Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Sinking to our level

Is your child's carseat installed correctly? A recent study suggests that 80 percent of the kid-saving devices aren't put in properly. And why is that? Is it because hooking the dang things up is ridiculously complicated? Is it because car manufacturers make doing anything creative with a seatbelt a contortionist's dream? Is it because kids hate the things so much they sabotage them? Or maybe because the instructions appear to have been written by people who learned English from the back of a cereal box?

No, indeed, on that last one: The problem, researchers surmised, is just the opposite. Instructions are often written at a 10th-grade reading level, and a large percentage of parents just don't measure up to that degree of erudition. More than half of U.S. adults, apparently, can only comprehend text written at an eighth-grade level or below, with half again of those maxing out at fifth-grade level. The solution suggested is to dumb down the instructions, and that's not a bad idea regardless of whether you buy the low-reading-level theory; really, when we're talking about instructions, if you can make it simpler, why not? I mean, we need something more than those instructions that try to communicate a whole bunch of steps with one simple picture, but something less complicated than a high-school textbook. If my daughter's social studies textbook is any indication, even a fifth-grade reading level might be needlessly confusing.

I should probably feel unsettled, reading this study, to find that a quarter of American adults are reading at a level of fifth-grade or less. But it's actually pretty hopeful news to me, because I just got a report saying that my 12-year-old fifth-grader is reading at a third-grade level, and now I don't feel so bad about it. Hey, if she only makes two years worth of progress over the next six years, she'll fit in with a quarter of the adult population. As long as she never needs to install a carseat, she'll be fine.

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