Reader-Friendly Testing and the Economist: A Practical Option for Intelligent Children and Thrifty Parents

Jun 19, 2012 by

Robert Oliphant is an overseas veteran of WWII and  earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962)

By Robert Oliphant –

My name is Bob and I feel it’s time for Americans to wake up and smell the gunpowder that Asian nations are using against us, including explosive mixtures based on our own spoken professional American dictionary English (SPADE for short).

For most Americans our SPADE invasion shines forth most brightly from the office rosters of our neighborhood professional office buildings, especially those whose proper names now have an Asian flavor: Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Indian, Filipino, etc. It’s an impact that shouts out even more loudly when we encounter the occupants of these offices and marvel in person at their newscaster-level articulation skills and their posted credentials in high tech fields, including medicine and law. By way of fighting back, here’s an approach addressed to our own middle schoolers, not just their parents.

Dear Middle Schooler. . . . What follows is a very short sequence-awareness test based upon a short article which you have recently read on your own: “Stick or Carrot” (1,000 words, 11 paragraphs), from page 40 of the Economist magazine. The sequence design is just like the following question meant for a four-year old who claims he or she has seen The Wizard of Oz, “Whom did Dorothy see FIRST on the Yellow Brick Road: the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, or the Tin Woodman?

THE TEST: What’s here follows presents three out-of-sequence paragraphs (A, B, and C) from “Stick or Carrot” (Economist: June 9th, 2012). Please reread these three paragraphs and indicate in the following box which of the three comes FIRST in the actual article: A, B, or C. . . [answers below].
Text of paragraph A. . . . And what a garden it is. Pak choi in springtime. Tomatillos in the summer! Seventy thousand bees producing hundreds of pounds of honey to donate to local homeless shelters and give to visiting dignitaries and heads of state!
Text of paragraph B. . . . Despite all this, obesity has proved a thorny policy problem. It is trickier than smoking, which Mr. Bloomberg managed to ban successfully. People need not smoke, but they must eat. Smoking harms nonsmokers directly and measurably through secondhand smoke; the social harms of second hand obesity are more diffuse. Tell a smoker at a restaurant that the smell of his cigarette is bothering you and he may put it out; tell an overweight person eating a doughnut that he is putting an undue strain on your health care system and he will give you a blank stare.
Text of paragraph C. . . . Frank Bruno, a columnist and form critic for the New York Times, called Mr. Bloomberg’s ban “an absurd and random gesture,” but ultimately approved. Alex Koppelman struck a similar tone in the New Yorker: “Even if the ban does nothing but shift the discussion of what the government to protect the citizens in his favor, Nanny Bloomberg will have won, and we’ll be better off for it.”

FOR PARENTS. . . . Granted that your youngster’s reading achievement is what’s important, you can easily and productively offer your youngster “silent spelling bees” with targets like /di skush”euhn/, /res”teuhr euhnt, /hwut, and /ban/. This kind of testing will strengthen vocabulary “newscaster” pronunciation awareness — both currently neglected in American dialect-friendly education.

Best of all, a test giver can calibrate each headword’s relative difficulty according to its number of letters and any irregularity in its first five phonetic symbols. For example, the word MARGIN would be calibrated as 7 (6 letters plus one irregular) for MARGIN /mah”jin/, as opposed to 16 (13 + 3) for PRONUNCIATION /preuh nun’see ay”sheuhn/ — incidentally, the computer version of the Random House unabridged dictionary (cf. contains both recorded and part-by-part pronunciation help.

From the perspective of both middle schooler and parent, the main virtue of this reading-testing system can be summed up in three words: CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP. By way of flexibility, a local newspaper can produce practical reading targets paralleling those of the ECONOMIST, and our calibrated testing system ensures, uniquely so, that appropriate levels of challenge can be assigned to both beginners and youthful virtuosi. (The answer for our sample question, incidentally is C, i.e. the paragraph that being with “Frank Bruno.”)

TO CONCLUDE. . . . This morning (6/19/12) the Los Angles Times front page hit me in the face with a front page headline stating Asian immigrants are outpacing Latinos in numbers. Even more shocking is the article’s citation of Pew Research Center stats stating that first generation Asian Americans are now outpacing the rest of us in education and income. Good news for Asian parents in the Old Country, but bad, bad news for American dads and moms expecting a heavy payoff from their children’s expensive prep schools and over-priced colleges.
So how about it, guys? Isn’t it time to hit our 11-14-year olds up for a little patriotic learning — especially when they can do it at home with their folks!

Note. . . . Robert Oliphant is an overseas veteran of WWII and played jazz Hammond Organ for four years with the Original Krazy Kats. His best known book is A Piano for Mrs. Cimino (Prentice Hall/ Reader’s Digest), the film version of which won a Monte Carlo prize for Bette Davis and continues to be shown in foreign language versions. His current work appears in, the Los Angeles Times, and He lives in Thousand Oaks, California.


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