THE BLOG
04/09/2014 09:46 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Good Writing Honors the Reader

The Huffington Post and other major newspapers care about you. They make sure that the material you read is accurate and well-written. They publish only writers they trust to deliver consistent, well-researched articles and they have editors -- gatekeepers -- in place to maintain high standards.

Reading teachers have a measurement, called"lexiles (L)"to evaluate the complexity or difficulty of texts. Gerri K. Songer, Education Chair - Illinois Township High School District 214, measured the lexile level of some sample paragraphs from the recent PARRC assessment test and came to the conclusion that "[for students] to independently read the most complex of these passages, [they] will need to read at 1470L by April of their junior year." As a comparison, I measured a few of my entries here on the Huffington Post and they average about 1000L. Songer also came to some conclusions about the reading levels stipulated by the Common Core State Standards:

• CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that does not follow standard convention rules (i.e. text without an identifiable pattern).
• CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that is unclear, misleading, old, unfamiliar, ironic, and figurative (text that doesn't say what it means).
• CSSS finds it more desirable for students to read text with which few people can identify in terms of life experience.
• CCSS finds it more desirable for students to read text that has multiple meanings with information that is implied, hidden, or obscure.

And she sums it up:

"CCSS advocates utilizing text for educational purposes that follows no pattern, that is unclear and misleading, that few people can identify with, and that has multiple meanings."

I'm quite certain that my Huffington Post editors do not measure the lexiles of the articles they curate. They know good writing when they read it. So do students. What does reading comprehension have to do with the quality of the writing? Is this something that can be measured? As a matter of fact, a study was done in 1988 that still holds up well today.

The writing in question was two 400-word excerpts from a high-school history textbook. The experimenters asked three pairs of writers, two linguists, two college English teachers and two former Time-Life magazine writers to rewrite the passages to make them more understandable to the students. Three-hundred eleventh grade students read the original material and the revisions and were tested on how much they recalled. The results? Students who read the linguists' and English teachers' versions did not recall much more or less than they had from the original texts. But students who read the magazine writers version recalled 40 percent more than the original! Naturally, the linguists and English teachers wanted another crack at the rewrite but although the second experiment show a little improvement, the magazine writers were still twice as effective at communicating. In other words, good writing is memorable. And command of the English language doesn't necessarily mean you're a good writer.

Clearly complexity of writing and good writing are NOT the same thing. In fact, there is some commercial writing, for example, the fine print for insurance policies that is designed to be legally binding but difficult to understand. By the time a textbook writer gets through with all the style standards, lexile levels and politically correct taboos, the writing is flat and tedious and has a negative effect on a student's desire to read and desire to learn. J.K. Rowling proved with Harry Potter that children will read very long, complex texts when the subject interests them. Nonfiction literature, like the kind I and my colleagues from iNK Think Tank write, feeds children's interest in the real world and challenges them to read more.

No matter how high the bar is set, simply stating the standards does not mean that students will perform at a higher level. The absurd weight now accorded to standardized testing is destroying public education and, I fear, a generation of learners. My biggest disappointment with the Obama administration is the havoc wreaked on public education by Arne Duncan's Race to the Top policies. It is a policy that doesn't honor teachers or students. Yet they claim that the single most important factor in a child's education is the effectiveness of the teacher. (Not true. Poverty is by far the most influential factor.)

We know what works in education and there is NO magic solution. Children are born to learn. They are born to interact with other human beings. They thrive when they are treated with respect. The best teachers are those who form relationships with students so that they can lead them into learning. Students catch such a teacher's passion for learning, which is reinforced with good writing in instructional and enriching resources. These are the teachers who create the future readers of newspapers and other participants in the public conversation. They are essential to the survival of our democracy.