Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How far can you get on key words alone?

Recently someone queried me about the possibility of writing a blog post on the subject of education for veterans. She felt that, given the focus of my blog, her post would fit in perfectly. I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about, but when she sent me a follow-up reminder, I clicked on the link to the post she had said was particularly inspiring, and discovered that it was one in which I had made reference to a “veteran education reporter.” Aha. The aspiring writer had done a keyword blog search on and was emailing every blog owner who’d appeared to use the term "veteran[s'] education."

While this is an extreme example of focusing on key words or phrases at the expense of whole sentences, I’ve wondered how many people still read sentences carefully--especially ones that exceed the length of your typical text message. Partly the issue is attention. One thing I learned about ADHD while designing my course on language and reading disabilities is that it has pervasive effects on reading comprehension--largely because reading requires sustained attention. Intermittent attention means taking in words and phrases, but not whole sentences in which these words and phrases may interact in complex ways. While the true incidence of ADHD is hard to know, the incidence of distracted reading is higher than ever. As writers compensate by writing simpler sentences (either on their own initiative or at the request of textbook editors), the cycle continues.

As long as sentences don’t involve modifiers, qualifiers, and parentheticals that interact in complex ways (e.g., in which a modifier negates or places conditions on the application of a phrase somewhere else in the sentence), you can get pretty far with a piecemeal focus on phrases. But some thoughts are too complex to be captured in sentences that avoid this kind of attention-demanding complexity. It’s alarming to think that sentences that express such thoughts are no longer accessible to many readers. Even more alarming is the possibility that people are too distracted to even think them on their own.


Leigh Lieberman said...

I began investigating the problems associated with the educational system's penchant for warm and fuzzy pedagogy because of the very disturbing deficiencies in math instruction; but it became increasingly apparent that it was also seriously undermining reading skill development as well. This has in turn contributed significantly to the reduction of high quality, reputable journalism and the rising popularity of bombastic meat-heads like Rush Limbaugh. I have been reading "Money Secrets", written by Pulitzer Prize winning author and columnist Dave Barry, in which he describes the plight of newspapers trying to hang onto readership with strategies such as "Do fewer stories about heavy boring topics such as the world, and more stories about topics ...of interest to young people ... including celebrities, tattoos, ... Make stories shorter, so that they do not contain so many pesky words. Make paragraphs shorter. Make sentences shorter. Use shorter words. Like this. If you must write about the world, write about countries with short names, such as Chad.” A reader of the Miami Herald found Barry's description apt and his comments are online at:
The idea that instruction should prioritize making education light and attractive instead of substantive with an eye on being able to process serious adult material is nothing short of scandalous.
Both reading and math skills have suffered with the use of weak math and verbal standards that relatively ignore how imperative it is for youngsters to acquire sufficient fluency in these areas to handle the work required for college, career, commercial and civic responsibilities.
Leigh Lieberman - Systems Engineer/Education Analyst/Math Coach
We are all concerned about the future of American education. But as I tell my students, you do not enter the future -- you create the future. The future is created through hard work. - Jaime Escalante
I advise my students to listen carefully the moment they decide to take no more mathematics courses. They might be able to hear the sound of closing doors. - James Caballero

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks for sharing this, Leigh. The journalism angle is particularly worrying, given its implications for accountable democracy.