Friday, January 11, 2013

Today's YA books have easier vocabulary than those of the past

Books kids want to read
One of my daughter's friends gave her a Nancy Drew book for her eighth birthday, and I read it to her last month. My daughter enjoyed it and asked me to get her another one. So I stopped at a bookstore yesterday and bought my daughter The Secret of Red Gate Farm.  I got a book for my son at the same time: Jay Asher's popular YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why.

After a few weeks of not much reading, both kids are racing through the new books. My daughter and I are on chapter seven of the Nancy Drew, and my son has already finished Thirteen Reasons Why. This reminds me, again, of how important it is for kids to get their hands, not just on books (both kids have dozens of unread books in their rooms), but on books they want to read (there's a reason the unread books are still unread). I've also, however, been interested by the contrast between the two books.

Hard Words; Easy Words
I read lots and lots of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books when I was a kid. Edward O. Stratemeyer knew what he was doing. I vividly remember the nonstop excitement, the melodramatic adverbs, the cliffhanger endings, replete with exclamation marks, at the end of every single chapter. What I didn't remember, until I started rereading the books with my own children, was how extraordinarily sophisticated so much of the vocabulary is. The books produced by the Stratemeyer syndicate (not only for the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, but also Tom Swift, The Rover Boys, and many others), had simplistic plots, cardboard characters (every villain speaks in a "guttural" or a "harsh" voice, every villain gives himself away by "something shifty in his eyes", etc.)--but there is nothing simplistic about the level of diction in these books.

The ten pages my daughter and I read last night contained the following words: racketeers, chided, sleuth, torrent, blockade, treacherous, mishap, endeavor, traction, deluge, assuage, haggard, resume, adjoining, dismay, gingham, heave, defer, bustle, meringue, uppermost, dissuade, wince, incensed, radiant.

Twenty-five words that difficult in ten pages is quite a lot, and not just for an eight year old. My ninth grade students would have known few of those words. Curious, I went downstairs and picked up the Jay Asher novel that my twelve year old son is reading, a book I bought because it was a favorite of one of the seventeen year olds that my wife has been tutoring. I looked at the first ten pages of the book. Here are the only hard words I found: throbbing, sequence, serrated, meanders, encore. Five words, and significantly easier, on average, than the ones in the Nancy Drew.

Why do today's YA novels have such low-level diction?
I don't think Thirteen Reasons Why is unusual. Most of today's YA novels, though they are written in many other ways with a literary sophistication and subtlety that completely outclasses Nancy Drew, have very, very few words that would be unknown to even the most illiterate ninth grader. This is a pretty important problem for those of us who care about our students' learning words in the way that everyone agrees is the best: by reading.

Reading should be the best way to learn vocabulary, but it won't work if the books you're reading don't contain any words you don't already know.  It also won't work well if the rest of the book is too hard for you.  That's why more skillful readers have an advantage in learning vocabulary from reading: because more skillful readers can understand text in which more of the words are unknown to them, they are more likely to encounter more unknown words, and more likely to understand them when they encounter them.  As usual, the rich get richer.  This is why books like Nancy Drew are so wonderful--the books are really easy to understand, so weaker readers (or younger kids) can read them, but they have lots of sophisticated words in them, used in contexts that are often quite easy to figure out.

Besides John Green, what other YA authors use big words?
His sophisticated vocab is another reason to love John Green; the first ten pages of The Fault in Our Stars contains: abundant, redeeming, facet, preternaturally, recurrence, peril, disinterest, exotically, cannula, contraption, myriad, cankle, serenity, veritably, Episcopal, eking, meager, satellite, monotone, appendiceal, proffer, denounce, proverbial, oblivion, encompassingly. Twenty-five words, just as many as the Nancy Drew book, but used in a prose that's a million times more limber and elegant.  In fact, the romance in The Fault in Our Stars begins partly because the two protagonists impress each other with their fancy vocabulary.

So how do we get our students to read books that with more difficult words in them? How can we get more people to write like John Green?  And what other YA novels contain difficult words? (1)

1. Lexile scores are helpful first takes, but aren't reliable.  Sarah Dessen's Someone Like You, for instance, has a lexile score that's higher than the early Nancy Drew books, but doesn't use nearly as many difficult words of the "good SAT word" variety: I count fewer than ten in the first ten pages.

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