Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Highlights for Whom...Kids?: A Plain Style Critique

It was and still is one of the most popular published works for the children demographic.  Highlights for Kids, is a magazine, and also now a website that targets grade school level children.  Established in 1946, Highlights for Kids has projected their motto, “Fun with a Purpose”, around the country for many decades.   The publication offers educational, yet interactive and fun activities, articles, craft ideas and games through the use of plain style text.  With a title containing the word, “kid”, and a presumably juvenile context, one could presume that it is an overall kid friendly magazine and that the reading levels found within the texts are suitable to the target demographic.  Upon evaluation and analysis, I found that this was not the case.  It is apparent that the information presented within the pages is in the form of plain style, but at a higher level than what the target audience is.  So what does this mean and what is the purpose?  After correlating the reading levels of a particular article from the current online issue titled, “Blind Ambition”, the scores averaged higher than a grade school level, nearly reaching the seventh grade reading level.  Ironically, this is the average reading comprehension level of the entire United States of America.  With this information one could wonder who really is the magazine’s audience, how effective is its material, and what does that say about the magazine itself?  The company states that their mission is the following: “Because children are the world’s most important people, we exist to serve children, their families, and others involved in their development, helping them become their best selves—creative, curious, caring, and confident.”  Yet, how can children achieve these goals, if they can’t comprehend the material?  Within this analysis, I will locate the source of the problem within this particular plain text, indicate how the company avoids these issues to continue a well-working publication, and how possibly plain text, although the simplest of the styles, can still cause complications depending on the activity system.

“Blind Ambition” is a non-fiction article about a young boy, who with the aid of his father, learned to downhill ski despite his disability.  The content of the story seems fitting to the magazine and to the coinciding activity system, for it is relative, inspirational, and exciting--a topic that kids would find interesting.  What does not work within this article is the structure of the text as well as the diction used throughout it.  As indicated below, the Readability Formula shows that the target age of reading ease for this article is that of almost a 7th grader, yet the magazine states, on its very website, that the target demographic of children ages 6-12.  

Readability Formula
Average Grade Level

 Here is an example of an excerpt from the article.  “Ben Vercellone zigzags gracefully down the snowy slope. Other skiers watch him with wide-eyed amazement.”  As you can see the sentence structure is very simple and in plain style, using a subject and verb formula.  This makes it very comprehendible for young readers, because they do not have to go far to figure out whom is doing what.  Another example is as follows: “A skier is guided with the help of a bamboo pole.  Recently, Ben’s father built a new gadget similar to one he’d seen used to guide a blind ski champion from New Zealand.”  Again, the structure is easy and comprehendible for young and new readers.  But the sentence structure does not stay so elementary.  “By following the continuous sound of his father’s voice, Ben knows where he is on the slope and when he can turn. This provides a greater challenge and more independence because it eliminates the need for constant directions from behind.”  This portion of the text begins with a prepositional phrase.  Prepositional phrases increase the complexity of the content, because never do they directly state the subject, causing readers to become confused by the other nouns within the sentence.  Along with prepositional phrases, the article increasingly becomes difficult by implementing challenging word choice.  These words do not seem relative within a child’s vocabulary.  Some examples of these words found within this article are as followed: restrictive, smidge, continuous, independence, grounded, tandem.

As one can see, the publication Highlights for Kids, seems more like Highlights for Teens or Highlights for Extremely Advanced Elementary Readers, but of course this doesn’t make sense.  How does a magazine like this do so well?  Although it is a challenging publication it still is one of the highest recommended and highest selling magazines for young children.  One answer: logistics.  Highlights for Kids, advertises via television, via other publications such as parenting magazines, and online.  The one thing that all these outlets have in common is that adults are the ones ultimately making the final decisions.  Logically, whether or not the child sees the advertisements or not, parents are the ones calling in, or going online and subscribing to the magazine.  In most cases, the magazine illustrates this child-parent bond happening while utilizing the product.  For example, within the craft portion of the magazine it often states, “Have your parent or guardian help you cut the piece of plastic”, or “Make sure to have an adult assist you with this portion of the science project”.  The magazine is not merely targeting one activity system, but directing its pitch towards numerous: child, parent, and even teachers.

Teachers are popular consumers for the magazine, ordering them to offer another outlet for learning within their classrooms.  I personally remember when my entire class in elementary school would receive a Highlights for Kids magazine and we would go through articles with the entire class.  For this very reason, the parent and child connection as well as the teacher or classroom and child collaboration, offers assistance to young children when reading the text.  Through analysis of the website, it is concluded that this is the appropriate reason for increasing the reading ease.  It challenges the children, yet with the help of superiors or collective assistance, children can comprehend the text and acquire upper level knowledge, something they probably would not be able to do on their own.

Upon locating the problem of the publication--the reading ease, and then examining how through the aid of parents and teachers, the publication bypasses these problems, we lastly consider how plain text can often be misperceived as a whole.  According to Richard Lanham, the "three central values" of the plain style are Clarity, Brevity, and Sincerity”.  As an audience we distinguish plain style, in comparison to creative and official style, as easy and straightforward.  But, what we as readers of all styles have to understand is that plain style still has its categories of reading ease and comprehensibility.  As we have seen within this analysis of a children’s publication, although the use of plain style is extremely exercised within the publication, with a higher reading ease, it still becomes difficult for readers within the demographic.   Highlights for Kids showcases that sometimes even plain text can find itself directed towards the wrong activity system, for plain style cannot always be deemed “the easy style”.  This becomes increasingly important for not only magazine publications, but also news outlets, advertisements, political messages, etc. when hoping to dictate a message to the nation as a whole.  With a 7th grade average reading level, our nation cannot consider plain style as universally logical, nor can we display this style as accessible to every activity system.

By: Hannah K.

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