Dumbed Down

There are those of us who must write to the beat of client-drummers in order to maintain the roofs over our heads and keep our anti-virus programs running. To measure the ease with which the average reader will peruse (and, hopefully, comprehend) our articles, editors often feed the painstakingly written pages through literary meat-grinders known as “Readability Tests.” These tools of creative destruction usually employ the Flesch Kincaid scale to measure the difficulty of reading, grade level, length of words and so forth. Plug any article into an online test-site and, voila – it’s analyzed and judged “suitable” for a particular age demographic.

The Fry Graph is one of many "readability" scales.

When first confronted with this system I balked (by which I mean that I engaged in a prolonged, muttered rant about the “dumbing down” of the public, literary prostitution etc.).

As a child I was given books that far exceeded my reading age. The goal was to develop my abilities so these volumes were handed to me along with a well-worn copy of Webster’s Dictionary. Don’t know a word? Look it up. Can’t grasp a concept? Here’s your library card. (Of course those methods of learning are now considered archaic for explanations are always just one or two lazy keyboard strokes away – for those who can be bothered).

Just out of curiosity, I subjected the three top presidential candidate’s websites to the heinous “readability” tool. (Believe me, all political written material is scrutinized in that fashion).

According to the Flesch Kincaid Tests, the three sites each offer an average reading level of grade 9 (14 – 15 year olds). According to the US Census, the largest voting group in this country is comprised of those between the ages of 45 to 64. Must we assume then that the average voter over the age of 45 reads/comprehends the written word at a level that is comparable to that of a 15 year old?

(Pause for a moment to consider a gaggle of 15 year olds. How extensive is their knowledge of the issues facing this country? With what degree of maturity and experience do they analyze those issues before arriving at an opinion?)

Then there’s this from The National Endowment for the Arts:

On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

From the New York Times:

“The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago, when the study was last conducted. And that does not count the hour and a half that youths spend texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cellphones.”
“While most of the young people in the study got good grades, 47 percent of the heaviest media users — those who consumed at least 16 hours a day — had mostly C’s or lower, compared with 23 percent of those who typically consumed media three hours a day or less.”

I’ve read the texts and FaceBook postings of teens. “R u cumin 2 skool?”, while intelligible enough, hardly meets the standard criteria for even base-line literacy. Never fear though: new “dictionaries” are cropping up every day. One example is NoSlang.com: an online source for understanding what your children are frantically typing as you enter their “personal space.” (aitr= adult in the room).

Given all of the above, one can only question this nation’s future path. News media sources and political “leaders” express themselves through reading levels that are directed towards the intellectual capabilities of young teens…even as the development of comprehension skills and language facility spiral downward.

(By the way, I ran this article through the “readability” meat-grinder. Here are the results: Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 11. Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score: 44. The site suggested a complete re-write for “simplification purposes”).

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Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.
Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.