In preparation for Peter Jackson’s movie, The Hobbit, I decided to pull out Tolkien’s classic children’s tale and re-read it. It’s been two decades since I last read it, because I don’t read this book as frequently as I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR). It was as delightful as I remember and since this is a well-known book—’nuff said about the content.
But Have Our Reading Levels Changed?
When Peter Jackson’s LOTR films came out, the office chatter was about who had read the books, when, and how often. I spoke with a young software engineer who said that he’d tried to read The Hobbit in college, but it just seemed too difficult and he put it down.
Too difficult? Really? I tried not to raise my eyebrows. I mentioned that the editor who first received The Hobbit for commercial publication, in England, gave it to his six-year-old son to review. The six-year-old enjoyed it and wrote up a review, saying that he thought most kids under the age of seven or eight would love it.
The software engineer looked uncomfortable and said, “Well, things change.”
True enough. “Things” change, don’t they? The engineer was referring to the use of the English Language, but I immediately thought about the “average reading level” in America. We used to bemoan our falling comprehension/vocabulary/reading levels about every decade or two, particularly when newspapers would announce they’d lowered their target level to the fifth grade… the fourth grade… no, last I heard was that newspapers were writing to the second- or third-grade level.
But I stopped hearing about those reading levels. The news was filled, instead, with average test scores (remember the no-child-left-behind days?) from our schools—and with no emphasis on adult reading levels. More hand-wringing issues that dropped down the garbage disposal into a black hole: those pesky studies that showed comprehension was significantly lowered when reading text from a computer. Internet blogging and online periodicals began to sink the traditional newspapers—so no one cares, any longer, what grade level they’re writing for. Instead, we’re enamored with the ease our online words can be distributed to eager (?) readers.
Shortened Attention Span? Wait While I Check Out This Tweet…
Other “things” have changed as well—many argue that our attention spans are shorter, due to T.V., movies, advertising, and online surfing. We no longer want to spend the time (i.e., waste the effort) to lose ourselves in a book. Some say the structure of online entertainment and text is changing our brains. This was brought up by Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, but is still too controversial an idea to be widely accepted. However, Carr provides enough data to make his premise plausible. And scary. I figure that if, and when, he’s proven right—it’ll be too late.
So what can the average Jo/Joe do? Maybe start by giving your favorite six-year-old (or older) a copy of The Hobbit… 😉