Monday, April 22, 2013

Simplifying history

Today's high school texts consist mostly of short, simple sentences. Here, for example, are a few from McDougal Littell's World History:

For hundreds of years, peasants had depended on oxen to pull their plows. Oxen lived in the poorest straw and stubble, so they were easy to keep. Horses needed better food, but a team of horses could plow three times as much land in a day as a team of oxen. (p. 387)
A single sentence would get this point across in significantly fewer words:
For hundreds of years, peasants had depended on oxen, which could survive on mere straw and stubble, rather than on horses, which, though they plow three times as much land in a day, required better food.
Though shorter, however, the revision requires more sustained attention. If you get distracted in the middle of the sentence, your comprehension suffers more than if you get distracted in the middle of the choppy original.

Writers of earlier textbooks assumed readers with longer attention spans. Consider, for example, the opening paragraph in Outines of European History (James Harvey Ronbinson, 1907):
If a peasant who had lived on a manor in the time of the Crusades had been permitted to return to earth and travel about Europe at the opening of the eighteenth century, he would have found much to remind him of the conditions under which, seven centuries earlier, he had extracted a scanty living from the soil.
It's not just long, but also complex. The sentence starts with an if-clause that contains two embedded clauses: a lengthy relative clause ("who had lived on a manor in the time of the Crusades") and an even longer infinitival clause ("to return to earth and travel about Europe at the opening of the eighteenth century"). All this is followed by a main clause in the conditional mode of the present perfect tense, which contains a lengthy infinitival clause ("to remind him of...") which, in turn, contains a relative clause ("under which...") which, in turn, is interrupted by an appositive ("seven centuries earlier").

Modern history texts do occasionally contain somewhat long sentences, but they aren't as long, or, more importantly, as complex, as the kind of sentence one finds regularly in Outlines of History. Here, from the same section as the first excerpt from McDougal Littell's World History, is one of the longest sentences to be found there:
As traders moved from fair to fair, they needed large amounts of cash or credit and ways to exchange many types of currencies. (p. 389)
Here there are no multiple embeddings to keep track of and no need to hold interrupted phrases in working memory. Most of the complexity comes from simple co-ordination--the "or" and "and" conjunctions that conjoin the what follows the verb "need". This kind of structure doesn't involve the kind of embedding that burdens working memory.

Many of the complex sentences of older textbooks can be broken up into smaller sentences. For example, a modern textbook editor might chop up the Outlines of History sentence as follows:
Imagine a peasant who had lived on a manor in the time of the Crusades. Suppose he been permitted to return to earth seven centuries later, at the opening of the 18th century, and to travel around Europe. Much of what he would have found at this time would remind him of the conditions under which he, long ago, had extracted a scanty living from the soil.
Of course, once again, the resulting simplicity costs significantly more words.

But not all complex sentences can be broken up with extra words as the only downside. Consider the second sentence in this excerpt from a later passage in Outlines of History:
The chief effects of the Napoleonic occupation of Germany were three in number. First, the consolidation of territory that followed the cessation of the left bank of the Rhine to France, as explained previously, had done away with the ecclesiastical states, the territories of the knights, and most of the free towns. Only thirty-eight German states, including four free towns, were left when the Congress of Vienna took up the question of forming a confederation to replace the defunct Holy Roman Empire. Second,... (Outlines of History, p. 249)
Here's a stab at breaking up that second sentence:
The chief effects of the Napoleonic occupation of Germany were three in number. First, the consolidation of territory that followed the cessation of the left bank of the Rhine to France had done away with three things. First, it did away with the ecclesiastical states. Second, it did away with the territories of the knights. Third, it did away with most of the free towns. (All this was explained previously). Only thirty-eight German states, including four free towns, were left when the Congress of Vienna took up the question of forming a confederation to replace the defunct Holy Roman Empire. Second, ...
Simplifying the second sentence by breaking it up has complicated the paragraph as a whole. For one thing, now we have three items embedded within the first of three items. Secondly, since each of the three new sentences has its own separate focus, the focus of the paragraph as a whole flits around all over the place. Thirdly, the increased verbiage between the first "First" and the final "Second" makes it harder to remember, by the time we get to that "Second," that we're in the middle of a list of "chief effects of the Napoleonic occupation of Germany." A modern day student with attention difficulties is not going to fare any better with this modern update than with the original.

Verbal complexity isn't simply a matter of mercurial trends in textbook stylistics that modern editors can edit away without losing content. As I noted earlier:
Some thoughts are too complex to be captured in sentences that avoid ... 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.


Anonymous said...

Do you think the state of the textbook is related to the "plain language movement?"

I hope that at least GRE still makes takers read complex sentences. I took it 20 years ago.

Auntie Ann said...

This is one of my biggest concerns. Even modern adult novels, whether Gaiman, Ludlum, Ray Bradbury, or Agatha Christie, have pathetically low Lexile scores (Murder on the Orient Express = 640, which should make it accessible to precocious 3rd grader and below the level we'd expect for 6th graders [according to's grade level chart.])

Non-fiction writers do better. David McCullough, Steven Jay Gould, etc., come in with strong Lexile scores.

How can we expose our kids to complex sentences with so little out there written with complex sentences? Are we condemned to use 100-year-old texts?

I always try to get the kids to read older books, and our 13-year-old has read Dickens and Shakespeare this year for school--but, again, those are both old texts.

It actually scares me. The changes in language since Elizabethan times, makes Shakespeare almost inaccessible. Will the lack of complex writing for our students to read make Dickens inaccessible soon too?

momof4 said...

I've often recommended the Rosemary Sutcliff books, both the historical novels (set in Roman Britain, young male protagonist) and her versions of classic legends (Odyssey, King Arthur, Iliad etc), all of which my kids loved. The vocabulary and writing are far better than most, especially the recent books. I just looked up the Lexile scores, and most came in over 1200. Many are out of print, but I found all of them through Barnes and Noble's used-book network. I wish I could think that the library culls had been replaced with anything approaching the same quality. I think your 13yo would enjoy them.

momof4 said...

I don't know what happened to my last comment, so I'll try again. I just checked the Lexile score/grade level correspondence and found that 1200s were listed as 11-12th grades. My kids were certainly reading Sutcliff, independently, by 4-5th grade, if not before. Admittedly, they knew the general storyline of lots of the legends from young-child versions and they had enough historical knowledge to be aware of Hadrian's Wall, Bath and other evidences of Roman Britain (good argument for Core Knowledge or classical curriculum) - from home readings, of course. FWIW, good companions to Sutcliff's historical novels are the official guide to Bath (libraries can get)and the David Macaulay Roman City book/DVD.

ChemProf said...

I hate to say it, but I think we have to start with old stuff. Beatrix Potter is 4-6th grade level by modern standards. The Oz books are 6-8th grade (again based on the Lexile number), but giving kids a sentence like this can help (the second paragraph from the Land of Oz):

The Munchkin folks, however, merely stand off and look at Mount Munch and know very little about it; for, about a third of the way up, its sides become too steep to climb, and if any people live upon the top of that great towering peak that seems to reach nearly to the skies, the Munchkins are not aware of the fact.

I admit, one of the biggest changes to my parenting from reading KTM and OILF was reading my three year old a ton of Beatrix Potter. Plus I got to hear her say "I am affronted!"

momof4 said...

I agree. My grandkids love Beatrix Potter, and they were all started before they were three. Of course, new words have to be explained, but they love words like "galoshes", "waistcoat" and "hedgerows" - none of which are used much here but are often encountered in classic British novels. (hopefully they will encounter some in HS) Before she was three, one of my granddaughters announced that she would put on her galoshes before playing in the puddles in her garden, and she was deliberately "playing British." Aesop's Fables, D'Aulaire's Greek Myths, the fables of Hans Christian Anderson, La Fontaine and the Brothers Grimm are all light years better than the modern preschool stuff.

momof4 said...

I just looked up the Lexile score for Make Way for Ducklings; 630 - and it's always been considered a preschool book (as a read-aloud). My youngest granddaughter won't turn three until July and it has been one of her favorites for almost a year. She clearly understands it,too, from her comments when we saw a pair of mallards swimming in Baltimore Harbor, on a recent visit to the Aquarium. The good stuff is more entertaining than much of the modern stuff, too.

I think we need to encourage memorization, too; even young preschoolers used to know poems like The Owl and the Pussycat, Wynken,Blynken and Nod and Who Has Seen the Wind by heart, plus the Mother Goose rhymes. Songs like "The Eensy Weensy Spider", "Row Your Boat", "Clementine", "Oh Susanna" and "She'll be Coming Round the Mountain" were also often memorized.

ChemProf said...

Agree on the memorization -- so many of my students find it challenging to memorize anything. My plan for my kids involves choir.

FedUpMom said...

For me, the first paragraph about oxen and horses is actually much more confusing than Katharine's rewrite, because it doesn't explain how horses are relevant. I get that peasants used oxen. Why are we suddenly talking about horses?

Katharine's rewrite puts the horses in a clear compare-and-contrast position re the oxen and is actually easier for me to take in.

In general, I need some kind of narrative to hook the ideas together. When the "simplified" version looks like "Fact 1. Fact 2. Blah blah. Fact 3." I find it almost unreadable.