A revealing experiment in revamping `dry and boring' textbooks

A few years ago, Michael Graves, professor of education at the University of Minnesota, was sitting at his kitchen table in the wee hours of the morning, discussing high school textbooks with a colleague from out of town. Dr. Graves had long felt that textbooks needed improvement. They were too ``dry and boring.'' He doubted if most students would open a textbook if not required to. The books weren't written well enough.

The discussion turned to the subject of mass media writing, as in Time or Newsweek magazines. Here were publications that millions of people not only read, but paid to read.

Of course, their medium has little truck with ``a textbook approach.'' Their writers are rarely specialists. And their editors often have no academic credentials. Still, they were professional communicators. Graves found himself asking how such a writer or editor would critique a high school textbook.

Better yet: What if he or she were asked to revise a textbook? What changes would be made? How different, for example, would a page from a typical history textbook look after attention from a magazine editor?

Then Graves indulged in a final bit of heresy: Why not ask a magazine editor to revise a piece of textbook writing and then test students on both versions. Which version would students retain the best? Which would yield the highest content scores?

Like many ideas that seem exciting and brilliant around midnight, this one, Graves later realized, would be tough to carry out. And after a few days of talking it up on campus, he forgot about it.

But a year later, Graves received a phone call. It was from Wayne Slater, a colleague who had moved to the University of Maryland, and who was teaching a graduate course in which an ex-Time magazine staffer, Teresa Redd-Boyd, was enrolled. Mr. Slater had told Ms. Redd-Boyd about Graves's idea. She offered to help and to recruit ex-Time-Life editor Martin Mann, who had just retired.

Graves and Slater also found two pairs of academic professionals: two text linguists, who study word relationships, and two English composition professors at a major university, any of whom could easily be tapped by a publisher to write or revise a textbook.

All three pairs were given a 300-word passage on America's entry into the Vietnam war, taken from a popular high school text (see original and revision on page B3).

They were asked to revise the passage, making it ``more readable, understandable, and memorable.'' None of the test groups knew the others were at work.

Each of the revisions was read by more than 200 high school students, who also read the original and then were tested to see how much they could remember about each version.

The final results, according to Slater, ``were unbelievable.''

The linguists' revision helped students improve their retention by about 2 percent over the original text. Students tested on the composition teachers' version remembered 2 percent less material. Those students reading the magazine writer and editor's version, however, improved by a whopping 40 percent.

Graves and Slater point out that in revising, the text linguists talked about simplifying, clarifying, and smoothing the flow.

The composition instructors reorganized the text, made subheadings, examined it for coherence and emphasis.

The Time staffers, however, took a more radical approach.

They wrote of their initial response to the passage: ``We were aghast. It was some of the driest prose we ever had the displeasure of reading.'' It was too vague, they said, about things that were interesting -- too specific about things people wouldn't care about.

In Slater's view, the most important changes the magazine people made were in illustrating why and how particular events were significant. Also, their passage had a ``voice,'' he says. It didn't sound ``as if it were written by a committee.''

Graves and Slater realize their study is far from a scientific test case. But they do say it provides a common-sense lesson: Colorful language and imagery, together with a sense of comedy, drama, and irony, make for good and fruitful reading.

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