Thursday, September 21, 2006

Dumbing Down Children’s Book Easy Readers

There are two kinds of dumbing down that happens to children’s reading materials, and I worry that these things are lowering the standards for children's reading ability and teaching children to read.

The first way a book can be dumbed down is that new books are written with simpler language, smaller words, lower word count and other techniques, and then are marketed toward certain age ranges of children. It is easy to compare older children’s books to the books that are published today and to see that over time the books have gotten more and more simple.

While teaching reading has actually started with younger aged children, what the children read at certain levels has actually DECREASED. In other words, while in the 1970s a child started to be taught to read in First Grade, what they were reading in third grade was of a certain level, while today children begin to be taught to read in some preschools at age 2, 3, or 4, and public school Kindergarten is also the place where reading is taught. However what the third graders are reading NOW is dumbed down compared to what they used to read back in the 1970s or 1980s or even in the 1990s. I ask you: does this make any sense? I don't understand it!

Now, about books intended to be read by children for reading practice, they are called “easy readers” or “readers” or “basal readers”. Those readers are given levels that indicate to parents, librarians, school teachers and homeschoolers what age range of children is supposed to be reading that book. This is a very convenient way to communicate what the content of the book, what difficulty level the book has so that the adult can match the appropriate book to the child.

The second way a book can be dumbed down is when a book is written for the purpose of a child reading it to themselves as reading practice has the level changed, but the text remains the same. What I am talking about is something I noticed a few days ago while looking at books that I own and while listing them on PaperBackSwap to trade. I noticed that Random House publishers have changed some of the readers to re-label them as higher reading levels. In discussing this with a friend she also noticed on Amazon that there is a new level 5 for Random House. I am speaking of the Random House series called “Step Into Reading”. The book’s contents/text remains the same but the cover has changed slightly. The older books look like a regular illustrated cover with the title and author and illustrator, and a little trademarked box stating “STEP into Reading” followed by the level. “Dinosaur Hunters” by Kate McMullan that I hold in my hands is labeled as a Step 4 book for grades 2-4, ISBN 039481150X. Today for sale on Amazon is the same book but with a new cover with a large arrow going across the top pointing to a bright green box with the book’s level which now is stated as level 5 “ready for chapters”. Note that Amazon’s textual description of the book still states this is a Step 5 book while the cover states “Level 5”. So there you have it, the same book published in 1989 as a Step 4 book is relabeled in 1996 as a Step 5 book. (It is not just this one book, each Step Into Reading book that I own has been relabeled.)

Hungry, Hungry Sharks: was level 2, now level 3 (Random House)

Dinosaur Hunters: was level 4, now level 5 (Random House)

Astronaut Living in Space: level 2 (DK Eyewitness Publishers, England)

The problem with re-labeling the reading level of the reader books is not adding a level 5 per se but when re-leveling the lower grades it is problematic. For example what used to be for grades 2-3 is now for grades 3-4. In effect what is happening is that children in a certain grade are somehow now supposed to be reading on a lower level than when the book was originally written and published. Even more problematic is to ponder why, in a time when nearly all children attend preschool and when formal reading instruction has been pushed from Grade 1 to Kindergarten (and sometimes also into preschool) why the children are not reading better, earlier and why anyone would want to lower the standards? I would love to know the answer to this.

I was speaking to a friend about this and I told her that among publishers of easy readers the content fluctuates. For example the very good DK Eyewitness readers have a much higher word count for their Level 2 books than Random House has for their Level 4 books. Why would that be? My friend then reminded me that DK is a British publisher. Could it be that one issue there is that America has dumbed down their expectations for children’s reading ability while England has not?

People, this is scary. Dumbing down is happening all over America.

More people need to be talking about how American society is dumbing down our children. Here are some people who are talking about it:

Comedian Carlos Mencia with his television show Mind of Mencia features lowering the standards as fodder for his jokes on a regular basis

Comedian Carlos Mencia sings the “Dee Dee Dee Theme Song” which is about lowering the standards which starts in American public schools. You can watch the "Dee Dee Dee Theme Song" video on You Tube (free).

John Stossel’s hour long documentary “Stupid in America” aired on 20/20 in January and September of 2006. You can watch a taped copy of the show on You Tube (free).

In the spring of 2006 mainstream Oprah did a 2 hour expose of the “crisis” in American education, featuring Bill and Melinda Gates called “What Bill and Melinda Gates Want You To Know”.

President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act which obviously was/is an attempt to help American public education students get a high quality education continues to be bashed by people. Some teachers call for its repeal, and the Connecticut teacher’s union is suing the government about it. I am befuddled as to why anyone would want to not improve a flawed system.

Award winning John Taylor Gatto, a 26 year veteran New York City school teacher, used the term in one of his books “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling”. It is a must-read. Here are some reviews of the book on Gatto’s website. Some of his speeches can be read from the links on this website if you’d like to get a taste of what John Taylor Gatto writes about.

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1 comment:

Libby said...

This is fascinating. I wish more people cared about this topic and more to the point, DID something about it!

I think it begins early: children learn language, first, by listening to adults talk....and the less they hear, the less variety there is in what they hear, the poorer their language skills will be.

By the time some children get to school, they are already behind others--and the gap widens as they go through the educational system. There was a really interesting show on NPR a few months ago about the widening gap between rich and poor children when it comes to reading. Maybe a fairer way to put that would be children who are homeschooled or in good schools vs. children who are in bad schools, but that comes down to the parents' interest in education, which is often tied to income, too.
I don't think many would doubt that very poor children with uneducated parents have little chance of getting a good education.

I'm a children's author who volunterrs in schools, visits schools, and cares passionately about children and reading. Down with dumbing down!

--Libby Koponen