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California Choosing Grade-School Texts : State Reading Experts Hit ‘Dumbing Down’ of Books

Times Education Writer

Imagine the classic children’s tale “The Little Engine That Could” without mention of its lovable cargo of dancing dolls and toys, or Aesop’s fable about the fox and the sour grapes minus the moral.

Or consider reading a story in which colorful words and phrases have been simplified to the point of blandness--replacing “hamburger” with “meat,” for instance, or “puffed along merrily” with “went along very well.”

These examples were plucked from the pages of grade-school readers, the textbooks used to teach students how to read and write. Educators cite them as evidence of the “dumbing down” of reading books, in which many textbook publishers sapped literary works of their original, rich language or omitted classic literature altogether in favor of unimaginative stories written by textbook authors.

“They’re all horrors,” state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said about watered-down texts, “and there is no reason for them.”

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Today, a committee of the state Board of Education will hear testimony from educators and textbook publishers about how students should be taught reading. And on Friday, the full board is expected to decide whether to adopt a new generation of reading texts for California’s 3 million kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

Under state law, school districts must select textbooks from a state-approved list. The state Board of Education reviews textbooks in each major academic area every six years. Last year, for instance, it chose new mathematics books. This year it will choose new reading books to replace the ones it approved in 1982.

The state Curriculum Commission that advises the board on textbooks has recommended the rejection of reading books that, through endless memorization, drill and practice, teach reading as a series of isolated skills. Instead, the commission is endorsing an approach that has been ignored yet is so simple as to seem obvious: that students learn to read by spending time actually reading--and reading high-quality literature--not by practicing phonetic principles, picking out main ideas and taking vocabulary tests.

“Too many students come away with the idea that reading is something you do in school, not (something that is) fun or that they will need to know how to do later,” said Francie Alexander, associate superintendent of curriculum for the state Department of Education. “For many kids, (readers) are the very first books they get into their hands. So we want them to be very special and meaningful.”

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Methods in Dispute

Educators do not agree on the best way to teach children to read. The skill-based method became prevalent nationally more than a decade ago after leading educational researchers concluded that reading is best learned by breaking it down into separate steps or skills to be mastered one at a time. But a new body of research in recent years rejects that theory as ineffective. Reading levels among public school students in California have been rising moderately, but state education officials said students still are too weak in comprehending and analyzing what they read.

Textbooks publishers already have spent an estimated $200 million developing prototypes of new reading books for California, which accounts for more than 10% of the national textbook market. This year is considered a seminal one for the reading book industry because of the unusually large number of states that will adopt new books. Other states choosing new readers this year are Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Most publishers fight hard to get on California’s approved list because it is the largest, and thus potentially the most lucrative, of 22 states that hold statewide textbook adoptions. It also is considered a leader in improving textbooks, particularly during the last two years, when the state board rejected entire series of science and mathematics books--the science books for watered-down explanations of evolution, and the mathematics books for failing to teach higher-order, problem-solving skills.

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“People look at California as being the authority on all of these things,” said Andre Carus, president of Open Court Publishing Co., which received only a partial endorsement from the state commission that reviewed reading books. “We’re obviously in trouble in some of the other states if California (is against us).”

Want Major Overhaul

California education officials are pushing for a substantial overhaul of reading texts in large part because of the generally below-par reading ability found in most elementary and high school students. A host of local and statewide tests have found that students do not enjoy reading and too frequently fail to comprehend or are unable to interpret or draw conclusions from the materials they are reading.

Past studies have shown that textbooks and the accompanying teachers’ manuals determine up to 90% of what and how a teacher teaches.

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A state panel of reading experts evaluated more than 7,000 individual textbooks in June and submitted its findings to the state Curriculum Commission. In July, the commission recommended that 16 out of 33 reading series be adopted.

Books were criticized for bowdlerizing literary works to satisfy “readability” formulas, a method of controlling the length of sentences and complexity of words that textbook authors use to set the difficulty of reading matter by grade level. Researchers and educators have found such formulas to be responsible for the choppy, “see-Jane-run” type of sentences legion in readers, particularly for young children. They also blame readability formulas for the flattening out of the original rich language of literary works.

Criticize Changes

State reading book evaluators, for instance, criticized a McGraw-Hill textbook for changing the title of Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” to “The Turtle and the Rabbit,” presumably to make the title easier to understand. A Scott, Foresman primer was cited for changing the hot porridge so crucial to the tale “The Three Bears” to “hot fish.” The reason, apparently, is that fish is easier to pronounce than porridge. In other instances, characters were added or deleted, colorful words were replaced by shorter, less interesting ones, and radical adaptations were made.

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The reading panel noted, for instance, that instead of reproducing the Shakespeare play “As You Like It” in its original form, the authors of a McGraw-Hill text for seventh- and eighth-graders retold it as a radio play.

One of the most insensitive adaptations cited by state reviewers was Open Court’s version of “The Little Engine That Could,” the story of a diminutive locomotive that pulled a heavy shipment of dolls and toys over a mountain to the “good little boys and girls” on the other side and of the other, bigger trains that refused to help.

The Open Court version not only omitted the dolls and toys but does not mention a valuable cargo of any kind. The little engine is only described as having a “long train of cars to pull.”

Changed Meaning

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Said Alexander: “They changed the meaning of the story . . . and took out a lot of the personality of the trains. The motivation was to bring all these toys for the good boys and girls, and all that was taken out. So you don’t get why the engine was so concerned.”

Appalled by such cavalier reinterpretations of literary classics, the Curriculum Commission strongly recommended that the state board ask publishers to place a note in textbooks whenever a work has been abridged, adapted or excerpted--sort of a consumer warning label to teachers and students--and to provide “detailed descriptions” of the changes.

“Teachers and students have a right to know if literary works have been changed in any way prior to using that work as part of the core program,” the commission report states. “The publisher does a disservice to both the reader and the literary work if an excerpt is not identified properly.”

The Curriculum Commission also urged that the board reject all workbooks, drill cards, work sheets and other supplementary materials that emphasize fill-in-the-blank exercises in order to steer teachers away from “busy work” assignments--or what some educators call the “dismal paper chase” of childhood.

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“These stacks of paper teach essentially the same thing over and over again without breaking new ground or going on to more sophisticated skills, such as writing paragraphs or whole compositions,” said the state Education Department’s Alexander.


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