Why Johnny can't do science
(February 2000)

According to Donald Hayes, American students in high school pay the price for years of dumbed-down schoolbooks. Lulled into lexical laziness, he says, they find that science books are often too hard for them to read. [It doesn't help if "creation scientists" muddy the waters with their stupid anti-scientific theories either - LB] In a report read at the AAAS annual meeting in February, Hayes and Loreen Wolfer outlined a plan to close the gap between science books and simplified texts for non-science subjects.

They argue that too many American students shun high school science for ''easier'' subjects, and they pass into adulthood as poorly educated science illiterates with a vulnerability to pseudoscience. Hayes comments that they'' . . . are not prepared for science texts with all the domain-specific words, the equations and the longer sentences. There is a gulf between the two bodies of work in the schools, and the gulf isn't getting smaller.''

There are a number of levels of scientific discourse. At the top, there is the full-strength scientific paper, published in a specialist journal, which uses the language of science, and of that branch of science, to say a great deal in a few words. This style normally assumes a high level of background knowledge, or expects the reader to gain that background by reading the references listed.

At a slightly more general level, there is a paper in Nature or Science, which will be read by the scientifically literate, who may be specialists in another area, but they are usually professional scientists. Journals like this will often provide a commentary or an editorial, explaining in simpler terms what the importance of a discovery is, and what its implications may be. These journals can assume general expertise in science in their readers, that the readers have some idea of what a field of research is about. Once again, the references point the reader to more detailed explanations if they wish to delve.

Serious popular journals of science like Scientific American or New Scientist (and we place ourselves in this category where our science content is concerned) set out to take some new or interesting finding, and place it in a context, to show how it relates to other scientific knowledge. The writers assume that the readers have some familiarity with how science is done, and that they have absorbed the ''big ideas'', the principles that lie beneath all science, ideas like the concept of energy or biodiversity, or what species or atoms and molecules are. The writers will often provide suggestions for further reading, but they know they are writing for an audience which is on the same wavelength, more or less, coming to the text with a knowledge of the principles involved.

The same cannot be said for the writers of text books in science, who must explain all of the principles as they go along, at the same time introducing new terms, new concepts, and new frames of reference. They need to assume that their readers are completely naive and lacking in experience, and this alone makes it likely that a textbook will be more complex than a popular science journal.

One result of this is that school textbook writers tend to rely on other textbooks for their information and ideas for presentation, so wrong and outdated information is often enshrined and carried on into new titles. The text is kept simple, but the victim is accurate and reliable science.

But if Hayes is to be believed, the science textbooks are much harder than the texts in other subjects, but he argues that the answer is not to simplify science textbooks. Rather, it is to increase the complexity, the richness and the difficulty of the other reading matter students are exposed to. Hayes described a computerized LEX system evaluates texts for accessibility or lexical difficulty.

''After world war II, we simplified books for history, English and other non-science subjects by shortening the sentences and avoiding rare, unfamiliar words that might challenge readers to learn new concepts,'' Hayes recalled. ''The rarer the word, the more specific the concept.''

But if these unchallenging books were good enough up to eighth grade, at the end of which US students move into high school, Hayes believes that hard times lie ahead for these students. And if they have to struggle through their textbooks, they will drop out without learning the science they need to withstand the snake-oil merchants.

Hayes has used his LEX method in the past to point to excessively dense prose. with a normal newspaper set at 0, Nature between 1946 and 1994 got a rating of +25.7, while Science was a bit lighter, at +20. 1 on the LEX scale. New Scientist gets a rating of 7.2, Time is 1.6.

Hayes argues that while the readers used in the most basic school grades have improved, US schools have retained the simple texts used in higher grades, so that students in the USA are working on texts much less challenging than their counterparts in other countries.

Hayes proposes an experiment where some school districts that are planning to replace outdated, non-science textbooks, adopt new, more difficult books with rarer words in more complex sentence structures, while others would continue to use the old, oversimplified books. If he is correct in his hypothesis, testing later should show that the students using the challenging texts performing better.

At the low end, a farmer talking to dairy cows has a LEX rating of -56.0, mothers' talk to children aged 5 scores -45.8, Winnie the pooh scores -43.3, and second-grade schoolbooks in the period 1963-1991 are only -42.8. Eighth-grade schoolbooks from the period 1963-1995 period rate -22.0 and recent high school English books -22.3, and high school science tests rate at-0.5.

Key names: Peter Sturrock, von R. Eshleman

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