Saturday, May 10, 2014

When easy is interesting

One thing that complicated our recent (and lively) discussion of reading comprehension challenges is the question of what makes a text challenging. Challenges come in two distinct forms: language and content.

It's this first sense of challenging that the Lexile scale attempts to measure. A big part of it is vocabulary and sentence structure (the Lexile scale actually measures sentence length, but structure is far more important, with sentences that have lots of certain types of subordinate clauses being much more difficult to process than sentences that are merely long). Other language-based challenges (not captured by the Lexile scale) are how densely packed a text is with content words--especially nouns and verbs--and how interconnected it is with pronouns and other anaphoric devices ("that strategy," "this issue") that have antecedents elsewhere in the text.  Some of these language-based challenges are dictated by the content: some ideas, themselves complex, are most clearly expressed in sophisticated vocabulary and complex, dense, interconnected prose (and, as I've discussed earlier, simplifying that prose actually makes the ideas harder to follow). Other language-based challenges are gratuitous: poorly defined terms, ambiguous antecedents, modifiers that are ambiguous in what they modify, and sentences that are generally hard to follow (certain German philosophers come to mind).

Then there's content. Some content is inherently difficult (quantum mechanics comes to mind); some content is difficult because it presupposes lots of background knowledge (part of what makes texts written by specialists for specialists about specialized topics hard to read).

Hard content sometimes requires hard language, but not always. And when we worry about boring kids with "easy" texts, it's important to keep this in mind. One route to boredom are texts whose content is easy or familiar--even if their language is hard. Another route to boredom (or tedium) is language that is too hard to follow. But what about a text whose language is easy while its content is hard--or at least new and interesting. Does the low reading level of the text make it boring? If so, then I'm boring myself every time I read the newspaper.

In fact, it takes a really great writer to describe complex ideas in simple prose. Steven Pinker ("How the Mind Works"); Isaac Asimov ("On Chemistry"); Richard Dawkins ("Climbing Mount Improbable"): I'm sure all these books are below my reading level, whatever that is, but who cares?

What I find most tedious--if not boring--are texts (or movies, for that matter) that some critics praise as "difficult," but that turn out to be difficult only because they are hard to follow; not because they contain complex and interesting characters, emotions, settings, themes, composition, and/or ideas. Call me pedestrian, but I'll always pick the "easy" piece that inspires me over a "hard" one that offers little in return for all that effort.

No comments: