Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Increasing people's reading comprehension (a lost cause, I know)

Someone remarked (recently):

~It's as though our country's systematically stripping the dictionary and the thesaurus down to a very small pamphlet.~

I agree. Writing instructors and many editors promote this, directly or indirectly, in all the workshops and on all their blogs. They exhort you (although they'd NEVER use an "uppity" word like "exhort") to eschew (there I go again) any word that isn't in the basic teevee vocabulary. Beta readers circle words and say that they "pulled me out of the story." My response ("Then increase your reading comprehension so that you can garner a meaning from the context and look it up later") is generally said to be one of the reasons I "never succeed." Most people who are in the workplace now just tweet or give very brief e-mail responses to any question they're asked. If you leave a long, reasoned response to any query, you will get "tl;dr" as an answer and everyone will laugh at you. ("Too long; didn't read." I expect to get that in reply to this one, too, from the peanut gallery. At least they're not allowed to throw shells any more because of widespread peanut allergies.)

RANT: This triggers another rant of mine--the "it pulled me out of the story" whine that critique groups have been taught to yodel all the time. It makes me wonder who in the hell taught them to read in the first place. Because when I learned to read, I figured out pretty quickly that there would be a part of my mind that is seeing the "vivid, continuous dream" as projected on the mindscreen, and a part that is the Overmind, which is the part that can chuckle appreciatively at puns the author makes, or take note that the author has misused a comma or a word, or has made some other mistake with the mechanics of the text. The Overmind can take notes and notice such things, while the Watcher (for want of a better term) could continue enjoying the tale. I never got "pulled out of" a story. I might give UP on a story because the prose clunked along, or there were so many mechanical errors that I didn't think the author had any respect for her readers, or there were plot holes, and so forth. But I never got "pulled out of" a story by any mechanical error. I wish they'd stop teaching that phrase. /end rant

Anyway. The dumbing down of everything and the reading level of fifth grade that seems to be the new normal in so many places, sigh. I know of no way to counteract this trend. Our society is on its way to being postliterate, and is proud of that. I'm constantly trying to get people interested in being precise again, but they want sound bites and they don't want to have to think in order to process the input. Sad to see the English language, rich and expressive for hundreds of years, going to pot.

But, as they tell me, "that's the way it rolls! Language evolves! Deal with it!"


I think we should stop dumbing down books for ALL readers, including children and young adults. Acquaintances of mine have told me that their editors have asked them to remove/replace words that aren't commonplace--some words that are more evocative or more precise than others--citing the belief that readers would be "pulled out of the story" (aaarghh). Even when the protagonist is discovering some new pursuit and finding out the specialized vocabulary for that hobby or pursuit, readers aren't being given credit for being able to figure it out on the fly. As Sheldon Cooper might say, we need to be able to pick up the specialized vocabulary of computing or medicine or whatever so that we don't hear a brain surgeon referring to the eighth cranial nerve as "that grayish thing that looks like a loose rubber band" or whatnot.

Learning stuff doesn't hurt. I promise.

When I first became well enough heeled (in my first post-college job) to buy a Canon SLR (single lens reflex) camera (second-hand; I didn't make THAT much), I had no idea what they meant by f-stop or aperture or exposure. I could have given up, but instead I bought several popular photography magazines (which at the time were not yet all about digital stuff) and simply read through the articles, BLEEPING (as Sally Brown in "Peanuts" once said) through words that I couldn't get from the context. Soon my right brain started forming concepts around these words and phrases (f-stop, bracketing exposures, pushing film--wow, this tells you just how long ago all this took place, before digital imaging cameras were out there) and my left brain took hold of them to see whether it now had an educated guess or some structure to build on. It did, and by the end of the second week I could read a "glossary" and understand what they meant, sort of.

(Aperture is how big the "hole" is that lets light reach the film or digital sensor. F-stop is a way to describe standard sizes of aperture. Shutter speed means how long the film or digital sensor is exposed to the light while you are taking a photo. In bright daylight, 1/125 at f/11 is a good place to start if you have manual controls and want to try it out. And so forth.)

Now, did I get "pulled out of the story" by words I wasn't familiar with? No. I soldiered gamely on and was rewarded with new "nodes" in my internal knowledge base. This knowledge that we internalize is the basis for educated guesses of the type you see Jeopardy players making all the time. It is the basis of your wisdom and so on. It is a good thing to have. If you always look everything up on the 'net or using your smartphone, you will not develop this very useful tool. If you always quit or start crying when you encounter a word you aren't already familiar with, you'll never learn much, IMHO.

So! What should we teach new readers to do when they encounter a word they don't know? I must have been taught these things somehow, but I don't remember how. However, here they are.

Terms that could occur in even young children's books are those related to going around in boats (ships!) or airplanes or training animals and the like. Must we dumb these things down?

We don’t want to be unnecessarily obscure. But do good readers really stop in their tracks or derail entirely (note use of railroading terminology in metaphor!) when they come across a new word?

As a child, anytime I came across an unfamiliar and/or unusual word while reading, one of four things would happen:

(A) I would semi-skip over it. This is the best option for things like: “‘Luff, you lubbers! Haul on those sheets!' roared the captain, as the sail went aback”: I didn’t have to know the exact meaning of the words; I could see that the ship was in difficulties and the captain was worried, and that was enough. Luff and lubbers and aback, and their ilk, got stuffed into a mental category of "mysterious words that sailors use." (As did "ilk," in fact. And that’s pretty much where they still are. Well, not "ilk," but the true definition of that one might surprise you because that's not how it's typically understood. Now we're getting into connotation vs. denotation, and let's not, for now.)

In 'The Tale of Mr. Toad', I didn't worry when I came across: " 'My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years,' said Peter reflectively" - I got the point that Peter was criticizing Mr. Bouncer, and skipped on to the next bit, which was clear enough: "...'but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep and keep them for breakfast.'" I used to read this book aloud to my teddy bears when I was five. I don't know whether they understood it, but they were unfailingly polite and attentive.

(B) I would pick up the meaning from the context. On reading that the Flopsy Bunnies fell asleep because lettuce is "soporific," I didn’t go to the dictionary. Neither did I make a conscious mental note that soporific must mean something to do with making you sleepy; the word merely took on a contextual color, or flavor, which I would recall the next time I encountered it. Children are good at making these associative leaps because this is how they learn their own language anyway. It may lead to the occasional misapprehension, but such things are generally cleared up by experience. (Of course, you may say "muzzled" or "my-zulled" for "misled," because you don't connect the written word with the one you've heard. But you'll eventually figure that out.)

(C) I would ignore the word entirely and carry on, which is what I still do if I’m reading, say, a 19th-century literary essay with bits of original Greek poetry dropped in here and there. Eventually, it might float back to the top and I would take a guess at what it meant and later check that in a dictionary or by asking someone knowledgeable.

(D) I could look the word up in the dictionary, either immediately (if I had a Kindle, that would have been the way) or via writing it down for later, or I could carry the book to my mother and ask, “What does this word mean?”

All four of these options are perfectly legitimate and we ought to be making sure children feel OK about employing them. A healthy reader should be like a healthy cross-county runner whose steady pace is not interrupted by obstacles and stumbling blocks. A confident child reader should have the toughness and elasticity to leap over the odd unusual word and keep going. And how are they going to acquire that confidence if every text they read has been raked and weeded flat?

An acquaintance offered this commentary:

When I was young, the King James Bible was standard reading for everyone. At the age of seven, my classmates and I were expected to learn pieces of prose and poetry by heart. One week it was this:

“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. They lived with their mother, old Mrs. Rabbit, in a sandbank underneath the roots of a very big fir tree…”

The next week, it was this passage:

“The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice; lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew,
neither let there be rain upon you, nor fields of offerings,
For there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away…”

I can still recite the whole of David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, and I loved it as much when I was seven as I do now – maybe even more, in fact. “They were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions. . . .”

Did I know what "uncircumcised" meant? Of course not; I didn’t have a clue and didn't need to at that age. Certainly no grown-up offered to explain it to me. IN CONTEXT, however, I understood perfectly well that it was a pejorative. Clearly the daughters of the uncircumcised were – for David – the daughters of people he disapproved of. That was enough for me at the time; nor does a clearer understanding of the procedure of circumcision add anything essential to this beautiful and troubled lament.

And Gath and Askelon and Gilboa: where were they? Again I didn’t know, but again it was obvious from the context they were towns or cities, and their names were beautiful – and just hearing about them made the world wider and more mysterious and exciting.

I kind of hate that they don't make people memorize and recite any more. I can see where the Bible would be controversial in school (although not in Sunday schools, I should hope), but Shakespeare should not be. It would be cool to have children spouting quotations from A Midsummer Night's Dream. What if those cadences stuck with them? Wow.

Don't worry; I'm not suggesting we return to making children learn great swaths of the Bible by heart. But I am suggesting that the best way to learn something is to do it yourself, not to have it always done for you. Instead of worrying about individual words and their possible difficulty, shouldn’t we encourage children to throw themselves into a story and keep going to the end in spite of the odd word they don’t quite understand? Learning not to be afraid of strange words is exactly like getting down the length of the swimming pool without minding the odd wave that hits you in the face.

You discover your own ability, and it’s more fun that way.

One of the reasons I enjoy some books so much (like Pat Walsh's The Crowfield Curse) was that the author makes no attempt to explain all the strange words. At the very end the glossary allows readers to look back, and I am often pleased that I was mostly right about my guesses.

Part of the wonder of reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for yourself at age eight is discovering and then using unfamiliar words and phrases. To deprive children of this joy is to do them a disservice. Descriptive, evocative language is not to the taste of the mainstream reader any more, but it sets a feeling and an atmosphere just by the sound and rhythm, whether or not the word itself is fully understood immediately.

If we only exposed children to words they already knew, nobody would ever learn to speak. I feel very strongly about this. I totally agree with those who talk about the flavor of the unfamiliar and being able to cobble together the general gist. Also the delights of the dictionary. I would quite often go to look something up and end up spending an hour reading the dictionary instead. I know a five-year-old who has picked up on his parents' rather florid way of talking to each other (Renfaire types, they are) and uses phrases such as "Here's a radical notion."

The universal dumbing down of everything reduces people's ability to figure out new things and simply enrages those who are trying to figure out what they really meant by the dumbed-down stuff.

Here. Here's a fifteen-dollar word for you.

hebdomadal (heb-DOM-uh-dl): adj., occurring or appearing every seven days, weekly.
Also, in an obsolete sense, lasting seven days. Not that this isn't rare itself. Contrast with diurnal, daily, from the same source. Borrowed in the early 17th century from Latin hebdomadalis (long A mark on the A), from hebdomad, a period of seven, from the Greek stem form of hebdomás, week, from hébdomos, seventh, from heptá, seven.

NOW IF YOU HAD USED THIS WORD JUST TO USE IT . . . maybe people could carp.

OR if you ran around saying, "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen."

But just using a normal vocabulary should not be the death knell for a book.

If you are ever assigned one of those "read a book and write down every unfamiliar word, then look it up later and give definitions," read Harlan Ellison's essays. I never read one of them (An Edge in my Voice, etc.) without encountering several rarely used words that SHOULD be used more often. He is so erudite. He doesn't write much nowadays. We shall not see that sort of writer again, IMHO, and I mourn the loss.

Meanwhile . . . why not increase your reading comprehension? Or go back to re-reading TWILIGHT. Whatever floats thy boat.