kitchen table math, the sequel: schoolbook simplification

Saturday, October 2, 2010

schoolbook simplification

a. Between 1860 and 1991, American publishers produced readers for the same grade at widely divergent LEX levels (e.g., in 1968, first grade readers were available between -68 and -31).

b. The most difficult readers were generally published before 1918. By modern standards, Professor McGuffy’s pre- and post- Civil War readers were very difficult.

c. After World War I, mean reader LEX levels for all grades were generally simplified.

d. After World War II, mean levels of readers for all grades but third became even simpler. These were the books used by the Baby Boomers and successive cohorts.

e. School publishers in Great Britain did not simplify heir first grade readers after World War II, implying that there was no compelling educational reason for American publishers to further simplify their readers.

f. Today’s mean sixth, seventh, and eighth grade readers are simpler than fifth grade readers were before World War II.

g. Sentences were also shortened, from about 20 words before World War II to about 14 words now in Grades 4—8.

h. Texts for grade x + 1 are typically more difficult (lexically) than those for grade x. When the early readers in a series are simplified by a publisher, so too (generally) are the readers for later grades.

American readers were rewritten after World War II for many reasons: to modernize their content and graphics; to incorporate principles from research in education, psychology and linguistics; to emphasize new kinds of social relations; and to respond to television, which was fast becoming an unprecedented rival for students’ attention. Those considerations required that readers be changed but not that they be simplified. Chall (1967) described the justifications given at the time for simplifying schoolbooks; they were to increase their accessibility for students and raise the level of reading success.

The extent of this simplification is notable. Apart from one extraordinarily simple text (LEX = -75), most first graders in the Baby Boom era used readers whose LEX levels were between -53 and -65; that is, on average, first grade readers were 12 LEX units less difficult than the readers used by their parents and grandparents between World Wars I and II and 15 LEX less difficult than the texts used by students in the same grade in Britian — where the students were a year younger in age. Since the empirical range for LEX is about 140 units, a 12 LEX simplification represents 9% of the empirical range. Workbooks are also designed by the same publisher as the readers and are used in conjunction with them. Given the workbooks’ format, we cannot measure their LEX levels. It is unlikely the publishers would make the workbooks harder than their own reader for the same grade level.

In simplifying the readers’ patterns of word choice, the publishers also shortened sentence length (Figure 5). From the fourth grade on, the average sentence length was contracted by about 6 words — this is the equivalent of dropping one to two clauses from every sentence. This reduced the students’ experience in working out the meanings of more complex sentences.

Widespread objections from teachers and parents, and media publicity over the simplified, often dull, Dick, Jane, and Spot-like readers, caused most publishers to acknowledge that they had oversimplified their first and second grade readers. In the 1963 —1991 era, the mean LEX levels for those grades was restored to pre-Worid War II levels — and without ill effects. While they made those early texts harder, the publishers made the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade readers even easier — to the point where these are now at their lowest level in American history.

Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores
Donald P. Hayes, Loreen T. Wolfer, Michael F. Wolfe
American Educational Research Journal
Summer 1996, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 489-508


ChemProf said...

It is really interesting to compare children's books from the turn of the (last) century to what is written now. The sentence structure of L. Frank Baum or Beatrix Potter is much more complex, and the vocabulary much richer than current children's lit. I wonder how The Wizard of Oz or Peter Rabbit would compare to current "grade level" assignments.

K9Sasha said...

I don't know how LEX compares to lexiles, but there is a website where you can look up the lexile level of children's books ( ). It lists average 3rd grade lexiles as 390 - 690, and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, by Beatrix Potter, as 890. There's your answer. Beatrix Potter is too hard for today's average 3rd graders to read.

Anonymous said...

LEX measures difficulty of vocabulary. Lexile measures difficulty of the text as a whole. The model for lexile isn't provided, but in general it seems to look first at average sentence length and then (weighted much less) difficulty of vocabulary.

I track both. You can find some LEX examples here:


You can also find a table with LEX scores and exile scores for a small number of books.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Actually, ChemProf, if you convert the semi-colons in the OZ books to periods, the sentence structure complexity gap closes. It is still present, but not nearly so extreme.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Lexile scores "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" as harder than "The Fellowship of the Ring."

I treat all these measures as guides, not as truth.

-Mark Roulo

K9Sasha said...

I agree that all measures of reading difficulty are merely guides, not the Truth. But they still give us some information.

Anonymous said...

Replace this, "http://www.misty", with:

-Mark Roulo