| Share: | More

Have the texts of beginning reading been dumbed down over the past 50 years?

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 11 June 2010

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, University of California, Berkeley

In 2010, the answer for K-2 texts is an unequivocal no. In fact, the texts that K-2 children see in 2010 are significantly more difficult since 1990. The answer may be a different one for grades 3+ 1 and I hasten to add that Jeanne Chall was correct when she described first-grade texts as too easy in 1967. At that point, mainstream basal reading programs moved at a snail’s pace. The 1962 version of the first-grade Scott Foreman (SF) program in which Dick and Jane figured prominently had a vocabulary of 323 unique words that were repeated over 120 texts. That’s not very many unique words for 120 texts.

In the early 1970s, the responses of publishers to Chall’s criticisms with more difficult texts were not a success in the marketplace and publishers returned to even more tedious programs (Hiebert, 2005). But eventually, Chall’s conclusions influenced policies and practice. The turn-around time and the interpretations of research were not the ones that Chall might have anticipated in 1967 but, when they finally occurred, Chall’s observations of easy beginning reading texts were no longer apropos.

It was the 1985 national report, Becoming a Nation of Readers (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985), that served as the impetus for a change in beginning reading textbooks. Readability formulas, Anderson et al. concluded, were dumbing down textbooks and students’ literacy levels and interests. The report called for an end to the pernicious stronghold of readability formulas on the content and style of American reading textbooks. Not a single study within this research base had been conducted with beginning readers. But the report hit a chord with American educators and within three years the nation’s two largest states—California and Texas—issued their mandates: No reading textbooks controlled by readability formulas would be adopted with state funds; texts had to have authentic literature at all levels.

Within grade-one texts, the leap in number of unique words was astronomical: from 5 new, unique words per 100 words of text in 1983 to 25 (or more) in 1993. A high number of unique words means that few words are repeated. Since a small group of words (e.g., the, of, and, to) account for 33% of the total words in written English, that means that many words didn’t appear very often. At least 40% of the words in the first-grade texts in Texas appeared a single time (Hiebert, 2005; Foorman et al., 2004).

Texas (2000) and California (2002) replaced the “authentic text” mandate for beginning reading components with a decodable text requirement: 80% of the words in Texas’s first-grade programs needed to be “decodable” and 90% in California. Within these mandates, it was the phoneme (e.g., /b/, /i/) that was the unit of repetition. Texts were judged to be decodable if a phoneme had been introduced in an instructional lesson in the teacher’s lesson. The assumption was: “once taught, then learned.” Since it was the phoneme and not the word that needed to be repeated, the number of unique words has remained high in beginning reading programs. The “decodable” policy has meant that the number of rare, unique words has increased—words such as nab, sax, clan, nip, jig, sip, and yip.

Unlike 1967 when beginning reading texts were justifiably described as too easy (e.g.: 323 unique words), 2007 first-grade textbooks have around 2,000 unique words. In 2007, beginning first graders are introduced to more unique words in the first instructional unit than first graders in the 1960s had in the last unit. We don’t want dumbed-down textbooks but can young children learning to read assimilate so many words so quickly? The answer is, once more, an unequivocal no.

1 I do want to note that the conclusions on the dumbing-down of textbooks (i.e., Chall & Conrad, 1991; Hayes, Wolfer, & Wolfe, 1996) were based on analyses of reading textbooks published prior to the watershed changes of 1990. In their analyses of the dumbing-down of textbooks, Chall and Conrad (1991) used only textbooks for grades four through six and with copyrights from 1971 to 1980.