Adult Reading and Narrative Structure

So... I checked in today with my street-borrower / self-directed learner while we made our rounds with the bookwagon. She was shaking her head even before she opened the door.

"I didn't like those books you left me."

Were there too many big words like the names of people or places? Did you understand what you were reading? Did it not make sense?

"I just.... I didn't get them," she said. She explained that the books I'd left before were "stories" whereas these last ones, the biographies, "jumped all over the place."

Which is exactly right: these aren't straight narratives. They move back and forth in time; often starting near the end of someone's life (a medal presentation, a funeral), maybe shooting back to an early childhood, then ahead to the point of adulthood where they began doing whatever it was that made them famous.

Also, though she didn't say this, these books call upon a degree of background knowledge. One of the reasons I like giving a learner the quartet Tubman, Hammer, Parks and King is that each book helps fill in the background story of the others - they are all about black Americans fighting for civil rights. But, normally, I'm there with the learner to answer questions or fill in some gaps. Left on her own, this learner may have found the gaps too great to bridge.

I noted somewhere, in an earlier post, that narrative (fiction or otherwise) is generally easier to read than most other types of writing. This may be even more true in the case of text written at a lower reading level. Looking for a discussion of this in my battered copy of Zakaluks and Samuels' Readability, I found Alice Davidson observing:
Texts are often edited to reduce their readability [sic] by simplifying vocabulary and shortening sentences. In the process comprehensibility is not improved, while explicit connections as well as expressive and interesting words are lost.
(Assigning Grade Levels without Formulas: Some Case Studies, 1988)
I don't agree with her notion of the cost of losing "expressive and interesting words" since these seem to me to be qualities readers bring to the text.

Consider her her phrase "reduce their readability" by which she means reduce their score on a measure of reading difficulty. I know that she is using readability as shorthand for "readability score" where a higher number means a harder text - thus, reducing the score means making something easier to read. But what about someone coming to this discussion for the first time? If they did not already have a lot of information to bring to the text, how would they know that readability did not mean "how readable something is" or some such thing? Words are only helpful when we know what they mean in context, and not just in the dictionary sense; expressive, interesting or otherwise.

Still, I generally agree with what she is saying. It seems commonsensical that complex stories or ideas don't get less complicated just because they are told in short sentences using a limited vocabulary.

So, for example, one of the books I had left told the story of The Famous Five, five Canadian women who worked together in the early 1900s to improve women's rights. This story is complex because it involves politics, economics and the law, the oddity of different jurisdictions and social assumptions, and the distance of history.

Explaining to someone not already familiar with Canadian politics and the culture of Alberta and Ottawa in the 1920s how it was that Emily Murphy could become a judge (really, a "police magistrate" for trials involving women) or Irene Parlby could be elected to government and become a "Minister without Portfolio", while neither was yet a "person under the law" - and how a petition to something called "the Privy Council" changed that - is not an easy thing to do.

At a reading level of 4 or 5 it may be impossible.

Moreover - to get back to the learner's original complaint - this book begins with a tea party Murphy arranges to deal with the lack of rights for women. Then, it works backward to explore the various ways women were unequal to men in the eyes of Canadian judges. Mind you, I'm not complaining. I don't know how the author, Terry Barber, could have done it better. Still, it's not a simple, predictable storybook structure.

A great aid in comprehension, we're always hearing, is predictability. Again, this is something I have mixed feelings about. But I understand that predictability is why Bill Martin Jr's Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See and Sandra Boynton's Blue Hat Green Hat are such hits with the storytent kids who hunger to become readers. Just a few pages in, the kids start knowing what to expect: they understand the structure and so can more quickly identify what upcoming sentences are saying.

The same holds true for narrative and adult books. Even non-readers have seen enough television shows to understand the idea of beginning, then middle, then end; and maybe even introduction of characters, then the crisis, then the solution and wrap-up. It doesn't matter whether or not they know all that English Literature terminology. Television viewers are used to a host of standard scenarios - the love triangle, the alien invasion, the innocent person framed and then cleared, someone leaving home only to find out they love it, why people in horror stories shouldn't wander off alone saying "I'll just be a minute"....

All these well-worn plot lines help readers keep track of what's going on in a scene or a paragraph. This frees them up to deal with, say, a challenging figure of speech or a new place name. Familiar forms help us deal with unfamiliar words and ideas.

Here's Ms. Davidson again, reporting on what researchers were hearing from "reviewers" including teachers, librarians and children:
In general, children like very clear organization, with the episodes following a normal sequence of time or progression of ideas from simple to more complex. The characters in a story also influence children's responses, since children tend to identify with protagonists of their own age or slightly older.
No surprise there. And though I'm personally a little iffy on how we toss around that ill-defined "identify with" phrase, the same could be said of adults. All readers appreciate clear organization, event sequences they can follow easily, and characters they can understand and whose lives they find interesting.*

Adult readers don't always like to read about strangers from history past, or from different cultures or countries, whose stories are told dramatically out of order. Sometimes that kind of thing makes hard reading harder.

So, I'll find my learner some more conventional adult narratives with straightforward themes - maybe Janet Whatshername's romance series or the Jack Sloan westerns - or else I'll write some at a difficulty level of 3 or 4. And when she's reading independently at a higher level (at 6 or more) or when she and I can spend some time together.... Well, the biographies will still be there.


* The exception here might be children who are read to a great deal, and who, from a very early age, become familiar with non-linear plots lines or a wider vocabulary of geography and history, of place and event. These children may be more at ease with the unexpected. In any case, although the simple and familiar are good places for children or adults to begin their own reading, there is no reason not to allow them to listen to or drowse or play through unconventional plot-lines and devices.

2 comments: said...

is this the person you were wondering about the other day? seems as though there is some self-assessment happening. this reader is pretty clear about what she wants to read. it made me think of this post i just read about how creating a 'reader identity' helps us develop a 'writer identity' -->

Wendell said...

Yeah, this is the learner I referred to in the recent posts "Being There" and "Building Community" - an unorthodox situation that has been helping me stretch my ideas of best practices.

Interesting link (if a little dense - LOL) That reader - writer things is Very interesting for me.