Saturday, June 16, 2012


We all use shorthand communication. As much as I like to talk, there are times when I don't want to explain every single little detail of every single little thought process (in the immortal words of Voltaire, the secret of being a bore is to tell everything), and instead rely on the person I'm talking with to envision the shape of the glacier that lies beneath the surface.

When I went to that workshop on writing picture books for children, a writer was musing about how to refine language for a lower grade level. She said she needed to "dumb it down."

In the project I'm working on now, several writers have used that phrase about revising a text to be suitable for a lower grade level. (Not at all to single out any one writer in particular; I've heard it so many times now from so many different writers that I couldn't even say which said it when.)

These writers are thoughtful people. They're probably using shorthand. They probably mean to say "revise the language and syntax so that it works for the grade level."

Still, I can't help but react to that phrase. Writers can't afford to think that way about our audience. Habits of thinking create habits of being. And then we are what we repeatedly do (in the immortal words of Aristotle). This is really part of a bigger belief. How we use language affects (and may reflect) how we think. Edward Sapir suggested that our very view of the world is shaped by our language.

It comes back to intention. When writing for art or self-expression, a writer has the freedom to demand whatever he or she likes from the reader, and then the reader has the freedom to participate or not. Writing as a job--according to given specifications--doesn't allow for that.

In our case, we've got a captive audience (as discussed previously). And in the work of writing stories, poems, articles, and other types of text for reading tests, we're writing for a specific purpose. Of primary importance is integrity to the purpose: In a paper for Apex Learning on interpreting Lexile readabilities, Dr. Elfrieda Hiebert said that "the goal of writing and publishing texts for schools is to provide the most comprehensible text possible." If the integrity of the text can't be maintained simultaneously, then a new text is required. Because the integrity of the text is essential. But we have to have both, and the former can never be sacrificed to the latter.

What is developmentally appropriate changes rapidly and drastically from a child's first turn of a page through the journey to adult reading: picture books, chapter books, novels, textbooks, classics, technical manuals, employee handbooks, fifty-page volumes of health insurance gibberish. We wouldn't ask a 3rd grader to lift a suitcase weighing 50 pounds, and we shouldn't present a 3rd grader (4th grader, 5th grader, 6th grader) with text that is far beyond his or her knowledge and abilities. It's a bad practice that sets kids up for failure, and one that ultimately defeats our purpose.

This is one of the reasons writers who write for children should spend time with children of the same age as their target audience. Children are a lot smarter than we often think they are. They just haven't been reading as long as we have, so they aren't able to do the heavy lifting we're capable of. It's not to say they won't be able to do it one day. Certainly they will. But in order to get there, they have to start where they are. It's our job to meet them there.

If we must use shorthand for how we do that, I think I'd prefer "simplify."

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