What happens when the same historical information is written by textbook writers, linguists, academics and magazine writers? What does reading comprehension have to do with the quality of the writing? Is this something that can be measured? As a matter of fact, a study was done in 1988 that still holds up well today.
The writing in question was two 400-word excerpts from a high-school history textbook. The experimenters asked three pairs of writers, two linguists, two college English teachers and two former Time-Life magazine writers to rewrite the passages to make them more understandable to the students. Three hundred eleventh-grade students read the original material and the revisions and were tested on how much they recalled. The results? Students who read the linguists’ and English teachers’ versions did not recall much more or less than they had from the original texts. But students who read the magazine writers version recalled 40 percent more than the original! Naturally, the linguists and English teachers wanted another crack at a rewrite but although the second experiment showed a little improvement, the magazine writers were still twice as effective at communicating. In other words, good writing is memorable. And command of the English language doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good writer.
Reading teachers have a measurement, called “lexiles (L)” to evaluate the complexity or the level of difficulty of texts. There is another myth that such leveled reading is easier when it comes to comprehension than good writing. Gerri K. Songer, Education Chair/ Illinois Township High School District 214, measured the lexile level of some sample paragraphs from the recent PARRC assessment test and came to the conclusion that “[for students] to independently read the most complex of these passages, [they] will need to read at 1470L by April of their junior year.” As a comparison, I measured a few of my entries here on my blog and they average about 1000L. She also came to some conclusions about the reading levels stipulated by the Common Core State Standards:
- CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that does not follow standard convention rules (i.e. text without an identifiable pattern).
- CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that is unclear, misleading, old, unfamiliar, ironic, and figurative (text that doesn’t say what it means).
- CSSS finds it more desirable for students to read text with which few people can identify in terms of life experience.
- CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that has multiple meanings with information that is implied, hidden, or obscure.
And she sums it up: “CCSS advocates utilizing text for educational purposes that follows no pattern, that is unclear and misleading, that few people can identify with, and that has multiple meanings.” I think we're teaching kids to read bad writing. Yet they use excerpts from iNK authors for the standardized tests!
We created the Nonfiction Minute to show good writing to those who buy in to the standardized material used in classrooms full of diverse individual humans. We include an audio file of the author reading his/her Minute so less fluent readers can access the content, as well as visuals (photos, charts, illustrations, even videos). We welcome any reading researcher who wants to evaluate our effectiveness. (Write me at: email@example.com.) We have all kinds of stats on page views, which doesn't distinguish that each single page view could be a class of twenty-five.
This past week we had 15,751 page views and more than 4,500 new visitors.
Literature has been defined as "the single passionate voice." Its humanity connects us to the writer just as a teacher's humanity connects him/her to students. Humanity is the common denominator of all authentic communication.