Do you know the benefits of reading some interesting articles in English whenever you can? It's a great way to build your vocabulary and general English! It will even develop your English grammar skills. These articles can open new perspectives to you, sharing the concerns, experience, and wisdom of so many people.
This page continues the selections and links from the English Detective newsletter begun on Reading Articles to Improve Your English. That page explains how I choose the articles and why I share their links and descriptions here.
Most of the articles are intermediate level or above, so if you are just beginning to read English, don't start here. Instead, check out Easy Reading for ESL Beginners.
Each section below gives most of one English Detective newsletter starting in Jan. 2021. Each newsletter has a theme.
That means the articles will often have related vocabulary, helping you learn any new words. They also provide several different perspectives on the subject.
After introducing the theme, I tell a little about each article and why it's worth reading.. I link to it and sometimes add some vocabulary discussion or practice.
Occasionally I devote a whole page to the topic, and the article descriptions and links are on it instead. In those cases there is just a link to that page here.
If you find these articles helpful, you can subscribe to English Detective below (or learn more on Building Vocabulary.) The advantage of subscribing is that you'll get each new issue directly.
Choose the articles that interest you and build your English vocabulary a little every month (or every week if you spread them out).
I’ve been thinking (like many others in the U.S. and around the world) of recent events in Washington D.C. and about the inauguration on Wednesday. We wonder how (if it’s even possible) to restore trust and civility and to build a society based on justice and truth.
I found a number of articles suggesting ways Biden could address these things in his inaugural address. Many referred to the messages of presidents in earlier times of national crisis—and almost all mentioned the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.
The article I chose (an opinion piece from Fox News, not my usual source of ideas) quotes Lincoln extensively. I feel the author presents a very persuasive case for “extending a hand of friendship and reconciliation” toward Republicans, even people who still question whether Biden won.
It may not work, but I believe it’s necessary to try. As the second article (on Martin Luther King Jr.) begins, “bringing down the temperature of the nation and quelling partisan divisiveness is of paramount concern.” In simpler language, we need to calm down and come together.
That article lists MLK’s principles of nonviolence. It argues, as King wrote, that nonviolence, though difficult to practice, is “one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” The author discusses the origins of King’s thinking on nonviolence, its success in challenging segregation, and brief descriptions of six core principles.
I decided to add a third article that is less hopeful but also addresses an urgent need in American society. NPR asks “Can the forces unleashed by Trump’s big election lie be undone?” It talks about the results of Trump’s insistence that he actually won the election (which he claimed was then stolen from him). The attack on the U.S. Capitol was a direct consequence of the anger he stirred up in his supporters.
The article includes a seven-minute video by Arnold Schwarzenegger on the dangers of a big lie. It’s a very personal story, describing his childhood watching his father and other desperate, broken men in Austria after WW2. He cannot forget the consequences of Hitler’s big lies and makes an urgent appeal to come together to support our democracy and Constitution.
Capacity is the amount of something a person or container can hold or the ability to hold or do something.
An inauguration is a ceremony in which someone begins a new position. It’s most often used when presidents or governors take an oath of office before beginning their duties. Inaugural is the adjective. So, an inaugural address is a speech that a president gives at the beginning of his or her term.
Malice is deep, bitter hatred-- a desire to harm someone.
An opponent is someone who is against you (an enemy) or is competing with you (a rival).
A principle (as used in these articles) is a basic truth or value that guides a person’s or a group’s actions.
To resonate usually means to cause an emotional response. “Your suggestion really resonated with me.”
A rival is a competitor: someone who wants the same position you want.
You can practice different forms of words for truth or falsehood (and sort them from most definitely truthful to most dishonest) on that page on EnglishHints.
I’ve read a lot recently about “power words.” They usually refer to positive words to make a person’s resume seem more impressive, or to psychological trigger words that a sales team hopes will make their product “irresistible.” (The last link below discusses that kind of power words, if you’re interested in how they can ‘hook’ people.)
But today I especially want to also share two short, surprising articles and a talk about very common words that can have unexpected power: ‘the,’ ‘but,’ and ‘because.’
“Is this the most powerful word in the English Language?” uses Shakespeare as an example to show the power of the word ‘the.’ The writer admits that knowing when to use ‘the’ causes difficulties for people whose first languages don’t have a similar word.
However, native speakers can use it to imply negative things about a group of people simply by grouping them (“the Americans”, etc.), rather than recognizing individual differences. You may need to read this article twice—but you’ll end up with more respect for this apparently insignificant word.
An unlikely villain among ‘power words’ is the conjunction ‘but.’ This Fast Company article points out that it so often seems necessary, but (!) it expresses opposition or foot-dragging that could be avoided. Instead of meeting someone’s proposal with a negative “That’s an interesting idea, but…” try “yes, and.” For example, “That’s an interesting idea. I wonder if we could also…”
The author has several other ideas for more positive responses. (This is an idea I need to remember when talking to my family! It’s so easy for me to react quickly and “pour cold water” on ideas that could work with just a few changes.)
Janine Driver’s TEDx talk describes ”how five simple words can get you what you want.” She describes situations when someone is telling you ‘no’ but uses words that leave the door open for you to get what you need if you push. Which words? “Decided, typically, normally, or usually” you have to… (But decisions can be changed, and you’re not in a normal or usual situation…)
Then she brings out what she calls “the most influential word in the English language”: ‘because.’ Her story is so appealing because she demonstrates how an ordinary person with a big problem is able to defeat a stubborn bureaucracy with the power of words.
Finally, if you’re interested in marketing—or just want to understand it to avoid being manipulated, check out this longer article on traditional power words.
So, do you see a few plain, ordinary words in a new light now? Let me know what you think (in the comments below!)
I wasn’t even thinking of women’s history month, but two stories on fighting disease that have stood out to me recently both had unlikely heroines. These very different women resisted the strong pressures of society and scientific consensus—and ended up saving uncounted lives.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu learned the technique of smallpox inoculation from the female healers of the Ottoman Empire when her husband was an English ambassador there. (It seems that male doctors there did not use it.)
In 1721, soon after she had returned to England, a smallpox epidemic broke out. Lady Montague had her daughter inoculated and urged others to do so as well, in spite of opposition from the English medical establishment and others.
She wrote, "I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England." As the NPR article points out in fascinating detail, her efforts led to thousands of lives saved. One of those inoculated was Edward Jenner, who would later develop the (safer) smallpox vaccine.
The second article (and podcast) describes how Katalin Karikó and other scientists continued to study mRNA even when it meant risking funding, university backing, and (for Karikó, an immigrant from Hungary) deportation.
It took years of hard work, and a constant struggle for funding, before their research paid off. Now, as the article’s title mentions, “if covid-19 vaccines bring an end to the pandemic, America has immigrants to thank.” Without their stubborn belief in the value of their work, we would not have the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
Have you heard of the “Green Revolution?” After World War 2, plant breeders developed much more productive varieties of wheat and rice. They enabled countries like Mexico and India to go from importing those staples to growing enough for their own use and to sell to other countries. Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder that started it, won the Nobel prize in 1970 for helping to prevent the mass famine that many people had feared as populations increased after the war.
Then the criticism began, and grew, as people began to see water pollution and other environmental damage as well as harm to traditional ways of life. Over time there were also questions of motive. Were western countries just pushing their own solutions and technologies, and maybe more interested in preventing communism from taking hold than in the needs of local people?
The Green Revolution’s emphasis on a few very productive grain varieties has led to a major decrease in crop diversity, replacing many more nutritious crops with large fields of a single kind of wheat or rice. Large farming operations have put poor farmers at even more of a disadvantage, since they cannot afford the fertilizer or irrigation techniques it requires.
PBS conducted three interviews with experts from different countries and perspectives on the good and bad effects of the Green Revolution, looking back on it half a century later. All three articles are interesting, but I’d recommend the third (unless you have time to skim all three.) The first two emphasize the historical context a little more. (#1 gives more background on Borlaug, & #2 on the Cold War context.
The 3rd interview discusses the tragic irony of good intentions that had unforeseen consequences. It tells how Borlaug’s work to make wheat more disease-resilient ended up making farming much less resilient (unable to deal with problems that arise.) The interview finishes with the hope that farmers can learn from each other and make changes for a better future.
National Geographic also has a fascinating (though long) article on current research—a “next green revolution”—that researchers hope will be more environmentally friendly and sensitive to the needs of small farmers and their communities. If you can take a few minutes to read the two sections and look through the pictures and diagrams, you can get a good background picture.
It starts with the increasing risks of crop failure in East Africa—specifically of cassava, now being attacked by disease-carrying whiteflies that are becoming much more common as the climate warms.
Then there’s a short, mostly positive discussion of how the Green Revolution prevented famine in the last century. “From the 1960s through the 1990s, yields of rice and wheat in Asia doubled. Even as the continent’s population increased by 60 percent, grain prices fell, the average Asian consumed nearly a third more calories, and the poverty rate was cut in half.”
The rest of the article goes into detail about competing visions for that new green revolution, using controversial genetically modified (GM) plants or other new breeding techniques and more ecologically friendly methods that show promise.
There’s a long discussion of more versatile rice crops being bred in the Philippines to solve various environmental problems.
The article also talks about E. African organic farming experiments with a more diverse set of crops as one alternative to crop failures (and also to farmer debt.)
The article’s conclusion: “It’s not choosing one type of knowledge—low-tech versus high-tech, organic versus GM—once and for all. There’s more than one way to increase yields or to stop a whitefly.” It sees hope as people apply new ecological and cultural understanding along with high-tech advances
Many people who object to wearing masks say the government is just trying to control them. They say that American authorities originally told us not to wear masks, and then changed the rules. So, they don’t believe there could be clear scientific evidence for masking.
That’s why I found this Wired article so interesting. It explains why the CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) told the general public not to buy or use masks at the beginning of the pandemic. They wanted to save the masks for health care people who were in very close contact with Covid-19 patients. But they also did not believe it was necessary for most people to wear masks, since they were convinced that viruses did not remain in the air for long distances.
A few scientists who had seen definite evidence of airborne transmission of viruses fought to change the accepted explanation. The article tells their story. It’s part detective story, part turf war (people defending their branch of science or their own expertise—not really looking at the data). It’s a reminder that the scientific search for truth isn’t simple—and some of the obstacles come from within us.
”A Toast to the Error Detectors” is a much shorter article with a similar theme: “the clash between science as it is and how it should be.” It’s a strong defense of young researchers who often have gotten into trouble for finding errors in the work of more established scientists. The author argues that we need to appreciate their findings, not try to silence them.
Vocabulary (explanations of a few words used often in these articles):
Bullying is mistreatment of someone who is weaker or does not have the power to defend himself or herself effectively. Older boys in school often bully smaller children, but people of any age can be bullies.
A disease is contagious when it spreads easily from person to person.
A pathogen is a micro-organism (for example, a bacteria or virus) that can cause disease. (We commonly call pathogens ‘germs.’)
Pathogens can infect us (get into us and start causing illness.) So infections, or infectious diseases, are diseases caused by micro-organisms.
A particle is a very small piece of something.
This week I wanted to share an article and a talk, both from TED, that I enjoyed recently. They suggest insights from psychology that can help people make better decisions and avoid mental traps that can sabotage us.
The TED Ideas article describes how scenario planning and Red Teams (a form of war game) can help us make good choices. Scenario planning tries to picture various possible futures based on the way current trends might change over time.
“By forcing themselves to imagine several alternatives, scenario planners avoid the trap of the single seductive story.” Red Teams have players look at complex situations from different points of view.
Another useful planning tool is a premortem. It requires imagining that a decision turned out to be bad-- & reconstructing what caused such bad results. It’s a good way to uncover potentially faulty assumptions that you might not notice otherwise.
Adam Grant’s TED talk emphasizes the importance of rethinking. He points out that “when it comes to our goals, identities and habits, we tend to stick to our guns.” (“Stick to our guns” is an idiom coming from the military. Gunners were not supposed to abandon their positions. Over time, the meaning has shifted to a stubborn insistence to hold onto the arguments or positions we have chosen even when they no longer work well.)
Grant explains the psychology behind such stubbornness—and the importance of being willing to reconsider our decisions when circumstances change. He also points out the value of “confident humility.” He tells how much he learned from his students once he was willing to give them room to show what they could do.
He finishes by pointing out the urgency of rethinking as a society and not just as individuals. “We live in a world that mistakes confidence for competence,…that accuses people who change their minds of flip-flopping, when in fact, they might be learning.”
Have you ever considered what an amazing thing it is that one person can share complicated ideas or feelings with another by making sounds or symbols in a particular order? I know I’ve often taken it for granted!
The neuroscientists discussed in these talks and articles have made some amazing discoveries about how our brains code and decode sounds, words, and stories to create shared meaning. They have also found ways to improve this communication process.
A neurosurgeon and his team in San Francisco have even helped a man unable to speak or write to use a “speech neuroprosthetic” to write words based on his brainwaves. It’s still limited in what it can do, even after months studying his responses. But it’s a huge improvement over the way he has had to communicate—using his head to point to letters or words.
The next article (and talk) discusses “Your Brain on Communication.” I was fascinated by the talk when I first watched it on TED several years ago. I hesitated to share it, though. The speaker is brilliant, but his English is accented heavily enough that I feared it would be hard for many to understand. He’s now written a TED Ideas article sharing the same thoughts—so you can read it before or instead of listening.
Several researchers that I coach on English skills are also working to develop their leadership skills. That’s why I was thrilled to discover a recent TED talk on the importance of stories to leaders. She emphasizes the way stories affect our brains—and the difference they can make to our understanding, trust, and decision-making.
Her last example really moved me-- & the leaders involved. She describes how a student’s story moved data-oriented university administrators to understand the human needs behind that data. It’s worth remembering if you have a cause you care about. She gives so many examples of how stories can help!
This past month I’ve been impressed with two simple ideas that solve several environmental problems at once. Both involve plantings that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and make homes and cities cooler, less polluted, and more pleasant. One also can make a significant contribution to feeding people nearby.
Cairo and Dhaka, like many large cities in Africa, Asia, & Latin America, are built very densely, with little space for trees or gardens. They are already hot and heavily polluted-- and likely to get even hotter over the next decades. But organizations in both cities have been working on a solution to these problems and more: rooftop gardens.
Dhaka has no room for trees, “but we have 500,000 rooftops capable of taking the load of a rooftop garden,” according to the founder of Green Savers.
Gardens on the roofs can cool the apartments below them while reducing ozone and other pollutants and growing herbs and vegetables to eat or to sell. It hasn’t been easy for these projects to get going (or find funding), but programs in schools are generating real interest. Check out the details here.
I couldn’t decide which of two short TED talks on planting home mini-forests to share, so I’m mentioning both. (Anyway, they’re only 13 minutes combined!) Both talks are by Shubhendu Sharma, a Toyota engineer who was so inspired by a demonstration forest-planting project at his factory that he planted one at his own home.
Then he founded a company to share the precise method with the world. (The details of that story are in a four-minute talk.
He also tells how people anywhere in the world can access the plans and get help to follow them (including a probe for remote soil testing) online.
The longer talk gives the details of the process, with plenty of photos of the lovely forests that take only a few years to develop. (You can hear a bird singing in his backyard mini-jungle, and see the fruits growing there.)
He explains the process, as well as the ecological principles and the effort that goes into choosing suitable local species—and all the benefits these forests provide, whether they are in home gardens, workplaces, resorts—or even a zoo… It almost makes me wish we lived in a place that could support such a forest! (I live in an area that’s naturally desert—but I can dream!)
I recently read about two fascinating psychology research studies. One looked at the risks of inflated opinions of ourselves. The second studied the value of reappraisal in helping people cope with Covid-19.
This BBC article discussed research studying the human tendency to overestimate our abilities. Researchers found that arrogance can be dangerous, often leading to bad decisions & even fatal accidents. Unfortunately, it also spreads easily to other people.
In fact, the article compares it to a contagious disease: “Being exposed to someone who was outrageously overconfident inflated a person’s own perceived ranking by around 17%.... the illusion of superiority, caught from one peer, can then be transmitted to another… [It can] permeate through a group from a single source.”
Being ‘exposed,’ ‘catching,’ or ‘transmitting’ something are words for talking about infection. The author doesn’t want anyone to miss the metaphor’s implications!
Did you notice the variety of synonyms for arrogance the writer used for variety? I found at least five synonyms or signs of arrogance mentioned: overconfidence, superiority complex, overestimate your relative standing, swagger, brag, boastful. Did I miss any?
The second article concerns how changing the way we look at our circumstances can make a big difference to our mental health. Researchers were looking for simple ways to help people deal with anxieties caused by the pandemic.
For this study, they had some of the test participants read about reappraisal. (Reappraisal is looking for the positive aspects of a situation. There’s a better explanation in the article.)
They found that the reappraisal techniques caused a major improvement for the people who learned them. The effect was statistically significant-- & they found it in all the countries studied.
Both of these studies built on previous, well-established research. They underline the real-life consequences of our attitudes. I hope yours is a little more positive after reading this!
I hope you've enjoyed reading some of these interesting articles in English!
I'd love to hear in the comments if you especially liked a particular article! Remember to keep reading in English whenever you can!