I came across this question here, which I've written out again for you guys:

For the best learning of our friends in this place, should we attempt to write all or our answers in up goer five words?

This would help people who do not have a lot of words that they know understand new words.

Maybe the place for adding a new answer could let people know when they are using the right words?"

I was a bit sad, I have to say, at the way we responded and also at the answers given. While I agree that we need all kinds of answers here, it is definitely a good thing to make our writing easy for as many people as possible to read. There should be at least some answers that lower students can read and understand without having to go looking lots of words up.

I do not think that "up-goer five" gives us the best possible body of words for low students. The "CEFR 2" body would be much better. [You will have to sign up to use this. It only takes a second.] It would be a very good idea if there was an easy way for people answering to see if the words they used appeared on this. It would be even better if there was a "wiki-post" somewhere here, which told us how to write so that even low students can understand us.

What do you people reading this think?

Note: Just to show that it's easily possible, I have written this all in up-goer five words.

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    The word "list" isn't on the up-goer five list...
    – ColleenV
    Apr 6, 2015 at 5:33
  • Ah, I hereby declare our (me and company, for more info please visit chat - learn more!) partial agreement with you. It's been a bother for some time to see that some students don't get the answer that's provided here. (which is found out when they ask trivial questions that are answered in the answer and/or finding out that they've posted something similar in another forum) However, sometimes this just isn't possible. The level of the learners and the questions isn't consistent around here, so simply stating/purposing such feature isn't practically that beneficial.
    – M.A.R.
    Apr 6, 2015 at 15:51
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    But all in all, I really would like some of our answerers to take the level of the knowledge of OP into consideration when answering. (It's usually too hard and crude to just be judging the OP's English with what they've posted, but crude isn't nothing)
    – M.A.R.
    Apr 6, 2015 at 15:55
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    I'm far from convinced it's grammatical to be sad at answers - at the very least it sounds "questionable" to me. If a learner has trouble understanding the vocabulary used by native speakers here on ELL, at least they know they've got a problem, which they can probably easily resolve by searching for helpful definitions online. But they probably won't even realise when they're reading an "unusual" usage where there are no semantic issues, so they'll be likely to unwittingly copy it themselves. Apr 16, 2015 at 17:50
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    @FumbleFingers You've articulated the main thing that was bugging me about the up-goer five posts. The patterns of how the words are put together are at least as important as the meanings of words themselves when learning a new language. I certainly wouldn't want someone to get the impression that the phrase "low learner" is something that most English speakers would understand clearly, or that we would typically say "sad at the answers" instead of "saddened by the answers". In my opinion, it would hobble their ability to communicate in English.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 16, 2015 at 21:05
  • @FumbleFingers Is the nuance of at instead of about lost on you? ;) Apr 16, 2015 at 23:23
  • @FumbleFingers Hmm, what makes you think that about isn't in "up-goer five"? BTW, what's in up-goer five is irrelevant really, as I tired to make clear in my post. (It's been bolded for several days now) Apr 17, 2015 at 12:51
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    @Araucaria I think we all understand that the up-goer five list isn't ideal, but it does serve to illustrate how restricting your vocabulary can lead to your writing being less rather than more clear, and I have yet to figure out how to look at the CEFR 2 list you prefer. I'm not opposed to encouraging folks to think about their audience when writing an answer and sharing "best practices", however I really don't think that this type of contortion to avoid words that may be unfamiliar is a good idea.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 17, 2015 at 14:25
  • @ColleenV I teach elementary students every day. We talk about politics , love, other things. CEFR 2 (elementary) has 1500 words and their inflected forms etc. It doesn't really matter if there's the odd word that isn't in there if one's trying to aim one 's post at a very low level - but making a serious attempt to grade language would be helpful for some posts, that all. If CEFR A2 is too low to aim at for some writers who'd still like to grade their language, theres' always CEFR B1, B2 and so forth. Apr 17, 2015 at 14:58
  • @FumbleFingers You might not like my style, but that's how I started to write the post before I decided to grade my language in any way. That's just my native speaker vocab. Apr 17, 2015 at 14:59
  • @Araucaria: Taken in the round, I don't object at all to your style - you're a native speaker using English as fluently as anyone else. But you seem to want it both ways - on the one hand you urge us to avoid "less common" usages (for fear of frightening the horses? :) but then you justify your own on the grounds that it's your natural style. I don't think it's "natural" to severely limit one's vocabulary when addressing people who might not understand less common words. Particularly in a context where they can easily look up any words they don't know so well. Apr 17, 2015 at 15:13
  • @Araucaria I think there a is a large difference between speaking and writing. I can read things written in other languages on the Internet and get the basic gist of what is being said, but it would be impossible for me to understand that same language being spoken to me. I couldn't begin to write my own sentence in German, but I can read German if I need to, and the more I read the less I need to rely on the translation tools. Simple sentence structure and more formal writing is what makes some texts easier to understand than others - the vocabulary usually isn't that much of a problem.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 17, 2015 at 15:59
  • @ColleenV You don't need to persuade me about sentence structure and so forth! That's only indirectly related to this question. Apr 18, 2015 at 20:09
  • @FumbleFingers This question wasn't written for LLers, it was written for the high level user who hang around on Meta here. The point of using up-goer was just to show that language grading is possible. But as stated - quite a few times now! (aarrgh) - that isn't the body of words I'd suggest using for ELLers in the first place! :) Apr 18, 2015 at 20:12

3 Answers 3


I think it would be doing a disservice to learners to not use the words we feel most precisely communicate what we are trying to say. I do make some accommodations when I post an answer, like simplifying my sentence structures and linking definitions for idioms or unusual words, but I try not to "dumb down" what I write.

I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember, and if I had limited myself to reading material that consisted entirely of words and that I was familiar with and simple, unchallenging grammar, I would not have the vocabulary nor the writing ability that I do. I think there is value in writing an answer using the words and phrases that we would normally use with some minor adjustments for our audience.

If I were speaking to someone just learning English, I would slow down, enunciate, shorten my sentences and avoid slang and unusual words. Writing is different. There is time for a learner to pick apart what we've written and look up words and to digest the meaning. If something is unclear, a learner can take the time to write a comment to ask for help without worrying about their pronunciation or feeling pressured.

The "Drawing Accuracy, Quality and Expertise" sample reads to me as if a middle school student wrote it. I found that the lack of precision and detail made it difficult to understand. A child would start a school term paper with a statement like "I study drawing because it’s a good way to understand how people draw". That is not the style that I think most learners would aspire to, and I would be embarrassed to post something written that way. It's not my voice - I would rather my writing be a bit too challenging than for it to be patronizing.

If someone else would like to write in "up-goer five" style, I think that's great. The more diversity there is in the style and tone of answers, the better. I personally think that some people learn best by immersion and that replacing an uncommon word that means precisely what we're trying to say with half a sentence of common words that vaguely resemble what we're trying to say and that we wouldn't normally string together doesn't help their English improve.

I also think that limiting the vocabulary isn't the best way to make something easy to read. There's no guarantee that the words that English speakers most commonly use are the same vocabulary that is being taught to learners. There are some words that aren't common, but when you need to express an idea, there's no easily understandable replacement. For example "lower students" and "low students" is not a suitable replacement for beginner. The students aren't lower; they have a lower level of skill.

Simple sentence structures, good formatting and punctuation can go a lot further than limited vocabulary. I think a better test of readability would be to paste your answer into a translator, translate it to another language, then translate that back to English and see how mangled it gets. Translating one of the "up-goer five" paragraphs in your question to Spanish and back to English results in:

I was a little sad, I must say, in the way we responded and also on the answers given. Although I agree that we need all kinds of answers here, it's definitely a good thing to make our writing easier for the greatest possible number of people to read. Must have at least some answers that younger students can read and understand without having to go find a lot of words up.

The simple sentence structure did more to preserve the meaning than the arbitrary substitution of "lower" for beginner. If a student wasn't familiar with "lower student" and went to look it up, they would think you're talking about younger students, not beginners. I think that it is even more important to be precise when you're writing for someone that may have to resort to a dictionary to understand.

  • You didn't read as a non-native speaker though! Students in general can't cope with something where they understand less than 90-95% of the vocabulary. So that would automatically rule out "immersion" style posts. Immersion goes hand in hand with not understanding 90% of what's going on. If you have to be advanced level to get any benefit from what's written on the site, what's the point? Generally speaking, you can give students slightly higher level language for most things, but when it comes to giving instructions and presenting the target language it needs to be clear :) Apr 6, 2015 at 11:15
  • As I've said though, I don't think all or even most posts need to be written simple language though. Apr 6, 2015 at 11:42
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    @Araucaria I don't wtite at a much highr level than most of the material that can be found on the Internet. You imagine that there are many learners that don't understand 90% of the vocabulary of the typical answer, but it doesn't seem that way to me. There have been a couple answers I've seen that I thought were too challenging given the way the question was written, but the vast majority seem appropriate. How does someone who doesn't understand 90% of the vocabulary we use even navigate this site?
    – ColleenV
    Apr 6, 2015 at 12:42
  • You don't need to not understand 90% of the vocabulary to not understand 90% percent of the sentences! :) Some of the posts here are quite simple. But most of the frequent users here are advanced level, or upper intermediate at the least. I doubt the site could be used by many elementary users, but I think it ought to be accessible to Intermediate learners at the least, with the odd intrepid elementary student venturting on to ask questions every so often. Apr 6, 2015 at 13:10
  • @Araucaria I've edited my answer to explain why I don't think limiting vocabulary is going to accomplish your goal. There have been elementary students asking questions here - I don't think the vocabulary of the answers being too challenging is what makes them rare. I think that at that level, they're mostly using resources in their native language and that no matter how we write the answers an all English site wouldn't be useful to them.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 6, 2015 at 13:16
  • My elementary student use all English websites such as BBC Learning English, for example. There is no reason though that intermediate students shouldn't be able to use this site - or even pre-intermediate ones. Apr 6, 2015 at 13:20
  • The comments you make about vocab there only apply to up-goer five, which I don't recommend in the first place, not CEFR 2 - which I could more or less write any of my posts in, if I described the meaning of the odd bit of meta-language. By the way, there is no problem with beginner in up-goer five. Low and Lower is meant to cover Beginner, Elementary and Pre-Intermediate. I agree that sentence structure is as important as vocabulary, which is why I think a wiki-post would be a good idea. (cont) Apr 6, 2015 at 13:27
  • (cont) However, the idea that we cannot predict what kind of vocab students at a certain level will struggle with is misguided. Textbooks all over the world have to try to gauge this, as do writers of graded readers and so forth, and as do teachers. Of course we don't know about individual learners and individual words, but we can give fairly accurate generalisations. Of course there are other variables, for example, Spanish speakers will recognise a large number of cognates even if they've never seen the before (eg immobilisation, comtamination etc). We could at least try though! Apr 6, 2015 at 13:27
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    @Araucaria I will never be persuaded that using a word other than the word that means precisely what I intend to say is a clearer way to communicate. You can pick at my attempts to explain why I feel strongly about that, but we have a fundamental disagreement about what "easy to understand" means. I think that using vague stilted language to solve a problem I'm not convinced exists would be a disservice to the majority of our users.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 6, 2015 at 13:33
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    I had the same reaction to "low students". I think this kind of replacement can be counterproductive if we're not careful.
    – user230
    Apr 6, 2015 at 16:23
  • @snailboat Agreed. At least if they don't know what "beginner" means they can look it up in a dictionary. May 1, 2015 at 10:14

Should we be sensitive to the fact that many of our frequent readers are struggling with English? Absolutely!

But what is the best way to accomplish this? I don't think that restricting answers to a list of "acceptable" words is the best to do it. Instead, I try to use some of these:

I think tactics such as these can be more effective than using simpler words.

I'm not going to check this answer, but I wouldn't be surprised if "sensitive" "restricting" and "accomplish" are offending words.

  • 2
    The list of words that you would have to replace in this answer to make it "up-goer five" compatible is : sensitive, frequent, readers, English, absolutely, accomplish, restricting, list, acceptable, speech, idiom, include, link, idiom, concrete, examples, related, tactics, effective, simpler. I would have tried to check against the CEFR 2 list, but I can't figure out how to sign up for it.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 14, 2015 at 14:35
  • Also, I recently figured out that I can use the description of a link to have the definition of a word pop up in a tooltip. I think it helps makes things easier to understand, because the reader doesn't have to navigate a different page and try to figure out which definition applies in the context. I still haven't figured how to hover over a link on my mobile to see the tooltip though, so I'm not sure if it's useful to everyone.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 14, 2015 at 17:37
  • Who said anything about simpler words? Apr 14, 2015 at 17:50
  • But also, what makes you think that linking to sites that have more difficult words than the original is of some kind of benefit to learners? Especially if the link isn't to a learners' dictionary! Apr 14, 2015 at 17:53
  • @Araucaria - Well, I figured if you could use "low" for "beginner," I could use "simpler" for "more common" :-) (Not really – you make a good point.) As for the links, did you check out my example? In my answer, I use the term "Bobcat tractors." Sympathetic to the fact that not every visitor to this site would know what a "Bobcat" is, I linked to this picture. I think that would be more helpful than using a different word!
    – J.R. Mod
    Apr 14, 2015 at 17:56
  • @J.R. Your first link seemed to connect to a dictionary site before, but perhaps I was mistaken. It now seems to link to an ELL question. Has that changed? Apr 14, 2015 at 18:00
  • @Araucaria - There is a dictionary link in my "more than one way" example. That's there for a different reason. In that answer, I mention the "seventh definition for have". I included the link in case any learner wanted to see that definition for themselves, or check out the other information on that page. That Macmillan page actually has some very good examples of the many ways the word have can be used, which I thought could be helpful for many learners interested in that question.
    – J.R. Mod
    Apr 14, 2015 at 18:05
  • @J.R. I thought that one of your links linked directly to a dictionary site before. Am I wrong? Apr 14, 2015 at 18:07
  • @Araucaria - The links in this meta answer link back to four previous answers of mine, ones that I thought did a good job of illustrating how we can help the learners by using links, by using multiple explanations, by using concrete examples, and by embedding pictures. All of these links were added in Revision 2. Yes, I sometimes link to dictionaries, and, no, those aren't always linking to a learner's dictionary, but I stand by what I'm saying in this answer.
    – J.R. Mod
    Apr 14, 2015 at 20:33
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    After thinking about it, I think there is a definite divide between how to handle different skill levels. I rarely link to learner's dictionaries because they are too simple to be useful for the questions I prefer to answer. I think that the best way to answer a particular question is very dependent on the context, so what is easy to understand for a beginner might be useless to a more advanced learner.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 14, 2015 at 22:12
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    @ColleenV: (This comment is really just a test :) I found this on SE.meta. If it works I'll leave it here for future reference (all I did was insert a space followed by my test tooltip text enclosed in double quotes before the closing bracket of my embedded link). If it doesn't, perhaps you could enlighten me further. I think popup definitions are potentially very appropriate on ELL, so it's worth me figuring this one out. EDIT: - Wow! It works! Apr 17, 2015 at 13:12

Note: I have written this with up-goer five words only - except for "verb" and "noun" and some names.

I think that people who didn't like that question probably think they are not able to do this. They think they just just couldn't, even if they wanted to. It is actually a great idea, and one we should take very seriously. Every teacher has to think very carefully about the words they use, especially with students who are just starting. If your students can't understand you when you speak, then you obviously aren't going to be helping them very much when you talk to them, or try to explain things. It stands to reason.

Too many of the answers here can only be read by a very small number of students. The writing is much too hard for normal students to understand. The question, however, might be better if it asked whether we should just use words from "CEFR 2". This is because the words that are most often used in normal writing and the words that are known by low students are not the same. "CEFR 2" has about 1500 words which are known by most very low students. It also has words like "noun", "verb" and so on, which are not in up-goer five.

If you go here to up-goer-five your PhD you will be able to see many long pieces of writing about very hard problems and ideas written by very bright people using only the top 1,000 words. We should definitely be able to at least try to do something like this, for some of our answers here, some of the time.

In case you think I'm joking, here's one for you to look at:

"Drawing Accuracy, Quality and Expertise, by Linda Carson

I study drawing because it’s a good way to understand how people draw, how people draw well, how people learn to draw and even how people see. Drawing pictures by looking at things is hard but some people get very good at it. To learn about that, it would be nice to look at some good pictures and some bad pictures. The usual way we used to tell good pictures from bad was by looking at them and saying “I think that one is better than the other one. Do you agree?” I came up with ways to work out how much a picture looks like the thing it’s a picture of. That doesn’t take the place of people looking and deciding but it helps. No feeling gets in the way of deciding, and there’s room for more in-between pictures (not just good and bad but a hundred in-betweens).

Being able to recognize a picture and what it’s a picture of are definitely not the only things that make a drawing good or bad. Sometimes a picture should be pretty or weird or interesting instead. Sometimes a picture isn’t of anything at all, and that’s okay, too. But I study how we make pictures that look like something.

Think about two types of people: people who studied drawing in school and have been drawing for at least ten years… and people who haven’t. I asked them to draw pictures. Other people, looking at those pictures, could tell which pictures were drawn by long-time drawing people and which pictures were drawn by new-to-drawing people. Then I came up with two ways to tell which were which without people deciding.

One way to look at a drawing is to look at all the places where one edge meets another edge and they form a corner of some sort. Check how big those corners are in the drawing and in a snap-shot of the thing people drew. It turns out that this is a good way to tell good pictures from bad. It’s easy to do (even without a computer, if you can make a mean by yourself), it matches which pictures people say are good and bad, and the good pictures turn out to be drawn by long-drawing people while the bad pictures were drawn by new-to-drawing people. People who drew better also noticed some things better about what they were drawing, like how much things leaned and what was farthest away.

The second way is to look at a drawing with a computer and to join all its land-marks together to make many-sided boxes. Check how those boxes look in the drawing and in a snap-shot of the thing people drew. You can see if the boxes are too big or too small, if the boxes lean left or right too much, if the boxes are in the right place and if the boxes look like the ones in the snap-shot. It turns out that this is another good way to tell good pictures from bad, and long-drawing people from new-to-drawing people. The long-drawing people were better at everything than the new-to-drawing people, but everyone did something strange. They didn’t draw the spaces between things the same way they drew the things. The spaces between things leaned too far, more than the things did. The things were in the right place more than the spaces between things were. The things looked like the snap-shot more than the spaces between things did. Things were sometimes too big and sometimes too small, about as often as the spaces between things were.

Art teachers have always believed that people are bad at drawing the spaces between things. My study agrees and if we want to help people to draw better, we should tell them to look harder at spaces between things … but also to check whether the things in their drawing lean too much to the left or right.

Next I want to figure out how bad a drawing can be before people see the problems, how drawing class helps people draw better, and if people with hurt brains draw the same as everyone else.

Linda Carson (@lccarson, University of Waterloo) got off easier than most but it’s too bad drawing is a doing word not a naming word."

  • Taken to an extreme, we'd have to rename this site from English Language Learners to English Students.
    – J.R. Mod
    Apr 14, 2015 at 21:13
  • @J.R. How come? Apr 14, 2015 at 22:14
  • Because neither "language" nor "learners" is in the up-goer list – I assume that's why you kept using "teacher" and "students" in this answer? (Btw, my remark was mostly tongue-in-cheek).
    – J.R. Mod
    Apr 14, 2015 at 23:25
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    @J.R. According to the up-goer five page (I haven't checked the page you need a password for), "English" is not on the list either. May 1, 2015 at 10:20
  • @starplus Yes, that's right. But as has been said several times here and in the post, it's the one where you need to sign up (takes 20 secs) that counts :) May 1, 2015 at 16:29
  • I'm still of the mindset that, no matter which list is used, if we never use more than those words, then no one here will ever learn any new words. We can strive to keep thing simple without having to substitute words like "strive" with "try" every time.
    – J.R. Mod
    May 4, 2015 at 13:00
  • @J.R. I feel that it depends how many words like strive we're talking about. It also depends who asked the question, what the question's about and so forth. Nobody's suggesting a moratorium on higher that CEFR A2 words, but using CEFR 2 for some answers would definitely be helpful. The prevailing thinking in EFL teaching is that, in general, teaching language, texts etc, should be slightly higher than the learners own level, so that they're scaffolded towards the nexct stage. However, when it comes to instructions, for example, or presentation of target language ... May 4, 2015 at 13:36
  • @J.R. ... (e.g. the teaching presentation of a grammar point), the instructional language should be as simple clear and lucid as possible, and should not strain the learner. The new language itself and subsequent activities are going to do that bit! Anyway that's the thinking :) May 4, 2015 at 13:37

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