Updated: Apr 11
Years ago when I was in college, I was visiting my grandmother and I opened the bottom drawer of the armoire in her parlor. (Yes, she had a parlor.) Inside, amongst a jumble of strewn-about paper, I saw something in a child’s scrawl. Curious, I picked it up. I don’t remember what it said, but I didn’t have any trouble reading it. I turned the paper over and it said, “Laura, 3 ½ years old” in my grandmother’s handwriting. “That can’t be right,” I thought. I went to look for my grandmother and found her in the kitchen.
“Grandma, this says I wrote this when I was 3 ½ years old.”
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. You just did.”
“Who taught me to do that?”
“Nobody really. We read a lot to you, and you just figured it out.”
That was the first time that I was aware that I had been such an early reader and writer. I remember reading voraciously in my childhood. I remember being bored in kindergarten when the teacher was patiently teaching the other students the sounds of the alphabet. I remember my mom saying that I would disappear for hours at a time and she would find me somewhere reading. I even remember being assigned books in high school that I had already read several years before, just for fun. But that child-writing that I picked up was already in complete sentences and totally legible.
When I was a new mom, I was determined that my children would be lifelong readers like I was. I taught them early, despite all the early 2000s parental advice to just “let them learn through play.” It worked, particularly for my oldest son. But then the world sped up. Everyone got smartphones, including children. Video games got more sophisticated. Instant entertainment is everywhere now. Technology has pulled my boys in every direction, and, I won’t lie, it’s pulled me too. I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. Or do I?
Technology is everywhere, but so is the written word. The difference is not how much we read, but the quality of what we read. I used to read Crime and Punishment and Les Miserables. Now I’m too busy getting through tons of daily emails and social media posts to read anything of substance.
The global literacy rate is the highest ever recorded, 90% for males and 82.7% for females. Four out of five adult Americans have a high school degree. But the average American only reads at an 8th grade level. Most best-selling novels are written at a 7th grade level. Public health and safety notices are written at a 5th grade level.
When I homeschooled my children, I made sure that they were exposed to high-level books. I read Treasure Island to them when most kids their age were still being read picture books. And you know what? They loved it. As they got older, we read Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, The Good Earth, Beowulf, The Call of the Wild, and tons of other classics - all before high school. Now they are 13 and 15 years old. My youngest opted to go to public school in the 7th grade and my oldest takes his high school classes online and in homeschool co-op groups. Both of them read at a college level. But neither will pick up a book to read “just for fun.” There is too much else to do. So how long will that advanced reading level last?
What are we losing by lowering the bar? Are we losing our ability to communicate? Would we even know if we were? If we can’t describe something effectively because we lack the vocabulary, can we even think of it? This idea was explored by George Orwell in 1984, and some scholars have found evidence that supports the idea that language influences our thinking patterns. How can we keep from limiting our thoughts by limiting our vocabulary? Technology is certainly not going away, and I would never suggest that it should. It has brought a lot of advantages that we enjoy today that were not available when I was growing up. But maybe we should all be exercising our minds more often. Maybe we should make it a priority to read something a bit more challenging. And maybe writers should be willing to risk writing something a little more challenging.
What do you think?
I did some research for this post, and I’d like to give credit to those writers. Here are my sources:
The National Association of Scholars’ recommended college reading list. Notice that most of these books were written before mid-20th century.
Wikipedia’s entry for Educational Attainment in the United States
Plain Language at Work newsletter
Article by Keith Topping, Professor of Education and Social Research at the University of Dundee
Article at Dictionary.com about the shrinking of vocabulary in the English language
Article by Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Symbolic Systems at Stanford University
It's really important to me that my writing have sophisticated vocabulary, while at the same time keeping a conversational tone. What is your writing style? What do you do to keep improving your writer's voice? You can discuss this on the forum post for this article. The forum is for members, but you can join for free if you're not already one.
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