Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Dumbing Down of Childrens Books




Like many of you, I too read bedtime stories to my kids. Some nights I'll read a short story, while other nights I'll sing to them. And once in a while, I'll pull out the globe and they'll point to something they want me to talk about. Which reminds me, I need to brush up on my geography and world history because some places they point out, I'm like (0_0). 

Anyway, the other day I was rummaging through one of my many storage boxes that I still haven't opened since my move (it's only been 9 years), and I found this 1977 Little Golden book,  Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger. It had that old musty cardboard smell to it and worn edges. And with the exception of a few pages I must have scribbled in when I was a kid, it was in pretty good condition. So I opened the book and started reading and was struck by how different it read from contemporary children's books. The first page contained two sentences. The first sentence contained 73 words and the second, 5. Now, I'm no expert on contemporary children's books but I have a feeling I'd be hard pressed to publish a kids story with a 73 word opening about Kanga. But by the time I got to the end of the book I realized how much the writing has changed since 1977. 

Here are some of my favorite sentences from the book:

- "Look at me jumping, Tigger! Like flying, my jumping will be." 

- There was a crash, and a tearing noise, and a confused heap of everybody on the ground. 

- "Are you hurt?" And he [Christopher Robin] felt him rather anxiously, and dusted him and helped him to stand again.

- "I shouldn't be surprised if it hailed a good deal tomorrow," Eyore was saying. "Blizzards and whatnot. Being fine today doesn't mean anything. It has no sig-what's that word? Well, it has none of that. It's just a small piece of weather."

This got me thinking about certain contemporary children's books and the general dumbing down of the English language, a big topic that is not taken as seriously as it should. So I decided to do a psudo-comparison by pulling out another Pooh book I had, this one printed in 1999, Happy Birthday Pooh! The first page had three sentences. The first sentence contained 7 words, the second 10 and the last 15. Here are some excerpts: 

- "Well," he [Pooh] sighed as he tucked the candles into an empty honeypot, "I'll save the candles for later. Just to be on the safe side."

- "I'd better take a few extra," he [Rabbit] told himself. "Just to be on the safe side."

- Piglet filled his arms with lots of brightly colored candles. "I'd better take a few extra," he gasped. "Just to be on the safe side." 

- Suddenly Tigger came out of the sky and bounced Rabbit with a mighty "Hoo-hoo-HOO!" Piglet arrived at that same moment and found himself squished beneath his two friends. 

While reading this book, I immediately noticed a difference in sentence structure, lower word count, shorter words and a simpler vocabulary. After closing it, I was left wondering when and why this process of simplifying our children's books and reading material in general, became so prevalent. In the United State we are teaching our children to read at a younger age compared to thirty years ago, and yet the level of difficulty at certain levels has actually decreased. Does that sound logical? 

Have you noticed this trend in your daily reading materials? Is this an American phenomenon or do you see this "dumbing down" in your country as well? What is the solution?

20 comments:

  1. I wonder if it was more expensive to publish books back then so they had to be more selective with their choices? also, commercialism has ruined books I think. My kids have received books as gifts that I've refused to read to them, one in particular was a bunch of Tory Story short stories, oh my GOD! I felt dumber after reading it. The writing was awful, the stories were pointless and idiotic.... ugh!

    I guess what we can do is not buy them? and definitely not write them :)



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  2. Whether 1977 or 2012, a 73 word sentence is looong! My editor would have a fit if I did that. Personally, I found the second book easier to read... which I probably should not have just admitted. What does that say about me...

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  3. I completely agree with you. I read my cousin's kid one of my books from my childhood. The word count was over 1500 words, compared to around 200 words from some of his books. He understood most words and I taught him some new words. But he followed the story well. And then I had to read him another book from school. It was silly. Some pages had less than 10 words. And then I had to identify the new words he'd learnt and he had already known all of them so I had to comment he didn't learn any new words in his diary.

    The books his mother buys him are a lot better since she gets to see them and she chooses books with a wide variety of topics and good storylines but then he gets some awful ones from school.

    I agree with Cristina on the commercialism bit. I walked into the kids section of the bookshop and cringed at the explosion of Dora and Diego, Ben 10, Ben and Holly's Lil Kingdon and other awful children's franchises that dominate children's media. It's sort of disgusting.

    Every time my cousin's kid comes over, I have to read Ben 10 books and it's so boring. I hate Ben 10. But he loves it. :(

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  4. I understand what you're saying.

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  5. I see it too. In part I think there might be a bigger market to parents who start reading to children at day one so they've printed easier books. But I also believe we are making things too easy. I often hear people saying "You shouldn't use such big words around children/youth" but how will they learn to use words if they never hear them? How will kids reach beyond "you know" and "whatever" if we never stretch them?

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  6. dumbing down, for sure!

    methinks milne did not write the book in 1977; it's likely the pub date of that version, but so much better than much of what passes off as kid lit today

    even worse: a lot of the crap being passed off as 'music' these days... :(

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  7. Interesting post, Elise. Sadly, I'm one of those parents who, when I ask my child to pick out a book for us to read, I also add, "Don't pick one with too many words." Frankly, I like the books with the fewer word-counts, because I bore easily with long-winded books. Also, since my son has just started reading, we co-read. I'll read a line, then he'll read a line. It's much easier if the words are ones he's familiar with.

    I tend to have a short attention span anyway, so I like shorter books. But I don't like the commercialized children's books based on TV or movie characters. :(

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  8. Hmmm, what a comparison! Maybe the older books were published expecting parents to read them to their children and the newer with the idea that parents will push kids to read them themselves?
    Some Dark Romantic

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  9. This is super interesting. I don't have children yet but when I start reading these types of books I'll have to look for it!

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  10. That's a very intersting observation, and a little worrying.

    mood

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  11. Agreed, It's happening in story books and in schools. It's sad. :(

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  12. Absolutely,Elise! I do notice this. My passion is to make history and Scripture come alive for children, and I can't do that with a lower word count using simple language. Why would I want to? Our language is rich...why would I want to keep it from children? We need higher standards in our choice of words...how can children enrich their own vocabulary if we don't?
    The pilgrims learned to read and write using Scripture. How far we have strayed!

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  13. Cristina: I don't think publishers were more selective years ago, I think they simply had a better handle on the English language. It's true language like everything else will evolve, but it doesn't seem to be going in the right direction. We should be pulling up not dumbing down.

    S. Goddess: LOL! It just says you like Winnie the Pooh just like me! (:

    Kamille: Great example and I agree a lot of the problem lies with the commercializm and marketing of movies and toys through the publishing industry, which is in turn, diluting the quality of our children's books.

    Richard: Thanks for stopping in! (:

    S.P. Bowers: Telling parents not to use "big" words to your children is crazy. Kids are like sponges and are capable of absorbing a lot of infrmation if only we take the time to teach them. My kids for example (who are normal)are bilingual at 3 and 6 years old.

    lawolf: 1977 was the copyright date, so I'm not sure when it was actually written but I agree, dumbing down for sure. ):

    Linda: Hi Linda. I guess a lower word count would be acceptable as long as the diversity and richness of the vocabulary stayed intact. But unfortunately, this isn't the case with the new books.

    Mina: I don't know Mina, I've read several articles indicating a lower level of vocabulary in "advanced" reading books.

    Kelly: Unfortunately, I think parents are going to have to be more and more selective with the books they buy their children.

    Mood: It is and I don't see it getting any better in the near future.

    Melissa: Yes, it is sad.

    Jarm Del Boccio: Thanks for stopping by and I agree with you. My children are 6 and 3 and bilingual. Children are perfectly capable of learning a rich and more complete vocabulary than what is being fed to them today.

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  14. I don't necessarily think it is a dumbing down. Languages tend to simplify themselves over time instead of becoming more complex, and it's happening at a more rapid pace due to the internet and literacy rates.

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  15. An interesting observation, Elise.
    I think it's linked to the fact that language changes over time... new words that may have been deemed unacceptable in the past, are incorporated into the language as it evolves (for example, certain colloquialisms/slang words that may have been taboo, are now part of standard vocabulary)
    All this is also influenced by literacy trends which work hand-in-hand with technological advancements.
    All-in-all, I think we underestimate the kids and tend to lean more towards easier, "spoon-feeding" methods instead of challenging those little brains... stretching them to the max...

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  16. Cherie: If the language becomes too simplified, then how can we properly communicate complex emotions/ideas? I think children need to learn a rich vocabulary before simplyfing...

    Michelle: I agree, language does change over time. LOL and ROFLMAO is not something my parents are familiar with. I just hope we don't short hand our children by underestimating them.

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  17. I can't even understand some of the phrases in the first Pooh selections, like: "Like flying, my jumping will be." Who talks like that? "I shouldn't be surprised if it hailed a good deal tomorrow," (Oh, I just got that he meant hail as in snow, not hail as in signal--well, it wasn't clear), and what is the "sig--" word he doesn't know? It sounds like 80-yr-old British men talking between cigar puffs.

    I found the other "dumbed-down" selections beautiful, rhythmic, and easy on the ear.

    However, I do worry about dumbing things down too much when people say I can't put "trepidation" in my YA novel 'cause teens won't understand it...

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    1. Hi Lexa. I actually prefer the first version. The "like flying, my jumping will be" is more poetic and no, no one talks like that today unless you're Yoda, but I feel kids should be open to that kind of wording. The "sig" word Eyore is referring to is "significance." A "big" word to use for todays young readers but really is shouldn't be. The second example is certainly much easier to understand but I find unnecessary repetition (ex: Just to be on the safe side )and I don't find it challenges young readers or stretches their vocabulary like in the first. But that's just my opinion. (:

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  18. might be wandering slightly off topic but I think there has been a great Deterioration in YA literature over the last few years too ... i mean twilight and the hunger games etc just seem awful to me compared to say Harry Potter ... but then maybe that's just the fact that I'm not a YA anymore :(

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  19. I think in part it is because it has become more important to help kids succeed than to learn. And what better short cut than dumbing things down. Sad really.

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