Children's texts: Are students reading the right stuff?

To some educators, the way to get children to read is simple: keep it short, keep it colorful, keep it relevant. But critics of that approach say it explains a lot about American students' disappointing literacy skills. And their dispute is homing in on an important part of the ongoing reading wars gripping education: what kids read, and how it's taught.

Fourth-grade teacher Liz Leiber has no doubts about what works for her. "What do you know about nourishment?" challenges Ms. Leiber on a recent morning at the James Otis School in East Boston.

Her class stares intently at the circled word on the blackboard, then fires off answers: "It's food." "It provides strength."

As they get warmed up, words like nitrogen, nectar, and environment pepper the dialogue. But this isn't science class. It's reading, and the subject is carnivorous plants. Leiber, an educator for 34 years, has found that interdisciplinary topics spruce up class and engage her pupils.

Once upon a time, the typical primary school reading class revolved around classic literature - biographies, poems, or essays by Edgar Allan Poe or Ralph Waldo Emerson. The goal was to guide students through rich tales that provided increasingly challenging vocabulary and structure. But today, some say that progression is being challenged on a number of fronts.

Publishers are aiming for a product eye-catching enough to compete with computers and TV - as well as to reach a broad audience with varied reading abilities. They've delved into interdisciplinary topics and multicultural tales that use specific vocabulary. Many educators say the changes have offered children livelier and more relevant readers. But critics charge that publishers have lost sight of what readers should do: teach fluent English.

Concern about low reading scores across the US has prompted a sometimes antagonistic debate over how best to help children gain an edge in this gateway skill. According to "Market Education: The Unknown History," a 1999 report on school achievement, student performance has stagnated or fallen in most subjects since 1970, with the largest decline occurring in literacy. And although National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores went up in 1998, they had been flat or declining since 1980, despite major reading initiatives.

What children read, of course, is a key part of the issue. About 80 percent of teachers rely on texts or combine them with other reading selections, putting readers at the top of the list of solutions.

"The average middle-school textbook is only marginally more complex than a comic book," says Andrew Coulson, senior research associate at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center in Bowling Green, Ohio, and author of the "Market Education" report. "The ideas and [vocabulary] have been dumbed down. Today there is very little that will challenge the top-quarter students."

Those who charge that texts have been "dumbed down" say the process started about 1920. Works by renowned American and English authors in the 1800s and early 1900s were phased out when public schools adopted a formal age-based grade system, according to the "Market Education" report. One reason is that kids didn't learn at the same pace, so texts were simplified for slower students.

In the mid-1940s and early '50s, publishers added 7th- and 8th-grade readers to the traditional 1st- through 6th-grade sequence, says Donald Hayes, a professor of sociology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. But instead of introducing more-advanced material, he says, they stretched out the original content to fit the new series.

"[This] restricted the language experience of children," Mr. Hayes says. "It's interesting that the [SAT] verbal and not math scores have fallen over the past 30 years. My guess is that the simplification of textbooks had something to do with that."

Some critics have targeted unskillful attempts at multiculturalism as a key culprit. Texts have been simplified because publishers are catering to more culturally diverse classrooms, argues Sandra Stotsky, author of "Losing Our Language" and a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Stotsky studied readers and noticed many ethnic, non-English terms. She was appalled that words like "mozzarella" appeared on vocabulary lists. "The purpose of a reader is to teach reading," Stotsky says. "If you are too obsessed with showing too many social groups ... what gets left for last is intellectual and literary demands."

But publishers defend their work as in tune with a modern, more practical approach to education, and point out that they still include some classic literature. Texts with more nonfiction, shorter pieces, and more graphics better address working-world demands, say publishers. Reading class is also meant to help children understand timelines, charts, and newspapers, says Becky Mulzer, director of Houghton Mifflin's reading and language arts marketing.

These boosters are backed by teachers who say the change in textbooks has not been for the worse. Culturally diverse content is refreshing and doesn't detract from academic goals, they say.

Back in the Dick-and-Jane era, characters were white and middle class, but now 50 percent of US families aren't like that, says Fred Roffo, reading facilitator at the Otis School. He's taught for 25 years at the elementary school, which is culturally mixed. Literature today features kids from varying backgrounds, he says. "But [readers] are not overly concentrated. [Culture] is good as long as it doesn't detract from academics."

Educators also fear that complex texts may cause slower readers to get turned off. "Long ago there was a more labored description," says Marilyn Turchi, a resource center director at the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Ill. "A lot of stuff just has a more interesting style."

Teachers add that students today often are grouped by ability, so brighter kids are given more challenging content. Notes Leiber, "On the whole, [textbook difficulty] has gone down, but children who read fast aren't ignored."

*Stephanie Cook is a member of the Monitor staff.

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