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Why Johnny can't do science: Simplified books have left him struggling for words, Cornell social scientist worries

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Lulled into lexical laziness by years of oversimplified schoolbooks, American students are in for a shock when they reach high school: Science books often are too hard for them to read, according to a Cornell University sociologist.

Donald P. Hayes, Cornell professor of sociology emeritus, has formulated a plan to close the classroom language gap between science books and dumbed-down texts for nonscience subjects. Reporting at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today (Feb. 21), Hayes and Loreen Wolfer emphasized that too many American students shun high school science for "easier" subjects, and they pass into adulthood as poorly educated, science illiterates with a vulnerability to pseudoscience. Wolfer is a former graduate student in sociology at Cornell, who is now on the faculty of University of Scranton.

"They are not prepared for science texts with all the domain-specific words, the equations and the longer sentences. There is a gulf between the two bodies of work in the schools, and the gulf isn't getting smaller," Hayes said.

However, the answer is not to simplify science textbooks, according to the sociologist, whose computerized LEX system evaluates texts for accessibility or lexical difficulty. Instead, Hayes said, students can prepare to learn science by reading more challenging books of all kinds before they reach high school. He suggests a large-scale experiment in textbook purchasing to test his proposition.

Hayes' report was part of a session on "Enviroshock: Systematic Appraisal of America's Health, Capability, Productivity and Crime." (His LEX ratings for selected publications can be found at the end of this news release.)

"After World War II, we simplified books for history, English and other nonscience subjects by shortening the sentences and avoiding rare, unfamiliar words that might challenge readers to learn new concepts," Hayes recalled. "The rarer the word, the more specific the concept."

Reading unchallenging books might get pupils through eighth grade -- "Like, y'know, specifics? Hey, whatever" -- but hard times are ahead, Hayes worries.

"As science becomes more sophisticated, the language of science inevitably becomes more specific," Hayes said. "Many American students are not prepared for the level of difficulty that they will encounter in science texts. They struggle through the required science courses -- not learning as much as they could -- and only the most able students continue in science. The drop-outs are not getting as much science as students in other developed countries. This increases their vulnerability to weird pseudoscience and anti-science."

In the past, Hayes has used his LEX measure of reading difficulty to criticize publications with so many rare words that only the rare specialist could penetrate the lexical flak. LEX evaluations are centered around newspaper text, at zero, with more difficult reading matter receiving higher, positive ratings and easier material receiving lower, negative LEX numbers. For example, scientific articles in the journal Nature, between 1946 and 1994, receive a LEX rating of +25.7, whereas Science articles from the same period are somewhat easier to read, at +20.1 on the LEX scale. The system also works with transcripts of speech: A LEX evaluation of Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes found the former president speaking to aide Ron Ziegler at --35.7 and Ziegler responding at --30.7.

The Cornell sociologist also applied LEX to evaluate schoolbooks used in the United States from the 1700s to the present time. He blames oversimplified basal readers, which appeared in American schools after World War II, for a decline in SAT (standardized admissions test) verbal scores among students who, he says, were not challenged by appropriately difficult reading material.

Most schools recognized the Dick-and-Jane dumbness of the post-World War II basal readers, and they replaced the worst with more challenging texts in grades one through three, Hayes acknowledges. But because of the cost, many school systems never upgraded textbooks for grades four through eight, and American students continue to breeze through texts that are greatly simplified compared with what their peers are reading in other developed countries or what their grandparents were reading before World War II.

"We tried to stretch out their education and hoped they would get there by graduation," Hayes said. "We failed to challenge the students, by offering them oversimplified books and by delaying the introduction of uncommon words."

So Hayes proposes an experiment for large school districts that are planning to replace outdated, nonscience textbooks. Half the students the first year of the experiment, he suggests, would receive new, more difficult books with rarer words in more complex sentence structures, while the other half would continue to use the old, oversimplified books. Subsequent testing

after the first year should find the students who read more challenging books to be among the top scorers for their grade levels, Hayes predicts. The next year, when all the dumbed-down books are gone, almost all students in the school district should test better, he said.

And when students in the textbook experiment are ready to take SATs, their increased familiarity with rare words and difficult concepts should be reflected in the results. Educators and parents might read a word that rarely appears in the same sentence with SAT scores: rising.


Dumb and Dumber

LEX (text accessibility/lexical difficulty) ratings of selected publications and transcripts

Source: Donald P. Hayes, Department of Sociology, Cornell University)

Newspapers (English language, U.S. and U.K.) LEX= 0

Nature (main research articles) +34.7

New England Journal of Medicine +27.0

New Scientist +7.2

Popular Science +4.6

Time +1.6

The Economist +0.9

National Geographic -0.6

New Yorker -3.9

Modern Maturity -5.0

Smithsonian -9.1

Ranger Rick (science for children) -18.4

Television (primetime shows) -36.4

Winnie the Pooh -43.3

Mothers' talk to children (age 5) -45.8

Farmer talking to dairy cows -56.0

Pre-primer (Houghton Mifflin, 1956) -80.5

Second-grade school books (1727-1945) -39.0

Second-grade schoolbooks (1946-1962) -53.0

Second-grade schoolbooks (1963-1991) -42.8

Eighth-grade schoolbooks (1905-1945) -13.4

Eighth-grade schoolbooks (1946-1962) -19.7

Eighth-grade schoolbooks (1963-1995 ) -22.0

High school science texts -0.5

High school English books -22.3