Develop Your English Proficiency—One ‘Bite’ at a Time

13 June 2013

  Image by Lara604

As we discussed in last week’s post, if you want to build your English proficiency, you need to practice at least a little every day – for a long time. What many people need, however, is a way to find ‘small bites’ of useful language practice that they can fit into a busy schedule.


A place where you can get some of those bites is the Big Think Blog.


How can you benefit?

Big Think offers information in the form of short articles and videos. Experts from around the world write the blogs and record the videos.


Choose something to read or watch from their list of themes in the right column of the home page.


At ‘60-Second Reads’ you get the essence of experts’ insights in the form of very short articles that you can read in about one minute.


How to improve your writing

The best way to improve your writing is to read a lot. But to get the most from your reading, closely examine a text.


Let me demonstrate with one of the posts from Big Think, quoted below.


Want To Stand On Top Of Mount Everest? Get In Line

by Kecia Lynn


What's the Latest Development?

So many people are climbing Mount Everest these days that they're turning what once was considered a major bucket-list challenge into "a McDonald's experience," says mountaineer Graham Hoyland. Last year, a record 234 people made it to the top of Mount Everest on a single day, a feat attributed both to improved equipment -- which allows even amateurs to participate -- and the dedication of experienced Sherpa guides. Along with the increased traffic flow come lines and bottlenecks on the world's highest summit, as well as a growing tourist industry targeted to Westerners and increasing challenges with litter and sanitation.


What's the Big Idea?

Since 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary made history by becoming the first known Westerner to reach the top of Everest, more than 3,000 have followed in his footsteps, including an 80-year-old Japanese man who last week set the record for the world's oldest summiteer. Serious climbers like Hoyland worry that the increase in amateurs could result in a tragic accident: "You have people going up there who don't know how to operate the ropes or use the crampons. There's a huge disaster waiting to happen."


A closer look at the article

Here are some points about the article above that can help you improve your writing.



The first thing you’ll notice about blogposts at Big Think is the use of two subtitles: What’s the latest development? and What’s the big idea?. Titles and subtitles help readers know what will follow in the text.


You can use subtitles (either underlined or boldfaced) in any document – even email – to help readers see information more clearly.



The author of this short article quotes an expert, mountaineer Graham Hoyland, to give her writing about the dangers of amateurs climbing Mt Everest more authority. She opens and closes the article with his quotes, helping to emphasize the main points and make them more relevant.


Quote experts to support your ideas and give them more authority. Although quotes are used primarily by academics, they’re also a useful tool for business writers who are proposing ideas or solutions.


Word chunks

While you read, pay attention to groups (chunks) of words – not just to single words. For example, in the first paragraph are these two expressions:

·      ‘a major bucket-list challenge’

·      ‘a McDonald’s experience’


These noun phrases give a deeper meaning to the words ‘challenge’ and ‘experience’ by alluding to two cultural things. The first allusion is to the movie The Bucket List, a film about two men with terminal cancer who decide to enjoy what’s left of their lives before they ‘kick the bucket’ (ie, die). So they make a list of the things they’ve always wanted to do – calling it a ‘bucket list’ – and then do all those things.


The second allusion is to the hamburger joint, McDonald’s, a restaurant known for cheap, fast food that is widely available.


By using these two expressions, the writer illustrates how the increasing number of people climbing Mount Everest has turned what was once an activity that only a few people could attempt (a major bucket-list challenge) into something that more and more people have access to (like going to McDonald’s).


Note the difference between ‘Bucket List’ (where ‘bucket’ modifies the noun ‘list’) and ‘bucket-list challenge’ (where the hyphenated ‘bucket-list’ modifies the noun ‘challenge’). Other examples of hyphenated adjectives include: ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience’ and ‘a five-year-old child’.


Look at the following word chunks in the article and see how they are used:

·      a record 234 people

·      the first known Westerner

·      reach the top

·      followed in his footsteps

·      the world’s oldest summiteer

·      a huge disaster waiting to happen



Normally a dependent relative clause is set off between commas. But you can also set if off with dashes. See how the writer does this with the clause ‘which allows even amateurs to participate’ to describe ‘improved equipment’. Using dashes this way is less formal than using commas, and they’re becoming more common in writing.


Newsletter genre

The article above is short enough that you could probably copy it in about 5-10 minutes. If you need to write articles for a company newsletter, this would be a good one to practice copying.



Do you have a favourite website that offers interesting articles or videos of ‘bite-sized’ length? Share them with us in the comments.



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