77sec on Text Complexity: What is the Difference Between Accessible and Dumbed-down Texts?

    What is the difference between accessible and dumbed-down text?

    When I suggest in presentations that challenged readers require large amounts of accessible text, I’m often asked: But what’s accessible? And are accessible texts complex enough for Common Core classrooms?

    A first point of clarification is that accessible text is not dumbed-down text. These three examples (in Table 1) illustrate dumbed-down texts:

    • texts with short sentences to ensure low readability levels,  
    • texts on bizarre topics that are thought to interest challenged readers, and
    • texts with phonetically regular words. 

    Dumbed-down texts should not be equated with accessible texts. Accessible texts have complex content and language. These 100-word samples from narrative texts identified by Common Core writers as grade 4-5 exemplars show that the number of rare words per 100 words differs substantially—even across complex texts.

    In teaching challenged readers, I’d begin with complex texts that have the most manageable percentages of rare vocabulary—that is, accessible texts. In the sample in Table 2, the most accessible texts are: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Little Prince, and Bud, not Buddy. Accessible texts are complex texts with moderate numbers of rare words.

    Table 1

    Examples of Dumbed-Down Texts

    Type of Dumbed-Down Text 

    Short sentences to ensure low readability levels

    These plants are the biggest of all.They are trees. Their stems are called trunks. Trunks are covered with bark. Bark protects the trunk. Bark helps animals, too. They can grab onto the bark. It helps them run up to their homes in holes and nests.

    Trunks can get very tall and thick. 

    Bizarre topics thought to interest challenged readers

    Monster trucks have been around for more than 30 years. At first, some people called them chrome crushers because the drivers drove them over cars and crushed the cars flat. Later, some drivers decided they would like to have flat races over a straight track. So, in 1987, they formed the Monster Truck Racing Association.

    Phonetically regular words

    So the con man went into the bank. The con man didn’t see well. His nose was a mass of cotton lint. So the con man didn’t see a striped pike in front of bank.

    Slip! There went the con man when he stepped on the pike. Plop! That was the con man hitting the street with his seat.

    Table 2

    Excerpts from Narrative Common Core Exemplars (Grades 4-5)


    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

    Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, and what is the use of a book, thought Alice without pictures or conversation?

    So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies,

    When the Mountain Meets the Moon

    The villagers had to tramp in the mud, bending and stooping and planting day after day. Working in the mud so much made it spread everywhere and the hot sun dried it onto their clothes and hair and homes. Over time, everything in the village had become the dull color of dried mud. One of the houses in this village was so small that its wood boards, held together by the roof, made one think of a bunch of matches tied with a piece of twine. Inside, there was barely enough room for three people to sit around the table which was lucky. One of them was a young girl called Minli. Minli was not brown and dull like the rest of the village.

    The Little Prince

    Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories From Nature, about the primeval forest.  It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal.  Here is a copy of the drawing.

    In the book, it said, Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion.

    I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil, I succeeded in making my first drawing. My Drawing Number One. 

    Bud, Not Buddy

    I’ll be doggoned if that tooth isn’t the littlest bit wiggly. At first you think it’s kind of funny, but the tooth keeps getting looser and looser and one day, in the middle of pushing the tooth back and forth and squinching your eyes shut, you pull it clean out. It’s the scariest thing you can think of ‘cause you lose control of your tongue at the same time and no matter how hard you try to stop it, it won’t leave the new hole in your mouth alone, it keeps digging around in the spot where that tooth used to be.

    The Black Stallion

    It had been fun, those two months in India. He would miss Uncle Ralph, miss the days they had spent together in the jungle, even the screams of the panthers and the many eerie sounds of the jungle night. Never again would he think of a missionary’s work as easy work. No, sir, you had to be big and strong, able to ride horseback for long hours through the tangled jungle paths. Alec glanced down proudly at the hard muscles in his arms. Uncle Ralph had taught him how to ride, the one thing in the world he had always wanted to do.

    The Secret Garden

    “Well enow. Th’ carriage is waitin’ outside for thee.” A brougham stood on the road before the little outside platform. Mary saw that it was a smart carriage and that it was a smart footman who helped her in. His long waterproof coat and the waterproof covering of his hat were shining and dripping with rain as everything was, the burly station-master included.

    When he shut the door, mounted the box with the coachman, and they drove off, the little girl found herself seated in a comfortably cushioned corner, but she was not inclined to go to sleep again

    The Birchbark House

    She…put her leathery pawlike hands on the smooth bark, feeling for flaws. Yes, she decided her eyes sparkling at her granddaughter. A good one?

    “It is ready? Geget,” said Nokomis. Surely. Nokomis’s tobacco pouch was decorated with blue and white beads in the shape of a pipe. She had owned this tobacco bag ever since Omakayas could remember. When she talked to the Manitous, Nokomis dipped out a pinch of tobacco.

    “Old Sister,” she said to the birchbark tree, “we need your skin for our shelter.”  At the base of the tree, Nokomis left her offering, sweet and fragrant. Suddenly, she pressed her razor-sharp knife

    *Bolded words are rare words; un-bolded words come from the core vocabulary (i.e., 4,000 simple word families)