+ High School Texts Too Simple for SAT Preparation

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Marilyn Jager Adams, of the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Science at Brown University, describes studies that have shown that the difficulty of the text in popular reading textbooks have been reduced. 

In addition, the simplification of language in these books was temporarily aligned with declines in SAT scores.

A study by Hayes, Wolfer and Wolfe (1996) observed that the average length of the sentences in books published between 1963 and 1991 was shorter than that of books published between 1946 and 1962.

The mean length of sentences in the seventh- and eighth-grade textbooks had decreased from 20 words to 14 words.  Hayes observed that it was “the equivalent of dropping one or two clauses from every sentence.”

In addition, the sophistication of the books’ wording also declined. 

Hayes et al.’s analysis indicated that the wording of eighth-grade school books from 1963 forward was as simple as that in books used by fifth graders before 1963, while the wording of twelfth-grade literature texts published after 1963 had been simplified from what was found in seventh-grade books before 1963.

This disparity between what students were reading in school and the passages required by the SAT might well explain students’ poor performance on their college entrance exams.

More significantly, however, teachers were failing to provide instruction or experience with “grown-up” text levels. 

Jager Adams feels this is a risky course of action when we should be preparing students for the demands of college reading and life in the outside world.

In 2006 ACT, Inc. raised the concern again.  They reviewed the poor performance of students on its college entrance exam and saw that more than half the students fell below the 21-point cut-off for college readiness in reading ability.

ACT analyzed student performance and determined that the major stumbling block for the students was complex text.

The ACT reading assessment is designed around three levels of textual complexity.  For the students whose performance fell below the 21-point benchmark, average performance on the complex texts was at chance levels.

Students who scored beyond the 21-point benchmark were found to steadily increase their performance, but they reached levels comparable to performance on texts classified as moderate and simple only among students who scored at least 35 of the 36 points possible.

Hayes et al. found that it was especially school books for students in grades 4 and up that were simplified in the years after 1962. 

They also found that, although the wording of schoolbooks for children generally inreased with grade level across grades 1 through 8, the same wasn’t true of high school books.

Instead, across grades 9 through 12 (and including AP course texts), the difficulty levels of the literature books were shown to differ little from one another or from the grade 7 and grade 8 offerings.

The high school science texts were significantly more difficult than their English books.  But even among science texts, only those designed for AP coursework presented difficulty levels comparable to the benchmark reference: a newspaper article.

Hayes and his colleagues have continued to research on language.  They found that the sophistication of the language in every single scientific magazine and journal published between 1930 and 1990 increased dramatically.

Writes Jager Adams

If it is a national goal to inspire more students to become engineers and scientists, then shouldn’t the difficulty of our schoolbooks have increased alongside?  If a goal is to ensure that our students will be able to stay sufficiently informed about scientific progress to conduct business, reflect on policy, and manage their family’s health and education, then at a minimum shouldn’t the difficulty of our school books keep pace with the difficulty of scientific publications aimed at the general public?

But most telling, she feels, was Hayes’s comparison of spoken and written language.  For these analyses, they sampled language from TV shows, mothers’ speech to children ranging in age from infancy to adolescence, conversations among college-educated adults (including from the Oval Office), and adults providing expert witness testimony for legal cases.

Regardless of the source or situation and without exception, the lexical richness of the oral language samples was staggeringly impoverished compared to written texts.

In fact of all the oral language samples evaluated, the only one that exceeded even preschool books in lexical range was the language of expert witness testimony.

And so, writes Jager Adams

The difference between the wording of oral and written language must lie at the crux of the literacy challenge, as it points up a profound dilemma.  On the one hand, the extent of this disparity implies that the great majority of words needed for understanding written language is likely to be encountered — and thus can only be learned — through experience with written text.  On the other hand, research has taught us that written text is accessible — and thus permits learning — only if the reader or listener already knows the vast majority of words from which it is constructed.  Indeed, research indicates that reading with comprehension depends on understanding at least 95% of the words in a text.

source: Marilyn Jager Adams “The Challenge of Advanced Texts: The Interdependence of Reading and Learning” in Elfrieda H Hiebert (Ed.), “Reading more, reading better: Are American students reading enough of the right stuff? ” (Guilford, 2009)  

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