Never fear: curricular complexity has actually increased since the 1970s. Image by The Baltimore Sun’s Read Street.

Are elementary school reading textbooks getting simpler?  Many people sense that something has changed—that the cognitive demands of reading textbooks are different than they used to be.  Is this true?  If so, what has changed?

New research by Penn State educational psychologist Robert J. Stevens and colleagues tackles this question.  They sampled hundreds of 3rd and 6th grade reading textbooks published between 1910 and 2000, and then sampled texts from within them.  For each text, they analyzed its level of difficulty—including the sophistication of the words, the range of vocabulary used, and the complexity of the syntax—and the cognitive demands placed on the reader—including the amount of text readers need to process, the complexity of processing demands, and whether they ask students about high-level ideas.

Early in the 20th century, there were dramatic declines in the level of difficulty and cognitive demands of curricula.  Between about 1930 and 1970, and for reasons the researchers cannot explain, the cognitive demands of reading texts barely changed.  However, after 1970, they observe a fairly consistent increase in the level of difficulty and cognitive demands of texts, especially in 3rd grade.  They attribute this increase to criticisms of classroom instruction, to increased research on reading comprehension, and to changes in the types of reading material featured in texts.

In short: “Contrary to the common assumption of a trend of simplification of the texts and comprehension tasks … the results indicate that curricular complexity … has notably increased since the 1970s.”

Read the full article here:

Stevens, Robert J., Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert, and David A. Gamson. Forthcoming. “Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000.”  American Educational Research Journal