WASHINGTON, D.C. (2/24/00)- One thing many teachers and students
would agree upon, textbooks are not as good as they could be. The problem,
according to new study presented at at the annual meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, might be traced to the early grades.
Donald P. Hayes, Cornell professor of sociology emeritus, developed a system
called LEX (text accessibility/lexical difficulty) to rate the level of reading
difficulty of textbooks. His research indicates a disturbing trend traceable
to the period following World War II, when textbook publishers began "dumbing
down" their offering in all subjects in the elementary, middle and high
school grades. As a result of creating less challenging reading materials
in subjects such as social studies and history, students are ill prepared
to take on the rigors of language required to learn and understand scientific
materials. Indeed, he notes that many American students shun high school science
for "easier" subjects, because of this trend.
"After World War II, we simplified books for history, English and other nonscience
subjects by shortening the sentences and avoiding rare, unfamiliar words that
might challenge readers to learn new concepts. The rarer the word, the more
specific the concept, Hayes noted..
"The students are not prepared for science texts with all the domain-specific
words, the equations and the longer sentences. There is a gulf between the
two bodies of work in the schools, and the gulf isn't getting smaller," Hayes
said. Besides becoming virtual 'science illiterates', these undereducated
students also become vulnerable to pseudoscience.
Hayes is not suggesting that science textbooks be simplified. Rather he proposes
that students be exposed to more challenging books of all kinds before they
reach high school. He is campaigning for a large-scale experiment in textbook
purchasing to test his proposition. He proposes an experiment for large school
districts that are planning to replace outdated, nonscience textbooks. Half
the students the first year of the experiment would receive new, more difficult
books with rarer words in more complex sentence structures, while the other
half would continue to use the old, oversimplified books. Subsequent testing
after the first year should find the students who read more challenging books
to be among the top scorers for their grade levels. In the later school years,
this should translate into higher SAT scores, Hayes predicts.
"As science becomes more sophisticated, the language of science inevitably
becomes more specific," Hayes said. "Many American students are not prepared
for the level of difficulty that they will encounter in science texts. They
struggle through the required science courses -- not learning as much as they
could -- and only the most able students continue in science. The drop-outs
are not getting as much science as students in other developed countries.
This increases their vulnerability to weird pseudoscience and anti-science."
The Cornell scientist used his LEX to evaluate schoolbooks used in the United
States from the 1700s to the present time. He observed a steady trend in oversimplification
beginning in American schools after World War II. He believes this coincides
with declines in SAT (standardized admissions test) verbal scores among students
who are not being challenged by appropriately difficult reading materials.
(text accessibility/lexical difficulty)
ratings of selected publications and transcripts
|Newspapers U.S. and U.K.
|Ranger Rick (science for children)
|Television (primetime shows)
|Farmer talking to dairy cows
|Source: Donald P. Hayes, Department of Sociology, Cornell