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Using Wikipedia In TEFL Class

nohat-logo-nowords-bgwhite-200px.jpgA creative teacher at the ESL café – Leigh Thelmadatter – had a neat idea for an interactive writing activity: organize a lesson or series of lessons where your students participate in editing a Wikipedia page on something they are uniquely qualified to speak on. The theme would vary based on your own students, but the teacher in question gave the example of such as Music in Mexico. In a post, Leigh wrote:

all I had to do was have them critique the “Music of Mexico” article and see where many of the edits are coming from. Despite the thousands of edits that article has… and continues to get… my students always diss the form it is in. Finding out that people from as far away as Russia and Japan (not to mention the US) are writing about their stuff can get their dander up pretty good.

If you’re interested in having your students improve Wikipedia pages, here is a link to Leigh’s user page at Wikipedia which you can visit for examples or help.

I think this is an excellent activity for a couple of reasons:

Students are using English in an authentic way, with a real world purpose, and not just for a class assignment.
It is highly motivating to correct misinformation that someone has given about “yourself” or your own country.

While I wouldn’t rule out pre-teaching words, I think this activity would be best for students who could understand much of the vocabulary already. This teacher did not present a step by step activity, but I imagine I’d do it something like this:

1. Get the class to generate a list of “main points” they would tell someone about “Music in Mexico” (so they are not only responding to the existing article and working within the frame it gives, but coming up with their own ideas independent of it).
2. Divide the Wikipedia article up and in small groups have them compare it to their ideas and report back to the class.
3. In the same groups, they decide on a set number of points they would add or change. This would obviously depend on the length and nature of the article, but even if they find the whole article wrong, they need to keep in mind they cannot re-write it. That’s not the point of the lesson, nor will it happen on Wikipedia.
4. They make the changes, then pass the article on to another group, whose job it is to correct the English, but otherwise not make any changes to the content. This could be repeated or adapted. Maybe another group could weigh in on the changes they made.
5. Go online and do what you need to do. Return regularly to see what changes others have made.

I think most people, even those who use Wikipedia regularly, will agree that it shouldn’t be one’s only source of information. And the fact that there are mistakes is one more reason it’s a good activity for class.

Here is another reason I think this is so great: I would hazard a guess that 90% of the information available in English about everything has its origin in English speaking countries, presumably largely the UK and US. I think that comparatively speaking, information coming out of these countries does an average (good) job of avoiding bias, but it’s hard for me to take seriously a view that assumes there is none. The question of bias aside, I think that today “experts” from English speaking countries may well be attributed more authority than they are due in comparison to experts from non-English speaking countries. Wikipedia allows for others to have more of a say.

What do you think?