Aspects of Readability in the Social Studies
reviewed by Dorthy McClure Fraser - 1954
There is no doubt that the problems of providing textbooks that secondary school students can read, and helping them develop reading skills that will enable them to read successfully the text materials they have, are of first importance in the social studies and in other subjects studied in the American high school. Peterson's research study focuses on two aspects of readabilitythe logical organization of material, and "interest." These characteristics of textual materials have long been recognized as essential by specialists in reading and in social studies education, although less objective research has been devoted to them than to such factors as vocabulary level and sentence length.
The author has taken two passages of 1,000 words each from a widely used world history textbookone treating feudalism and the other imperialismand has rewritten each one twiceonce for the purpose of improving organization and once for the purpose of increasing the "interest" of the treatment. Precautions were taken to keep several other factors of readability, such as sentence length, vocabulary difficulty, and number of concepts constant in the three versions. The three forms of the passages were read by three groups of students, who then took the same test of comprehension. Along with recall of information, the test was intended to measure the specific abilities to (1) understand the words in context; (2) grasp the pattern of thought as a whole; (3) note the relationship of specific details; (4) draw correct inferences; and (5) integrate the expressed ideas with experience. It included multiple-choice items, a free-response essay section, and a student rating scale and questionnaire. In general, students who read the modified statements did significantly better on the test than those who read the original statements. These data were supplemented by interviews with other students who had read one of the original statements and who gave oral responses to questions about content and about the nature of their reading difficulties. For specifics as to the design of the study and the analysis of the results, the reader must, of course, consult the study itself. Selected aspects only can be commented upon here.
The general conclusions of the study concerning the relation of effective organization and interest of material to readability seem valid. Indeed, they have been accepted for some time by specialists in reading and by those who have worked on problems of reading in the social studies field. The chief value of the study would seem to be that it contributes one more bit of supporting evidence. Many of the suggestions for achieving effective organization (pp. 25-31, 83-84) and increasing interest (pp. 21-26, 81-83) are useful, but they will not be new to those who are familiar with current literature on the psychology of learning as it applies to reading. Effective application of the suggestions will depend on the skill of the textbook writer, his knowledge of his reader-audience, and his grasp of the conceptual material with which he is dealing.
While agreeing with the author that the textbook writer who ". . . writes with a thorough understanding of his reading audience and is alert to facts which catch their attention will be able to lead them in the search for apt relationships and conclusions," one may question the validity of the author's application of the principle involved: "Students are . . . more concerned with their own country than any other; a reference, therefore, to the United States as an imperial power and to her changing attitude toward colonial possessions should vitalize the concept [of imperialism] for the student." The tenth-grader is undoubtedly more "concerned" with his own country than with others, but unless he has knowledge of and interest in the record of the United States as an imperial power it is unrealistic to assume that a reference to that record will "vitalize" the concept of imperialism. Our social studies textbooks contain too many examples of this sort of interest-getting device, which fails to take into account the necessity for an adequate experiential background for the learner if he is to respond to such clues. This example is cited not to quibble over one detail of the study, but to indicate the enormous difficulty of specifically applying the excellent generalizations made by the author of the study, and to suggest that the crux of the problem of improving readability of social studies textbooks lies not in gaining agreement on the generalizations (we have that) but in achieving effective application of them.
Teachers should give particular attention to one part of the evidence obtained through interviews with students, namely, that most of those interviewed knew about common reading techniques (use of section headings, topic sentences, and summaries, and reading at different rates for different purposes) but that few used these techniques consistently. Either they did not adequately understand the techniques or they had had insufficient experience in actually applying them to be convinced of their value. Competent social studies teachers have increasingly recognized their obligation to help students develop better reading skills. The evidence cited should serve as a further challenge.
One may question the author's emphasis on frequent summarization in the same words as a technique for improving readability; summaries are useful tools, but overuse of them becomes wearisome to the student, and verbatim repetition of ideas or facts encourages memoriter learning rather than understanding. Again, too many examples of this can be found in existing social studies texts.
The author of the study probably recognized, as do many specialists in social studies, that the best organization, the simplest vocabulary, the most effective use of interest-getting devices, and the other techniques that are known to increase readability cannot be fully applied to social studies textbooks while the curriculum remains so packed with "required" topics, facts, and ideas that the only way to treat them all is to treat many of them inadequately.
DOROTHY MCCLURE FRASER
The City College, New York City
BOOKS RECENTLY RECEIVED FOR REVIEW
Costello, Harry Todd, A Philosophy of the Real and the Possible. New York, Columbia University Press, 1954. 153 pp. $2.75.
Eckert, Ruth E., and Keller, Robert J., A University Looks at Its Program. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1954. 212 pp.
French, Sidney J., Accent on Teaching. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1954. 320 pp.
Lindgren, Henry Clay, Effective Leadership in Human Relations. New York, Hermitage, 1954. 279 pp.
Thelen, Herbert A., Dynamics of Groups at Work. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1954. 366 pp.