Jeanne Chall · readability · Should Textbooks Challenge Students

Why can’t children read… Dickens?

This post arose out of a tweet I read this morning which said that ‘a friend had to read the first page of Oliver Twist aloud to university students because it was too difficult for them’. Thinking back to the time I was teaching literature courses at university, I also found that my students in one of them (I mention no names!) had considerable difficulty in reading complex novels (Rushdie, Naipaul, Jean Rhys) and the theoretical texts which went with the course. How did I know? They openly admitted as much. 

That should, if you think about it, give us a clue as to why there is this persistent problem in getting children to read canonical works: it extends right back to the first years of schooling. Children need to be taught to read and spell to a very high degree of proficiency by the end of Key Stage 1. When this is done well, children get off to a good start: reading is something they derive pleasure from and have success with. If this happens and well trained teachers in Key Stage 2 continue to fine-tune reading and spelling skills by teaching many of the less frequent, more obscure sound-spelling correspondences and they teach their pupils to read and spell ever longer polysyllabic words, with practice, children find that reading becomes more and more fluent. This is important because they are now at the stage of reading to learn and fluency guarantees direct access to meaning on the page. In fact, reading should become so fluent that, unless a particular word contains a less frequent sound-spelling correspondence or is not in the reader’s spoken vocabulary, the process of decoding slips beneath the level of conscious attention.

Interestingly, Jeanne Chall, an expert in ‘readability’, demonstrated that during the period 1920-1960, when sight-word and meaning-based approaches were more common, ‘the number of different words in primary reading textbooks decreased substantially…In contrast, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, a time when decoding-based methods were more popular, the number of different words in primary reading books increased’*!

That isn’t to say that there aren’t other factors at work. As suggested above, vocabulary difficulty is also likely to be a strong and consistent factor in predicting text difficulty. Vocabulary difficulty is measured in two ways: the first is one of the frequency of words in print; the second, by the number of ‘new’ and/or ‘difficult’ words introduced in a text and how often they are repeated. Beyond that, syntactic features such as the length of sentences, cohesion and the complexity of sentences – the presence or absence of embedded clauses and prepositional phrases – are also aspects for consideration.

Some would argue that the proliferation of readability formulas have been responsible for the long-standing and steady reduction in text difficulty. This has been because publishing houses measured readability and deliberately reduced the level of text difficulty. Chall et al (1977) discovered that, between the 1940s and 1970s, ‘social studies, literature,  grammar and composition textbooks’ had all diminished in ‘difficulty on measures such as readability scores, maturity level, question complexity, and ratio of illustrations to text’*. By contrast, one rarely hears either primary or secondary teachers talk about readability, with most secondary teachers almost exclusively preoccupied with filleting everything for meaning.

Scores can tell us how difficult a text is but not how difficult a text should be. The most common way of establishing text difficulty is a test of reading comprehension. If a pupil can answer successfully a series of multiple-choice questions on the main ideas being conveyed, on some of the detail in the text and on inference, the match is thought to be optimal. 75% success is the score required by Bormuth (1975); Thorndike (1916) put it at 80%. I wonder how many teachers still use regular comprehension quizzes.

Going back to Dickens, on the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula, for which a higher score indicates easier readability and on which scores usually range from 0 to 100, the first paragraph of Dickens’s Oliver Twist scored -10! Such a text would then be regarded as being very difficult to read. [God knows what Bleak House would score!] Using, a random paragraph taken from Philip Pullman’s The Tiger in the Well scored 88.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid, and at an average grade level of 4.5 in the USA (UK Year 5). Stormbreakerby Anthony Horowitz scored 82.9 on the Flesch-Kincaid and at an average grade level of 6.1 (UK Year 7). An excerpt from The Hunger Games scored 77.3 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula and at an average grade level of 7.2 (UK Year 8). And, you might be interested to know that Of Mice and Men scored 82.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid index and at an average grade level of 7 (UK Year 8). As is obvious, a fairly accomplished reader will hardly break sweat reading any of the more contemporary works.

Going on my own experience, most modern teenagers who do read for pleasure seem to read books that rarely progress beyond the Year 8/Year 9 level of readability. Oh yes! they love them and gobble them up. One of my own daughters read three John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) books in a matter of days and it was a delight to see her so engrossed. But, if they stick at this point, they arrest! Is it then any wonder why, when confronted by novels written in the nineteenth century or even those written in the first half of the twentieth century, they find them so daunting as not to even try and tackle them?

If you run through a readability calculator many of the kinds of books those teenagers that do read are reading, you will find what Jeanne Chall found: the further forward in time you go, the easier children’s novels and textbooks are to read. So, what’s the answer? It’s very sad to have to say this but if pupils are already years behind their chronological ages by the time they enter secondary school, it’s probably too late, given the lack of expertise in and commitment to teaching pupils to read in many secondary schools. However, even pupils already doing well need pushing to make continual improvements in performance. Too often the velleities of secondary school expectation are to blame. Thus, all children entering secondary school should be screened for reading and teachers in every subject made aware of their pupils’ abilities and made responsible for developing them. Textbooks of all kinds should be made progressively more challenging in terms of content, vocabulary and sentence complexity. Otherwise fewer and fewer children will be able to read a wide and challenging range of imaginative and informational texts.

* Quotations are taken from Chall, J. &Conard, S.S, Should Textbooks Challenge Students: The case for Easier or Harder Textbooks, (1991)

6 thoughts on “Why can’t children read… Dickens?

  1. This reminds me of what happened when a Canadian friend decided to read Winnie the Pooh to her Grade 2s(year 3-ish here). At first they simply couldn't understand what she was reading but she persisted and they came to love listening to the stories every day.
    I think it's time to up the ante of both expectation and persistence when it comes to secondary literacy – knowing full well that it won't be easy. Maybe it's time to take away some non-teaching tasks so that high school teachers can focus on this key but time-consuming task.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tricia.
    You are, of course, absolutely right! Teaching a class of young children is not dissimilar to the kind of 'work' we do with our own children every day. Understanding written text isn't easy to begin with but, once you've made a start, it's easy to progress.
    As my youngest daughter grew up, I was acutely aware of the difference between what she could read independently, what we could read together, and what I would read to push on her cultural knowledge in general, her vocabulary and her appreciation of different genres.
    Many English teachers are, I'm sure, very good at the cultural capital and generic stuff. Where I think the problem lies is that most have no idea of the textual difficulty in terms of sound-spelling correspondence, or even what might or might not present children with difficulties in terms of structure e.g. CCVC, CCCVCC, and on to more complex forms.
    Hope you're well, btw.

  3. Excellent – a big concern this. We're attempting to bridge the gap with meticulously constructed phonics books, with rigorous and simple decoding instruction but with sharp, witty tales that begin to unfold the sophistication of secondary requirements. The marketing push will be Sept – maybe the gap is already too large. Devoutly hope it's not.
    If anyone reads the case study of Ottakee's adopted daughter with IQ 37,multiple disabilities & also notes the 1000s of disadvantaged children who do learn to read with SP/LP there should be no room for the pitiless complacency that seems embedded in many schools.

  4. Sorry – I should have said 'reflect the sophistication..', not 'unfold..'
    Not sure how you'd 'unfold' sophistication…!

  5. The level of language in common use has changed in our democratised and now digitalised society. Sentences in written text are shorter speech utterances less formal in their relative contexts. Many English teachers struggle with Dickens. : as the article said, undergraduates struggle so it's not surprising that complex reading skills are often not developed. I don't think this is a pattern that formal education can address in isolation. The shift in language use both spoken and written is unlikely to be reversed.
    Primary schools are where the love of language is best engendered, while children are still fascinated by new vocabulary and are learning how language wields power. With classes of over 30 our children get a raw deal.

  6. I don't usually accept anonymous comments but, as I think the comment is symptomatic of so much that is wrong-headed about the way we view the teaching of literacy, I will.
    What could possibly be undemocratic about teaching pupils to be able to read even the most difficult text? In fact, it would be very undemocratic not to. Don’t you want all pupils to be able to read anything, if they so choose?
    If Year 2 pupils (aged about seven years and four months) can handle words like 'paucibacillary' (a type of leprosy), as they can when taught a high quality phonics programme, then we can teach pupils in primary school to be able to read (and spell) anything. And why shouldn't they want to read Dickens, or anything else for that matter?
    Sorry, anon, but you're wrong! 'Loving language' and 'learning how language wields power' are empty slogans if we don't teach children to read anything and everything fluently. At Sounds-Write we can and do teach all children to read and spell to a level that enables them to handle any word in the language.

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