2006); in 1999, former VOA director Charles Loomis posed the question: "Shouldn't there be an amendment to the current law that would allow VOA Special English materials to be used in the United States for immigrants to these shores?" (Lewis, 1999). Special English could be broadcast on local FM radio, PBS and other public service outlets in order to reach the millions of immigrant English language learners stateside.

3.3 "Meaning in the service of power"?

Though run by the U.S. government, with a budget in excess of $1 million annually, VOA Special English today is not a heavily slanted propaganda channel. For much of the Cold War, VOA general broadcasting and its SE service were clearly an ideological channel of information and persuasion. Judging from recent listener feedback (Lewis, 1999), many find Special English broadcasting quite "balanced," seeking to provide a spectrum of viewpoints. Ungar (2005, 3) stresses: "experience demonstrates that the VOA is most appreciated and effective when it functions as a model U.S.-style news organization that presents a balanced view of domestic and international events, setting an example for how independent journalism can strengthen democracy." Of course, there is inevitable skewing of emphasis and content in any such international information media, whether corporate-controlled, like CNN, or run by a government bureau. Chomsky (1997) reminds us that mainstream media have to sell a product to a market, and

the market is, of course, advertisers (that is, other businesses). Whether it is television or newspapers, or whatever, they are selling audiences. Corporations sell audiences to other corporations. In the case of the elite media, it’s big businesses. [...] The obvious assumption is that the product of the media, what appears, what doesn’t appear, the way it is slanted, will reflect the interest of the buyers and sellers, the institutions, and the power systems that are around them.

In any event, non-profit government-funded media like VOA (and the BBC World Service) provide a distinctive alternative to the mainstream corporate-owned information landscape, whatever their possible institutional bias. Ideology is inevitably present in all media, what Thompson (1990, p. 8) memorably called "meaning in the service of power." Purported weightings and slants in selection and presentation can be expected to exist in VOA Special English texts; these can be researched using techniques from discourse analysis (Richardson, 2006; Gee, 2008).

3.4 Special English in cyberspace

The advent of VOA regular broadcasting and SE on the Internet from 1994 (the first international broadcaster to go online) has marked a significant new development in its own evolution and outreach. By 1999, virtually all VOA material in English and many other languages was accessible on the Internet. It continues to evolve, despite recent moves drastically cutting back the broadcasting of English on VOA, possibly imperiling the substance of VOA's future impact worldwide, in the view of former VOA Deputy Director and biographer Alan Heil (2004) and Sanford Ungar (USIA Alumni Association, 2007). Ungar is adamantly opposed to recent moves to cut back VOA broadcasting in English – including perhaps Special English - in favor of more Farsi, Korean and some other languages. VOA programming in Arabic was slashed as part of changes in U.S. government broadcasting policy and restructuring after September 2001. It has been channeled instead into two new entities, Radio Sawa (set up in 2002) and the satellite Arabic-language TV station Alhurra (born in 2004), which are overseen by the new agency Broadcasting Board of Governors.14

It also oversees more 'policy-driven' broadcasting initiatives such as Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Farda (in Farsi). Ungar (2005, p. 3) is emphatic on the continuing importance of VOA:

With an annual budget of approximately $150 million, almost 100 million listeners worldwide every week, and increasing penetration in difficult regions thanks to both FM signals and shortwave frequencies, the VOA is still an astonishing bargain for the U.S. taxpayer. [...] without a strong and secure Voice of America, reporting the news fully and fairly in its own language and in others, the United States is fated to face more incomprehension in the international community.

It is this presence in cyberspace today which opens the door to extensive new utilization of Special English within EFL teaching and student autonomous learning.

3.5 Moving on to regular VOA English

Learners who seek more challenging material will find it easy to shift terrain to the regular VOA English site ( [accessed 2 September 2008]), which has a great wealth of texts print and audio on daily news, global issues, entertainment, health & science, American life and news analysis. Special English can provide a direct ladder leading on to non-graded VOA texts (also on audio) on a range of topics, and first-rate videos.

4. Special English as a Teaching Tool

4.1 Extensive Reading/Listening

Special English can be inventively explored by teachers in the classroom as a supplement to existing reading & listening materials at lower intermediate level for the greater multitude of ordinary learners - and as a body of texts for a kind of 'ESP-Lite' for academic and technical topics. Special English is a major potential vehicle of "comprehensible input" in Krashen's (2004b) classic sense, providing a multimodal platform for Free Voluntary Reading (Krashen 2004c, pp. 1-39; 1997, pp. 19-38, 44-46) of easy, enjoyable self-selected texts, 44-46; 2004c, pp. 1-39) and extensive listening across a variety of topics. The slow delivery of Special English can be especially useful for improving learner pronunciation, and focused empirical research on this is badly needed.

4.1.1 A 'library of comprehensible input' online

Special English in cyberspace approximates in some ways the "library of print and aural comprehensible input" that Krashen (1997, p. 44) envisions: "To my knowledge, this has never been attempted. [...] What I have in mind is a vast collection of light as well as 'serious' reading [...] to provide the comprehensible input missing from the FL students' environment." It can serve as a "recreational input level" for students with better proficiency but eager to have easier material for low-stress, self-selected reading and listening, giving learners large amounts of practice on a broad spectrum of topics. This is a clear desideratum in the "meaning-focused input strand" recommended by Nation (2007a). Krashen's (2007) recommendation that students use the Internet for "free voluntary web-surfing" and as a key source for reading can in fact be creatively applied to the existing SE library/archive, a huge repository of texts. FVR is a pleasurable activity, learner-directed, that "has been shown to have powerful payoffs in increased proficiency in all aspects of literacy" (Mason, 2006), including extensive recreational reading as preparation for standardized tests like TOEFL. Lee (2005, p. 15) offers data to show that extensive free voluntary reading can also improve writing. Krashen (2008a, p. 20) has emphasized that "There is now overwhelming research showing that free voluntary reading is the primary source of our reading ability, our writing style, much of our vocabulary and spelling knowledge, and our ability to handle complex grammatical constructions." What is required is an extensive collection of readily accessible easier, largely non-fictional texts (Ono, Day, & Harsch, 2004; Day & Bamford, 2002). As Krashen (2004d, p. 7) has stressed:

We can't reproduce the second language informal environment, but we can do much better, and the Comprehension Hypothesis gives us a clear idea of what to do: Foreign language students need better libraries, libraries filled with books, magazines, comics, as well as audiotapes and videotapes .[...] Such a facility should be open to the public, to make it possible for anyone to get comprehensible input in the second language of their choice whenever necessary or desired.

The SE archive is just such a repository, an ever-expanding, multimodal, cost-free graded online library. No battery of graded readers is so diverse in its subject matter and so topical, featuring stories from the news and an extensive battery of focused feature reports.

4.1.2 Recycling higher-frequency lexis and core grammar

Nation (2001, p. 16) reminds us: "In general, high-frequency words are so important that anything teachers and learners can do to make sure they are learned is worth doing." He stresses that "fluency is encouraged by repeated opportunities to work with texts within the learner's proficiency" (p. 197). The robust application of Special English for Extensive Reading (Bamford & Day, 2004; Day & Bamford, 1998)15 and Extensive Listening (Waring & Brown, 2003) should also be experimented with in diverse settings. Extensive Listening is poorly researched TESOL teaching contexts everywhere, as Waring has indicated.16 Nation notes that "up to the 2,000 world level, about a book every one to two weeks is about right" (2001, p. 169) for optimum extensive reading, some 40 pages per week. He suggests an extensive reading regimen of about one million running words of easy reading per year. This is equivalent to some 4,000 pages of text, roughly 11 pages a day. Special English can be a solid component in such a "million words, light reading" FVR regimen, also embodied in the SSS (Start with Simple Stories) student-centered approach that has been successful in Japan (Furukawa, 2006). SSS in effect immerses learners in self-selected, high-frequency easy reading on their own. Improvement in student proficiency, self-confidence and motivation, even test scores for TOEIC, can be remarkable (personal communication, Tom Koch, Kinki University, 4 March 2008).

4.1.3 Special English and 'narrow reading'

Krashen has repeatedly stressed the importance of "narrow reading and listening." He notes (2004a, p. 3):

An interesting hypothesis is that narrow […] reading is more efficient for second language acquisition. This means the work of one author, one genre or topic. […] Narrow reading will be more interesting, by definition, because it is restricted to what the reader really wants to read. It will be more comprehensible, because the reader will already have a great deal of background knowledge.

The SE archive is an invitation to such autonomous work on “narrow comprehensible input,” for both reading and listening (Krashen, 1996; Dupuy, 1999), since a reader can focus on articles dealing with education, agriculture, medicine, development and other topics.

4.2 Special English for active production - aiming for a threshold plateau

At present Special English centers on the largely receptive skills of listening and reading. One pedagogical thesis underscores the need to push toward over-learning at a crucial proficiency level of about 1,500 word families, with extensive recycling of high frequency lexis and structure, and then to leave learners to learn on their own - utilizing a simpler mode of expression that is easier to master, and easier to teach. Special English lends itself to being developed as a simpler 'downshifted' mode of English for active communication and genuine "fluency development" (Nation, 2007a) - a reasonable target "plateau level" (West, 1956; 1955, pp. 69-70) for the greater multitude of average learners who do not have the inclination or opportunity to move up the steep ladder to higher proficiency, and. who will most likely not extend their working knowledge of ELF beyond this lower-intermediate level.

It is imperative that the profession of TESL confront a primary reality: although many of us teach learners from relatively privileged upscale backgrounds who may progress to remarkably high levels of proficiency, the great multitude of learners will not attain fluency much beyond 1,600-2,000 words, the working range of Special English and the General Service List (West, 1953). This is classified as lower B1 level in the Common European Framework (Council of Europe 2001, pp. 22-29), or in older parlance 'Threshold' level. As West emphasized (1955, p. 70): "At 1,700 words one can tell any strong plot, keeping much of the original style. A vocabulary of 2,000 words is good enough for anything, and more than one needs for most things." Many remain far below that. At the present time, millions of learners are spending billions of boy-girl hours in EFL study, but a significant proportion fail to move beyond mid-elementary proficiency. For those who cannot or do not wish to move up the Everest of proficiency, staying with SE and enhancing their command across all four skills (Nation, 2001, p. 380) at the level of Special English - not just for reading/listening but for active production - seems an attainable and more equitable 'satisficing' target for mass instruction. It requires something of a 'paradigm shift' in how we think about what TESL should be (Templer, 2008a).

4.3 Authenticity?

Is SE 'authentic' or simply simplified and 'scaled down' for learners, and thus not really 'real English'? If we accept that authenticity is the "result of the interaction between a reader and a text" (Nation & Deweerdt, 2001, p. 56), we can say that if a learner reads and comprehends a text, then that act of reading is 'authentic' for that learner, as Widdowson (1976) has argued. The response might involve "understanding the text, enjoying its message, seeing the strengths and weaknesses in its content and expression, or seeing its contribution to a wider field" (Nation & Deweerdt, 2001, ibid.). This is analogous to the case of validity, where a test is valid not itself, but only if used for the purpose for which it was designed. It jibes well with Krashen's (1997) notion of "authenticity" in the non-traditional sense as a "text that is interesting and comprehensible" to specific readers (p. 34). Along similar lines, SE editor Avi Arditti has stressed the underlying ethos of plainer, clearer discourse that animates SE:

There is a fine line between simplifying and simplification. It’s not so much simplifying, but clarification. Simplifying can seem somewhat demeaning. You’re not dumbing it down, but you’re making it understandable to your audience whether they have Ph.D.’s or are in middle school (quoted in Chmela, 2006).

4.4 Applications in rural pedagogies of EFL at the grassroots

Can the systematic teaching of SE empower weaker learners who are reluctant to read, enhancing their self-confidence and autonomy as learners, lowering affective filters – for example in many rural peripheries in the Global South, where non-privileged learners are the rule, and face major obstacles in motivation? Experimentation is necessary. Pupils may dislike reading in L1, and often have poor proficiency in high-frequency lexis and fundamental syntax and morphology in school ESL, despite 100s of hours of classroom instruction (Asraf & Ahmad, 2003; Maley, 2001; West, 1960). Even in an ESL country like Malaysia, learner proficiency levels, and pupil motivation in ELF remain a major challenge for educators in much of the rural countryside. Asraf & Ahmad (2003) describe an experiment in extensive graded reading for working class youth in rural Malaysia, suggesting further inquiry into the "complexity of learning English in the rural school situation," gearing instruction to marginalized learners' needs (Maley, 2001).17 Extensive reading of easy texts is one clear alternative. Use of SE in such a project may help 'reluctant readers' to read in L2, and even L1. There are to date no textbooks that center on teaching Special English as an active model for multiple skills, and few available exercise databases in print or online for practicing with Special English texts. Such textbooks need to be developed.

4.5 Toward more autonomous modes of learning

Students of ELF need to be given ample opportunity for individual choice and autonomy within a more 'constructivist' ELF / EFL pedagogy (Reyes & Vallone, 2008; Marlowe & Page, 2005). The scope of SE as a huge online multimodal reservoir invites a student-centered, more autonomous mode of use. In Krashen's view, bringing students to lower intermediate level is deemed sufficient for formal instruction. Students who then wish to advance can teach themselves as "autonomous acquirers" (Krashen 2004b, p. 25), continuing to learn on their own. Special English can be an instrument to this end, empowering students to be life-long, self-guided learners, utilizing the SE text bank. Research evidence from across East Asia corroborates that broad, self-selected FVR for enjoyment is an exceptionally powerful stimulus to language and literacy development, and for autonomous learning (Wang & Lee, 2007; Mason, 2006). SE constitutes a large and growing corpus of "light reading" (Krashen & Ujiie, 2005; Cho, 2005), both for those intent on advancing up the proficiency mountain and those who wish to enjoy the language they already control, reinforcing it by reading extensively at a relatively easy level.

4.6 Class in the classroom

Special English integrates well into what I would call "working-class ELF pedagogies for the Multitude." Class in the classroom impacts on all aspects of EFL learning and student attitude. We know that the poverty level of students and their overall access to print (in the home, school and community) are remarkably strong indicators of how well they will perform in standardized reading tests in the U.S. (McQuillan, 1998). As Krashen (2008b) stresses:

Given access to interesting, comprehensible books, most children will read, and many will read compulsively, "bingeing" on favorite authors or genres [...]. The real problem in literacy is that children of poverty have little access to books. They attend schools with inferior classroom and school libraries, live in neighborhoods with inferior public libraries, few bookstores and other public places conducive to reading (e.g. coffee shops), and live in homes with insufficient books, which prevents them from attaining high levels of literacy.

Such factors play a role in ELF / EFL instruction across the planet, but have been too little investigated, even in working class studies (Russo & Linkon, 2005).18 Educators can explore the learned-centered, democratic pedagogy as developed by Célestin Freinet (Beattie 2002; Acker, 2007), which seems but little known in the English-speaking world, though a movement in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere.19 Beattie considers Freinet one of the greatest progressive educationists of the 20th century. His proletarian pedagogy prioritizes learning by making products or providing services (pédagogie du travail), within a framework of autonomy, learner ownership of knowledge production, cooperative learning, group-based trial and error work (Clandfield & Sivell, 1990). "A crucial aspect of Freinet's pedagogical tenets was to educate children of oppressed masses, and these ideas take on a new urgency" (Acker, 2007, p. 87). These are a significant framework for thinking about new paradigms for ELF among the working majorities, where SE can serve as a leaner power tool for transnational communicative competence.

4.7 A window on American life and culture

As a rich repository of material on American life and culture, VOA Special English is unique. Its feature articles on American life, history, education, music, science and biography are informative, and not heavily tilted in terms of some line of propaganda. About half of the 14 weekly feature stories focus on some aspect of American culture, society, education. There is also graded fiction, such as Willa Cather’s "Paul's Story,"20 a classic tale exploring the rebellion of a young teenager. It is a good example of fiction that delves into the problems of young adults (Cho, 2005), recognized as a core focus for EFL, connecting with their own lives. Its readability as a simplified story scores at mid-4th grade on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, whereas the original tale scores at grade 13.

The archives contain more than 2,000 feature articles on myriad aspects of American life, a rich ensemble of authentic texts. This builds a wide window onto intercultural awareness. Certainly many feature articles are shaped by a particular perspective. But there is a balance in approach and coverage which will appeal to a broad segment of learners. A biography in December 2007 featured the radical feminist and political radical Margaret Sanger, who was on the far left of the political spectrum in her earlier decades of activism for birth control and women’s rights;21 a biography aired in March 2007 focused on a controversial jazz singer, African-American rights activist Billie Holiday.22 The life and work of the remarkable African-American Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks were featured in May 2008.23 The controversial singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson was focus for a two-part series.24 A biography after the writer’s death in 2007 looked at dissident novelist Kurt Vonnegut.25 For a more critical approach to American history, online SE texts can be supplemented by a 'people's history' in simpler English (Zinn, 2007), or even a 'graphic history' version (Zinn, 2008). Section (8.) below suggests other angles.

4.8 A springboard to 'ESP-LITE'

Students need texts in simpler academic and technical language. SE comprises a rich corpus of engaging texts on a broad range of academic topics, in effect a springboard to a CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) in a 'downshifted' mode, a kind of 'ESP-Lite.' More recently, premier journals such as Science have been exploring ways to get scientists to write in plainer, more comprehensible discourse (Berkowitz, 2008). Jiangxi Medical College in China has reportedly used SE material (Lewis, 1999) for teaching medical English; there are several hundred such texts in the SE Archive, an easier medical English. How effective its use is with medical students around the globe has not been empirically investigated. With its diverse feature reports and regular news, SE provides an excellent basis for learning 1,500 core headwords and then the 570 most academic lexical items included in Coxhead’s Academic Word List (Nation, 2001, pp. 407-411),26 many of which appear in SE texts on economics, health, development and other topics. Nation (2001, p. 197) notes: "Knowing the 2,000 high-frequency words and the Academic Word List will give close to 90 percent coverage of the running words in most academic texts. When this is supplemented by proper nouns and technical vocabulary, learners will approach the critical 95 percent coverage threshold needed for reading."27 This is akin to what Krashen (1997, p. 20-22) has advocated as "sheltered subject matter teaching," which can serve as a "conduit to harder reading" (ibid., p. 22). Heil (pp. 203, 277) lauded SE as 2a university of the airwaves for millions." Such praise requires empirical investigation. Several scientists in Australia examined a selection of SE texts on scientific topics and praised the clarity and compactness of presentation, and the accuracy of the content (personal communication, Lee Brunckhorst, 14 June 2008).

5. Special English and Plain Language discourse

The Plain Language community of research and practice in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Australia/NZ, India and elsewhere28 explores new perspectives on what most working people are comfortable reading and listening to as discourse in their native language (Templer, 2008a), grounded in part of what constitutes 'readability' for a specific targeted audience. This is quite relevant to the overall thrust of SE as a leaner, plainer mode of discourse. Bill DuBay (2004; 2006) provides a well-researched, readily accessible introduction to the whole field of readability research.29 DuBay stresses that "plain language is language that matches the literacy level and reading habits of the audience" (DuBay, 2008a). I would like to argue that SE is a potential paradigm of Plain Language, especially for ELF learners, and have recommended to some scholars that they consider applying SE in their own writing of textbooks for students in the Global South, such as in basic materials for social work pedagogy (personal communication, Richard Weatherley, 28 July 2008). Such plainer academic English has also been broached for possible experimentation within the Global Text Project30 (discussion with Richard Watson, 3 August 2008).

Cutts & Maher (1986) is a insider introduction to the Plain Language Campaign in Great Britain, which still continues with greater momentum today. The broader research and practice community focused on Plain Language in the U.S. and abroad has pursued developing a simpler, more learnable form of written and broadcast language, more readily understandable to most native speakers from working families, who are often comfortable with discourse at roughly a 7th-grade level. The focus in Plain Language is to enhance mass literacy through empirical studies on readability (via focus groups, quantitative analyses, group testing). It is geared to a key tenet: learning to respect your target audience and their level of native comprehension skills, what they are honestly comfortable with, their authentic vernacular literacy. The principle of equity here is that ordinary people have a right to communicate - and be communicated to - in language they can readily understand (DuBay, 2004; 2007; McBeth, 2002). Research at Texamen (Netherlands) by linguists focusing on developing Plain English and Simple Dutch supports the thesis that "it is possible to write down all of the information in our advanced society at language level B1. Whether it is a text about infant nutrition or a text about complex stock options, the information can always be written at level B1, without losing valuable information."31 The implications of that insight for language education and literacy in L1 and L2 are far-reaching.

5.1 Simplification Centre

In a related vein, making academic and public discourses more comprehensible is in part a core concern of the recently launched Simplification Centre at the University of Reading in the U.K.32 The Centre seeks to "focus on how to make overly complex information clearer, through a programme of research, training and consultancy. [...] Simplification goes beyond plain English. It looks at wider issues, such as the complexity of content, the choice of channels, and the capabilities or preferences of user. [...] And it is usually about striking a balance between clarity and completeness - giving enough information, but not in a way that overwhelms." It is interested in the concept of 'downsizing' discourse, and could also learn from aspects of Special English.

6. Other simplified modes

There is a growing felt need for a 'downshifted,' more serviceable mode of English proficiency among various segments of the international ELF learning public. SE theory and practice can learn from this. The recent advent of Globish (Nerriè et al., 2005; McCrum, 2006) and its growing popularity33 - in some key respects similar to SE in its lexis and plainer syntax - clearly reflects this. The thinking behind Ogden and Richards’ BASIC ENGLISH 850 (Ogden, 1968; Templer, 2005; 2007; 2008a)34 and Richards' spin-off 'Everyman's English' (Richards & Gibson, 2005) is a simplified mode of English for trans-cultural communication anchored in a reduced vocabulary far more compact than SE or Globish (Templer, 2005; 2007). Interest in BASIC 850 is now rekindling (Seidlhofer, 2002; Templer, 2006; Templer, 2008a). Recent work on Basic Global English as developed by Joachim Grzega and associates in Germany is also a relevant adjunct initiative. Its experimental model centering on 750 words, plus 250 words of the student's choosing, based largely on frequency, has been launched and will perhaps soon be taught experimentally to adult learners (Grzega 2006; idem, personal communication, 26 Oct. 2006). A trial project with elementary school learners in Bavaria was deemed highly promising (Grzega & Schöner, 2007). Also of interest is work on Simplified English, building on aerospace simplified English developed by AECMA and used in Europe (Verduijn, 2004 esp. pp. 50-91).35 The Simple Wikipedia online, expanding by the week, is written at a level similar to SE, and in its spirit.36

Work with EasyEnglish for international bible studies and bible translating by Wycliffe Associates in the U.K. is an interesting new paradigm in downsized ELF discourse. It utilizes two levels: 1,200 headwords, akin to West's (1960) lexical mini-model of Minimum Adequate Vocabulary, and 2,800 headwords for more complex discourse.37 Significantly, Betts (2005) notes: "Experience has shown that we can successfully translate the Bible and other, more general materials with a vocabulary of 1,200 words without significant loss of meaning." The materials at 2,800 headwords are mainly in a genre termed Simple Bible Commentaries. One option in a fresh experimental ELF curriculum is to ground students intensively in BASIC 850, or Grzega’s Basic Global English, and then move on to SE as plateau proficiency - while borrowing useful aspects from other 'lean language' models, such as M.A.V. and EasyEnglish.

7. Some R & D desiderata

As indicated above, new projects in empirical investigation on SE across a range of questions are needed. Only empirical study in the field with control groups can establish whether Special English can serve as a four-skill target plateau for large numbers of learners, and as a solid reservoir of material for Free Voluntary Reading and other applications. Is slower delivery effective for language retention, especially with learners who experience special difficulties with English phonology? Can extensive listening help improve active pronunciation? It is important to investigate the impact of slow delivery on student learning, student attitude, and student dictation skills. Jeff McQuillan runs an innovative extensive listening site that features initial slow delivery,38 and suggests comparative research is needed (personal communication, Jeff McQuillan, 21 December 2006). Research centering on extensive “narrow listening” (Krashen, 1996; Dupuy, 1999) and SE is needed. In the realm of cultural attitudes, what is the impact of negative student attitudes in a number of countries toward U.S. policy on student attitudes specifically toward learning English, and U.S.-oriented content? Are students resistant to using VOA materials for this reason? (Karmani, 2003).

How closely does the lexis of texts adhere to the SE Word Book? If it deviates, does this lessen comprehensibility? Similarly, what are the precise contours of its gradedness and vocabulary in specific texts, if seen through the kind of lenses applied in Nation & Deweerdt (2001, pp. 59-63)? What kinds of learning activities are best effective with the SE multimodal texts? Detailed empirical work is needed In what teaching environments has Special English had an impact, and how? The large archive of listener input from letters to the SE unit is one corpus of empirical data for analysis and hypothesis building. But extensive field work and experimentation is essential, especially building on projects utilizing action research (Burns, 1999; Mertler, 2006), and some forms of case study analysis (Stake, 1995; 2006; Yin, 2003).

7.1 Listenability - a neglected research priority

Looking at listening skills in first language and in learning another language, the author of (2008)39 notes that

one might be surprised at how little research has been done on listenability. A search on ERIC for "readability" brings up 2,733 references, while "listenability" brings up only nine. It is not so surprising, however, when we consider that research into listening itself did not get well underway until the 1970s. The International Listening Association did not start until 1979.

Citing empirical research, he stresses that "after the 8th grade, listening skills do not keep up with the improvement in reading skills. After the 12th-grade level, the same text may be harder to understand when heard than when read."40 He contends:

A large amount of verbal communication is not understood because it is too complicated. This includes speech in radio, TV, classes, educational materials, and communications between professionals and clients. [...] The brain deals with complexity better on paper than in speech, with listening skills falling behind reading skills after the 8th grade. A message that may be easy for a person to read may be too difficult for the same person when spoken (Dubay, 2008b).

It would be useful to investigate the special distinctive features of graded listening input in Special English through the lenses of research as reflected in the International Listening Association. Perspectives on ways of researching listening and listening pedagogy as explored in the International Journal of Listening provide a useful framework for re-examining aural comprehensible input.41 My own experience suggests that input in English for learners at upper elementary and lower intermediate levels is significantly assisted if students can see the text they are listening to, a major advantage in multimodal access of Special English online. Thai acquirers of ELF are often bewildered by spoken English text which they understand far more readily if they see it in print. That also holds for movie dialogue, where comprehension is much aided if subtitles in English are available. More research on this is needed, and Special English offers a rich terrain within action research for exploring listenability of graded texts that score at Flesch Grade Level 8-9.

7.2 Augmenting the utility of Special English as a tool in ELF/ EFL

Among concrete desiderata are the following:

  • Expand the literature materials to include more graded stories and short plays, perhaps along with some graphic novels, or even comics (Norton, 2003; Cary, 2004; Whitworth, 2006; Templer, 2008b) in SE. Krashen (2005, p. 2) notes: "There is no current research that I know of on the use of graphic novels, but there is evidence suggesting that comic book reading can be a conduit to 'heavier' reading." Graphic genres across a broad range are now emergent (Schwarz, 2002; Brenner, 2006), and SE should move to utilize this multimodal genre inventively open-access online, perhaps in a series Graphic Tales in VOA Special English.
  • Develop a battery of textbook materials that actively teach SE. The popularity of Globish in France and elsewhere is hinged to the available textbook (Nerrière, Dufresne & Bourgon, 2005; personal communication, Jacques Bourgon, 8 October 2006). Perhaps such materials could be published under Creative Commons online,42 and kept outside the profit-oriented agendas of any private publisher.
  • Spur a new series of books written in SE on a range of topics, including anthologies of texts for academic and scientific subjects. This would be similar to Charles K. Ogden's 1943 vision of a "Basic Library of General Knowledge" in Basic English, 1,000 books on all sciences in simple language,43 part of his program of "democratizing knowledge" and access to it (Templer, 2005; Templer, 2006; 2008a).
  • Develop worksheets for use with SE texts and include as a regular feature online, applying ideas on extensive reading activities along the lines of Bamford & Day (2004).
  • Make a title and subject index of the Archive. This is a task a group of students could readily complete. For example, there are nearly 400 articles under "Education Report" in the Archive, but users have no way of searching by title and topic.
  • Create a corpus of Special English from the archives and other texts, and make this available online. This is a major desideratum for corpus linguistics and ELF.
  • Encourage more use of Special English systematically through workshops and other material by U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, by Peace Corps volunteers, English Language Fellows, Regional English Language Officers, and within national ELT associations. More local FM broadcasting of VOA programming and SE is needed, possibly through affiliates.44
  • Establish a 'mini-center for lean language' where research on SE and its cousins, such as BASIC 850, can be anchored and deepened (Templer, 2008a). The Simplification Centre at the University of Reading is a broader paradigm.

8. Moving beyond: a progressive Special English

As noted above in reference to IATEFL Global Issues SIG, it would be desirable to have a more progressive source online looking at global issues from a more critical perspective, written in an easier mode akin to VOA Special English, but none today exists. A laudable but now defunct paradigm is "Global Issues for Learners of English," a spin-off website based on the progressive left magazine The New Internationalist. This website, still accessible,45 operated from 1997 to 2002, and was then discontinued due to the heavy work load it entailed for its founders, Bob Keim and Chris Doye (personal communication, Bob Keim, 9 June 2005). "The Story of Jeans," a feature in easier English critical of international garment sweatshop manufacture, is one prototype of their work.46

9. Conclusion

Teachers and learners should feel confident in using SE as a springboard to fluency at its own special level, if they so choose, within a ‘constructivist’ pedagogy of student choice and self-direction. It is grounded on a democratic tenet that ELF discourse should remain comprehensible for the working social majorities. Gaining solid competence in SE, English language learners can learn to utilize a remarkable voluminous multimodal library of comprehensible input for recreational, autonomous (extensive) reading and listening, with a strong focus on American life and culture, and many other academic and scientific topics, a mode of ‘ESP-Lite.’ Research angles abound.


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Zinn, H. (2007). A young people’s history of the United States, 2 vols. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Zinn, H. (2008). A people’s history of American empire. New York: Henry Holt.

Appendix 1: Weekly Report Schedule, Special English

Education Report
Issues that affect people in developing countriesNews about farming and food productionThe latest research about diseases and medical adviceNew developments in American education
This is AmericaScience in the NewsExplorationsThe Making of a Nation
Traditions, ideas and life in the United StatesReports about the latest scientific discoveries and medical newsReports about outer space and the world around usA series about the history of the United States
Economics ReportIn the NewsWords and Their Stories 
News about business and finance in the U.S. and around the worldIn-depth reports about a person or event in the newsFeatures about American idioms and expressions 
American MosaicAmerican StoriesPeople in America 
A magazine show about popular culture and musicAdaptations of short stories , children's books and original storiesBiographies of influential Americans in history, politics, science, business, sports & entertainment 
Source: (accessed 2 September 2008).

1 See also Templer (2008a, 2008b).

2 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

2 Lower energy input in terms of boy/girl hours invested, teacher time expended, time and expense training teachers—a simpler power tool for a more ‘downshifted’ universe of discourse; on ‘downshifting,’ a term used in ecology for the attempt to create a simpler, less cluttered and more environmentally attuned quality of life, see Sevier (2008).

4 On GISIG, see (accessed 5 November 2008).

5 See the website (accessed 5 November 2008).

6 Looking in depth at multimodality, the Laboratory for Research in Semiotics at the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore has experimentally investigated a wide spectrum of discourse in an approach that looks at word, visual and audio elements in their interweaving and internal dialectic (O'Halloran, 2006a). As O'Halloran (2006b, p. 7) puts it: "'multimodal' refers to the multiple modes (e.g. spoken, written, printed and digital media, embodied action, and three-dimensional material objects and sites) through which social semiosis takes place."

7 See "International Red Cross Helps Victims of Natural Disasters," (accessed 5 November 2008).

8 Karen Bennett of Wycliffe Associates argues that complexity is determined more by the number of "idea units" (i.e. propositions) per sentence than by lexis (Goodman, 2007).

9 For example, a sample "Science in the News" report ( [accessed 5 November 2008]) contained the words "confirm, estimate, fuel, traffic, vehicle," all well above the 2,000 highest-frequency words, yet included in the Word Book, but not in West (1953), and not in West’s Minimum Adequate Vocabulary (1960, 95-134), except for 'traffic.'

10 You can test the readability of any text, including all VOA SE texts, using this online utility: (accessed 5 November 2008). An excellent multifaceted utility for vocabulary frequency level, percentage of Anglo-Saxon-derived lexis, and other lexicostatistical aspects is (accessed 5 November 2008).

11 Listen to audio clip: (accessed 5 November 2008)

. 12 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

13 See

14 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

15 See also the rich websites and for ER, and for Extensive Listening (all accessed 5 November 2008).

16 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

17 Some authors in the U.S., like Max Anderson, write books specifically for "reluctant readers," boys from the age of 8 ( [accessed 5 November 2008]).

18 See also Linkon (1999) and (accessed 5 November 2008).

19 See; for Germany, see (accessed 5 November 2008).

20 (accessed 5 November 2008).

21 (accessed 5 November 2008).

22 (accessed 5 November 2008).

23 (accessed 5 November 2008).

24 Broadcast on 25 October 2008,, and part II,, broadcast 1 November 2008, (accessed 5 November 2008).

25 See, broadcast 15 December 2007 (accessed 5 November 2008).

26 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

27 This can be readily tested using the 'vocabulary profile' utility on (accessed 5 November 2008).

28 The Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) is an active network of Plain Language editors and researchers:; see also (both accessed 5 November 2008) for a useful site in New Zealand. A useful new book on readability formulas can be downloaded cost-free: (accessed 5 November 2008).

29 See also his website:, where Bill maintains an excellent newsletter; here a recent issue: (accessed 5 November 2008).

30 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

31 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

32 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

33 For Globish, see (accessed 5 November 2008).

34 See the site of the Basic English Institute (accessed 5 November 2008).

35 See their website (accessed 5 November 2008). The Russian aerospace industry was the first to adopt a Simplified Russian, and analogous guides for aeronautical Simplified German, Japanese and Arabic are in the works (Verduijn, 2004, p. 91).

36 See 37 See the websites ; for 1,200 headwords,; for 2,800 headwords, (all accessed 5 November 2008).

38 For eslpod, see (accessed 5 November 2008).

39 An anonymous article authored by William DuBay.

40 See also DuBay (2004, 50-53), and his web site, (accessed 5 November 2008).

41 On the International Listening Association, see ; for access to back issues of the IJL,1987-2000, see (accessed 5 November 2008).

42 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

43 See Ogden (1968), 92, (accessed 5 November 2008).

44 On affiliates, see (accessed 5 November 2008).

45 See (accessed 5 November 2008).

46 See (accessed 5 November 2008).