Modelling "simple" texts

As students progress through school, they tend to be assigned texts that are longer, more challenging to read, and more mature in their subject matter. 

However, the target age of a text does not tell you much about the challenges and benefits of modelling that text.

This is because children don't write children's books; adults write children's books. Often older adults with considerable technical skill.

For example, consider this passage from Storm Boy.

Storm Boy lived between the Coorong and the sea. His home was the long, long snout of sandhill and scrub that curves away south-eastwards from the Murray mouth. A wild strip it is, windswept and tussocky, with the flat shallow water of the South Australian Coorong on one side and the endless slam of the Southern Ocean on the other. They call it the Ninety Mile Beach. From thousands of miles round the cold, wet underbelly of the world the waves come sweeping in towards the shore and pitch down in a terrible ruin of white water and spray. All day and all night they tumble and thunder. And when the wind rises it whips the sand up the beach and the white spray darts and writhes in the air like snakes of salt.

Storm Boy(1963)

Storm Boy is typically read by Australian school students in Grade 5.

But modelling the lyrical and mythic qualities of the Storm Boy voice would be challenging for senior students and adults alike.

By contrast, here is a snippet from Lee Child'sKilling Floor:

Then I was walked to the left. They stopped me in front of a door. Baker swung it open and I was pushed into a room. It was an interview facility. No windows. A white table and three chairs. Carpet. In the top corner of the room, a camera. The air in the room was set very cold. I was still wet from the rain.

This snippet, written by an adult for an adult audience, is from a story about "adult" topics such as crime, corruption, conspiracy and murder.

But it could easily be modelled by a 5th-grader writing in a tough guy persona.

Here's another example, a snippet from Karen Russel's Swamplandia!:

Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one—to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree.

That's a lovely passage, but is it a good model for you and your students?

Maybe not! It's more ornate than most circumstances require, and even within narrative fiction it only suits a certain sub-genre of literary fiction.

And if you did want to use it as a model, you'd still need to find a way to make it accessible. For example, you could point out that, in spite of the rich poetic language and the expanded description, the passage is basically a list of actions, each a different way of saying "turn the lights off".

So even complex writing can be distilled to simple patterns for adaptation.

To hammer that point home, let's look at particularly inscrutable piece of academic writing from a Roy Bhaskar, a British philosophy professor:

Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal — of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.

Quoting this passage is a cheap shot: it won the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest in 1996.

But it's a good demonstration of the point that complex writing is not necessarily good writing.

For example, the Karen Russel snippet is complex but not impenetrable, whereas the Roy Bhaskar snippet is incomprehensible.


If you look closely, you might be surprised to discover that the two snippets are structurally similar; both are lists of items separated by semi-colons.

Russell's list is ornate but clear because the list items are tangible and clear.

Bhaskar's is impenetrable because the list items are a combination of abstractions, nominalisations, specialised vocabulary, obscure references, and interminable prepositional expansions.

(And if you were to keep looking, we can see Bhaskar is making it clear that in his view dialectical critical realism is bad, which we can surmise from the use of qualities such as unholy, capricious, and failing. We just can't understand why it's bad without understanding the meaning of all the specialised terms.)

The point of all this was simply to say don't dismiss Writelike lessons that use texts written for younger readers.

Just because those texts are easy to read does not mean they are easy to write!