kitchen table math, the sequel: Vocabulary Reduction, a Deliberate Dumbing Down

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Vocabulary Reduction, a Deliberate Dumbing Down

In Dolch's 1948 book, "Problems in Reading," he states on page 255:
Give children books suited to their abilities and most reading difficulties will be solved.
In Dolch's 1945 "A Manual for Remedial Reading," p. 428,
There is nowadays an evergrowing demand in all fields for textbooks that are easier to read. Teachers especially are making themselves heard in this demand. Publishing companies are rising to the occasion and are revising old books or issuing new books which have simpler reading matter. As soon as an easier book is adopted, many children become satisfactory readers who were classed as unsatisfactory before. Children who were serious remedial cases become less serious.
In my recent post about Dolch and the 4th grade slump, Mark Roulo had an excellent link to this article:

Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores by Donald P. Hayes, Loreen T. Wolfer, Michael F. Wolfe Cornell University

I saw a great table years ago in one of the books I read showing exact numbers of unique words in schoolbooks over the years that correlated with the introduction of whole language, but cannot find it. The above link has better graphs, though, the source I had was just numbers!

Geralding E. Rodgers in her book “The History of Beginning Reading” (e-version available from Author House) has an entire chapter in this book called: "The Reduction of Vocabulary, Oversimplification of Syntax, And Banishing of True Phonics." The whole chapter (her whole book, actually) is worth reading, here are a few good quotes from pages 1047 - 1048:

The record of reading texts which were published after 1925 confirms that the push after 1925 was emphatically on first grade and primary reading, and on the enormous reduction of vocabulary in primary- grade reading books. Of the seventeen series Smith listed as post-1925 series, eight covered only the first three grades. As Smith was not the slightest bit embarrassed to make very clear, the size of the vocabulary lists in those books had dropped sharply after 1925. It is an astonishing fact that, by 1934 when her book first appeared in print, the reduction of vocabulary in primary-grade books of which she boasted had actually been sold to gullible government school administrators as an “improvement."

After 1921, the reduction of vocabulary had been largely based on Thorndike’s The Teacher’s Word Book, Teachers College Press, published in 1921, which provided the first guide to the ten thousand highest-frequency words. For the first time, with the use of that book, it was possible to reduce vocabulary systematically in reading texts through the third or fourth grades.

Complex syntax was also removed from materials, but very deliberately in the 1920’s, in the name of reducing “readability” levels. Without exposure to such complex syntax in reading materials to provide necessary practice in its use, the ability of American students to handle complex syntax has dropped. This is demonstrated by their weak written compositions.

On page 216, Smith referred to the sharp reduction of words in primers and first readers between 1922 and 1928, and the even greater reduction by 1931. In 1922, nine of twelve had vocabularies ranging from 377 up to 630. In 1931, none ranged that high. Instead, the highest of the seven was 333, and the lowest 274.

Palisadesk also had some excellent comments on my first Dolch post where she explained all the things that need to be taught explicitly for reading.

Webster's Speller followed by Parker's readers taught all of these steps. Phonics and spelling were explicitly taught, syllables were explicitly taught, and the readers had pronunciations and definitions of difficult words. His First Reader also breaks words up by syllables. On my Webster page, I explain how to use Webster's Speller and have links to Parker's Readers.

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