About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Defining writing style: style vs. level

Ken Allen had an interesting post about "writing for the literacy level." I commented that there was difference between reading level and style. In the comment, I did a good job of describing reading level, but not such a good job of explaining what I see as "style" differences and how that is different than reading level.

When writing for a different level of reading, this usually means a writer must provide greater context and use a more common pattern of format, vocabulary, and grammar.

What are common patterns?

The common patterns will depend on the language (including the form of language, such as American English, British English, or International English). This means that there are certain writing, spelling, and punctuation protocols that are recognized by a large group of mainstream language speakers. Looking at a child's book, for example, this does not mean that sentences are simple, but they may be shorter. In American English, this means also that verbs are in an active tense, usually present, simple past, or simple future. More complex verb tenses (conditional, mixtures of time within the same sentence, and conditions such as might have gone if they had been there on time) would require high levels of abstraction (what is compared to what might be).

Likewise, language based on everyday life within the mainstream culture would be a common pattern. This is when defining reading level can put a member of a minority culture at a disadvantage. Younger members who might not be exposed to the mainstream cullture would not necessarily have the cultural knowledge needed to understand items written at a "lower" reading level. Therefore, it may be that a story, such as this one, written for a 5-7 year old, could be more difficult to an urban youth who has never been on a farm. Understanding the story might require a higher level of abstraction than a 5-7 year old is capable of.

Defining Style

Style on the other hand, has to do with the tone, register, genre or format, and organization of information that will be acceptable to the reader in the context of the audience.

Style may differ depending on profession, age, education, context, and (as my current research is indicating) power structures. For example, there is a different writing style for science, academic journals, business, managers, politicians, or a person's grandmother. The same content will be presented different ways, using different jargon and grammar, presenting information in different formats and order, and even giving a different visual representation of the writing (i.e. different fonts, spacing, pictures, use of white space).

Style won't have an effect on understanding a message, but it may have an effect on accepting the message or perception of the message.

Some examples

While Ken contends that he does not change his writing for the age group (as I have not seen what he writes for his students, I can't verify this) he does change his style depending on the top. For example, this post on the knol and this post on technology change style and format.

In fact, many of us change style depending on the circumstances, often unconsiously. A good writer fits the style to the message, the audience expectations, and the formats often provided by those within the power structures within which we work. Our style is often informed by feedback from readers, bosses, and coworkers/colleagues. We begin to think differently, formulating our ideas through the interactive process of writing, feedback, and editing.

I would bet that Ken maintains a "scientific academic" writing style regardless of the reading level. This is because he is introducing his students into the scientific community's communication protocols and structures. If he were to "dumb down" or use too simplistic formats in developing his written material, students would not be inducted into the scientific community. In other words, he would be doing his students a disservice. On the other hand, I am sure that he does make some "reading level" changes without even knowing it, using active voice for younger readers, including definitions with the jargon that older readers would not need. His choice of examples (the use of examples would be stylistic, the types of examples would be reading level) would depend on his students' prior knowledge.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...
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Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia.

Thank you for the links to my posts.

Style vs Level. Hmmm. I wonder if we are still on the same platform here :-)

The asTTle reading levels are governed by complex parameters. I've had this confirmed recently by discussing the matter with a qualified English teacher (I'm qualified in Science).

The Flesch Reading Ease, which is another (but different) scale from the asTTle levels, is governed by a mathematical expression. It involves such things as average word length (in letters) number of words in a sentence number of sentences in a paragraph and a few other parameters.

However, my post refers to something different again. And you are right to say that I (attempt to) use the same level of writing no matter what the age of my readers (within the secondary subject levels).

I will have to qualify exactly what I mean by this, however, since there is a consideration of vocabulary (which I DO take into account when writing). Also concept and idea, which must be involved.

A chapter that I wrote in year 13 Chemistry will nevertheless be written in the simplest possible language. A year 9 chapter in Chemistry that I wrote will likewise be in the simplest possible language.

I have no doubt that in order to write to these levels in Chemistry, and to do it well, there will be factors which, ultimately, will affect the reading levels of these passages. Obviously the complexity of the ideas involved will have an effect on reading level. However, the differences in these levels may not necessarily reflect the true difference in subject levels.

Style, as you correctly exemplified with reference to two of my posts, is another issue. That parameter may well affect the reading level of a passage of prose. It should. For a passage written in active language would be different than if it was written in a passive voice.

I can only stress the point I attempted to bring across in my post, and comments to that:

"I wish to present no other barrier when I write, than possibly the difficulty of the concept I write about.

I'd hate my students to give up Science because of my writing style. I'd actually feel happier if they gave up because they found Science too difficult. For me, that would be a better way for them to find their true ability in the subject.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

V Yonkers said...

I have a better understanding of the measures they are using for readibility. It is very "linguistic" rather than "communicative." I'm with you in that I think children can handle more linguistically complicated language, and in fact need to learn those more complex patterns to be successful.

I know that when I am learning a foreign language, I focus first on the "natural" language patterns, not having to understand each specific word, but needing to understand the rhythm of the language. If I only hear a watered down version, then I am lost when I hit a word or language pattern I am not used to.