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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Special Education Language is Getting Harder to Understand

At Education Week, Christina Samuels compares a paragraph in jargon with a plain-language translation, illustrating how special-education documents have become less readable over the past 30 years. 
The findings were part of a study published in the January edition of the Journal of Disability Policy Studies. The lead author, Sarah A. Nagro, is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She is also a former special education teacher. Nagro wrote the simpler paragraph. She allowed me to share it.
Nagro looked at eight studies. The studies measured how easy or hard it is to read special education documents. The studies were conducted as long ago as 1984. They were also as new as 2014. The 1984 study found that most of the language was at a 9th grade level. The language got harder over time. The 2014 study said most of the language was at "grade 13." That is college level.
Best practices have said to use simple words and short sentences. In 1984, people suggested writing for the average 9th grader. By 2014, the new idea was to write for the average 5th grader. Most parents can understand language at that level.
So what happened? Nagro has two ideas. She said teachers might not think about their writing when they send notes to parents. They may be focused on other things, such as deadlines.
Her second idea is about official documents. Districts and states do not want to make mistakes. They may find it easy to use legal language. That way, they know they are saying the right thing.
As everyone in the world of special education knows, lawyers are either present at IEP meetings, or their influence is in the background.

Tocqueville wrote about American legal language: 
Where lawyers are absolutely needed, as in England and the United States, and their professional knowledge is held in high esteem, they become increasingly separated from the people, forming a class apart. A French lawyer is just a man of learning, but an English or an American one is somewhat like the Egyptian priests, being, as they were, the only interpreter of an occult science.