Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Plain Style Language in Conveying Educational Issues to the Public

Plain Style Language in Conveying Educational Issues to the Public

Cale Zuiker

            My argument in my first critique talked of the negative uses of the Official Style type of language that went along with the sphere of education.  Standards were written, journals and articles were posted that were written in this style and because of this were hard to understand to most without any background knowledge or experience with the jargon.  My questions in writing that critique were simply ‘who were these written for, for what purpose, and why?’ and I explored possible answers to those questions.  In this critique I want to explore examples of writing on the sphere of education in the Plain Style that accommodates readers with that average reading level at grade seven.  Although I still firmly believe that the Official Style is used unnecessarily too much in the sphere of education and that the majority of documents regarding education should be written in Plain Style, I still want to explore the possible negatives of writing plainly in this sphere.  I will try to look at the issue from two sides then talk about my own opinion and give my own argument regarding the topic.  The layout of this critique will fall in three parts; first I want to explore Plain Style in itself, the benefits of using it versus the Official Style as well as the negatives.  Then I want to look at some examples from the field of education, primarily news articles, written in the Plain Style and finally I will attempt to bring all my thoughts together in a conclusion.

            Plain language, when looking for a straight definition, is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.  There is no need for open interpretation here, it is what it is.  There are a couple of components to the Plain Style, and The King’s English by Henry Fowler state them;

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched, prefer the concrete word to the abstract, prefer the single word to the circumlocution, prefer the short word to the long, and prefer the Saxon word to the Romance

Because this book was written in 1906 it uses a little language that is foreign to modern day so for the record the contrast between the Saxon word to the Romance word means that native words are better than borrowed ones.  So this is the basis of plain language; that it is unnecessary to use a far-fetched idea, or an abstract word when a familiar idea or a concrete word will do, will make the audience understand.  And in turn this reflects the purpose of language, which is to communicate, and by using the Official Style this communication is blocked at points by people who do not have the jargon experience or have not been educated to broaden their vocabulary or understanding of complex words or sentences.  However, this does not mean that those people should not be excluded from language in their community whether it be through the news, basic conversations, or any use of language for that matter.  It needs to be about getting the point across to everyone and eliminating this ‘elitist’ approach to higher educated ways of communicating that leave people out and create this inequality that is completely avoidable if we choose it to be.
            Now in reference to the sphere of education, most of the documents that I have chosen are written in news articles as not many scholarly journals are written in the Plain Style, because frankly, in my opinion most scholarly journals are written to show off.  As I said before the purpose of language is supposed to be to communicate, to get the word out as newspapers do, and to make this word accessible and readable by the entire literate population.  Here is a passage from an article written in the U.S. News entitled “Education Reform May Leave High-Performing Students Behind”,

Hall and Plucker agree that both achievement gaps are and should be points of concern for educators and policymakers, but they require different responses. One simple change educators and researchers could make to help improve achievement gaps at the top end of the spectrum is to increase awareness.

This comes in with a reading level of 14.7, which is still a little high in my opinion to be published in a news article but the rest of the article is full of quotations that are in plain language and easy statistics that are easy to follow.  When reading something people like to have something to look at such as a picture or a graph that eases the reading a little bit.  I think that in this case, providing a read for a common citizen is important because of the context that it is published in.  Some people, I have realized, enjoy being challenged when they read so they seek out pieces that meet that challenge; scholarly articles or complex reports filled with jargon for example.  They like to read things at a high reading level for whatever purpose; perhaps the message conveyed in the article makes sense to them, perhaps they like coming across a topic they don’t know much about so they research it, and some may do it just to seem smart.  In this case the Official Style is great for this type of reading but this portion of readers do not make up the majority.  We live in a society where we want things to be easy, we do not want to put much effort into it.  This is a negative aspect of our society but nonetheless it is true and while I agree that we need to improve upon this aspect, challenging readers by writing a news article is not the way to do it.  Another example of plain language in relation to the sphere of education comes again in a newspaper article this time from the L.A. times.  This article talks about the way that parents, not teachers, should be blamed for their child’s behavior at school.  As you can imagine just from the description this piece offers opinions of the author but also of people he interviews, teachers and administration, as well as parents.  This short passage from the article gives the reader a clear viewpoint of the author’s opinion;

There are indeed bad parents; some are selfish, absent, neglectful or cruel. But others are just overwhelmed or failed themselves at school. And compounding that is a cultural shift that has reshaped the relationship between parents and teachers.

Is this piece some long, dry article on education reform, filled with jargon that only a small percentage of the population can comprehend?  No, it is meant for someone, anyone that is interested in an issue that is going on in education and gives them an opportunity to read about a situation that happened at a school (the author starts the article by writing about an incident in a school regarding student behavior) and this author’s opinion as well as others involved in the sphere of education.  The article is easy to understand, with a readability grade level of 9.6, and the reader can compare the author’s viewpoints with his or her own.  There is no analysis that needs to occur, this is simply an informative piece on a subject in our society that some people may be interested in, and it is communicated clearly to an average reader.  Some critics of the Plain Style may try to argue with this, saying that this is too important of a topic to be talked about plainly; the education of our children needs to be something spoken about and decided on by experts in the field.  This may be true in some sense, obviously you want people who make decisions about this field to have experience in this field.  But education goes far beyond school, education is a lifelong process and just because someone may work a job that is low paying or live in a low socioeconomic environment, does not mean that they should be excluded from this type of information.

            In conclusion for this critique, I still hold strong the idea that the purpose of language is to communicate and the purpose of education is to educate people, not just students in school, but everybody who lives in our society.  Plain language offers an easier way to educate everyone, it makes it easier to communicate ideas or news in a specific field.  If people choose to read articles or documents in the Official Style that is there choice and they are entitled to it.  But we should not have this secret group of elitists that are the decision makers in the spheres, specifically education, because they are ‘intelligent’ enough to read this material in the Official Style and speak this secret language of jargon.

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