Monday, May 23, 2005

Simplified classics?

From an article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in today's Wall Street Journal on a new series of "simplified classics," "retold using simpler words":

The books have won praise of a number of educators. Peggy Charren, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an advocate for higher quality children's media, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said she has read several of the books. "I was worried because they are truncated, but they're terrific," she said. "For some kids with reading problems, picture books may be as far as they get. But when they can make sense out of symbols on the page, you want them to have to the option of reading something wonderful, like a classic."

Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychologist at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands who specializes in children and media, said he thinks the series is a useful way of making the classics accessible to kids who might otherwise not be able to read them. "It's extraordinarily important for children to feel that they have access to literature," said Mr. Goldstein. "As a teacher you want children to enjoy reading and feel connected to other people who have read these books." The substitution of contemporary shorter words for 19th-century English words is less important than the fact that kids are being exposed to classic literature that their parents might have read, he added.

But several schools that teach kids with reading disabilities say they're emphasizing classics in the original text and won't be buying copies for their classrooms.

One academic institution says kids with reading issues may do better with the originals. "Just because you have reading problems doesn't mean you can't appreciate complex thought and complex language," says Maureen Sweeney, assistant head and director of admissions of the Windward School, an independent nonprofit school in White Plains, N.Y., for children who have language-based learning disabilities. Ms. Sweeney said such students can be taught to read in a multisensory program that includes books-on-tape. "We don't want a watered-down curriculum," she said.

A key issue, says Linda Spector, director of special education at Ann Arbor Academy in Ann Arbor, Mich., is that many kids with reading issues are at a high conceptual level. Ms. Spector would welcome the new series from Sterling Publishing into the school's library as a resource for students who want to read "Tom Sawyer" but can't. However, in the classroom she is emphasizing original literature by using short stories. "We're getting away from the adaptations and want the beautiful, original language," she says.

comments: 3

Joshua Sowin said...

Is a classic still a classic when you make it a different book? I agree with Maureen Sweeney who made the point: "Just because you have reading problems doesn't mean you can't appreciate complex thought and complex language." Exactly. And how can they get better if they don't read things harder than they can currently understand? That is one of the things that makes a classic a classic--a work that is seemingly inexaustable and makes the person reading it into someone they would not be if they didn't read the work.

Michael Leddy said...

Right on (and thanks for the comment). I think that these "simplified classics" involve a "category mistake" about what a work of literature is--as if a work of literature is not what a writer writes but a set of characters and events that one can encounter in any one of a number of forms. Thus some teachers will encourage students who have difficulty to read SparkNotes or watch a movie, as if they and a novel or play are all somehow versions of the same thing.

These simplified versions also ignore the point that complexity and difficulty are worthwhile sorts of experiences, that one can grow as a reader by taking on works that are over one's head. John Holt writes of fifth graders taking on Moby Dick, and I remember trying Ulysses in high school (and thinking it overrated!). One can stumble and fall (or just be callow and way off the mark, as I was with Ulysses), but taking on something difficult--the real thing--can give a reader a sense of accomplishment that will never come about with a cheap replica.

Joshua Sowin said...

I think that these "simplified classics" involve a "category mistake" about what a work of literature is--as if a work of literature is not what a writer writes but a set of characters and events that one can encounter in any one of a number of forms. Thus some teachers will encourage students who have difficulty to read SparkNotes or watch a movie, as if they and a novel or play are all somehow versions of the same thing.

That is exactly the problem. When I was in high school (I graduated in 2000), we often watched movies instead of reading a book. Or if we did read, we often read an "abridgement" unless it was a short poem.

I remember reading Great Expectations a while back and thinking to myself, "I remember this from somewhere, but I can't put my finger on it" because all I saw in my head were faint images. Well, then it came to me. I had saw it as a movie in high school! I'm telling you: 12 years of my life. Wasted. :)