Eleanor von Schweinitz, BfK‘s non-fiction editor, on how the contents page, captions and index – if badly devised – can hinder a child’s search for the facts
Children need to develop specific skills if they are to use information books for reference. From the start the National Curriculum recognised this, incorporating quite precise statements of attainment into the Reading section of the statutory orders for English and elaborating them in the programmes of study. The revised orders for English (which come into force in August) are no less insistent that at Key Stage One children should be ‘taught about the structural devices for organising information, e.g. contents, headings, captions’ and at Key Stage Two ‘taught how to find information in books and computer-based sources by using organisational devices to help them decide which parts of the material to read closely.’
A great deal of time and effort has gone into devising programmes to teach information skills and this has resulted in a number of research projects and the publication of teachers’ manuals as well as books of ingenious exercises for pupils. Yet despite all the exertions of teachers and librarians there is little evidence that these skills are being acquired.
In seeking to explain this lack of success I believe we have overlooked an important contributory factor. We have assumed that because a book has a contents page, an index and other ancillary retrieval devices, any problems in locating information are due to the child’s faulty understanding of how to use these devices – whereas if we had looked a little more closely, we might have discovered that many of the information books which we offer to children fail to conform to the very rules that we are so assiduously teaching. The degree of frustration or sheer bewilderment that children must experience when attempting to carry out our wellintentioned instructions is enough to stifle any desire to persist in a search in which only the most dedicated lateral thinker is likely to be rewarded.
In recent years publishers have concentrated on making information books much more attractive, with high quality colour illustrations and eye-catching page-layouts so that children are encouraged to pick them up and turn the pages. But some of the innovative design features of these books are the very cause of the difficulties that children encounter when using them to locate information.
When introducing children to the skills of skimming and scanning we point out the value of chapter headings, and headings and subheadings in the text, showing how we recognize them by differences in type size, weight and style. But the current fashion for using double-page spreads, dividing up a subject into 20 or 30 topics of apparently equal importance, has created problems for children trying to find their way around some of these information books.
The contents page of a book which has been designed around the double page opening can be a formidable sight with a list of up to 28 page headings reproduced in an undifferentiated column – as the following example illustrates.
The quick-witted child will soon work out that it will take hardly any longer to leaf through the whole book than plough his way through nearly 30 headings. And so the whole point of the contents page as a summarisation of the content and the main structure of the book is lost.
Of course some books are no more than a collection of snippets of information and the list of headings from the double-page spreads that make up the contents page can only reflect this miscellaneous approach. But sometimes there is an underlying structure which the uniform listing of headings serves to obscure. Take the following example from a recent book on the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt. The contents page consists of a list of 28 headings which includes the following sequence:
At the Doctor’s
Finding True North
Levelling the Base
Most children will have no difficulty with the first six of these headings but what about the last three? Seasoned adults will quickly spot what has happened but wouldn’t the following layout make it much clearer to everyone?
At the Doctor’s
Building the Pyramid
Finding True North
Levelling the Base
Some contents pages have headings which read more like the headlines in the tabloid press – designed to whet the appetite rather than enlighten. See how well you score in the following example (my ‘answers’ follow in brackets):
Life in a rainforest
(no problem – it’s about the gecko)
Murder by poison
(the giant tiger centipede)
Glued to the spot
(the postman caterpillar)
(the postman butterfly)
(the fruit bat)
(wrong! it’s about the orchid mantis)
The high life
(this time it is the orchid)
These snappy headings may be perfectly clear as banner headlines accompanying a huge illustration but they are quite inappropriate as the basis for a contents page.
Books which are illustration-led, with text packaged in short captions, can be difficult to scan for information. But children are not helped if these captions are given jokey headings, especially if the jokes presuppose an adult level of understanding. Of course, the eager nine-year-old scanning the caption headings in a book about fish may appreciate the humour of ‘Tail of Terror‘ after a hearty dose of the new curriculum with its emphasis on spelling – but it’s doubtful whether they will find it helpful when scanning the text for information. And however sophisticated your sense of humour it’s simply not possible to guess the content of a caption headed ‘Fish kebab?’ or ‘Love at first bite‘ or ‘Swimming in the rain‘ – in fact you need to read the text of all these captions before you can see the point of the heading.
But for children in search of information by far the greatest difficulty arises when using that principal retrieval device – the index. What should be a gateway is far too often a barrier. It’s only worth using an index if it speeds up the process of locating relevant information but for many children the experience is not only time-wasting but deeply frustrating.
One of the most common frustrations is to follow up a page reference only to find that it leads to a mere mention of the term without any substantial information. I have just timed myself following up 13 page references to ‘insects‘ in a book on living things in the home. It took me just under four minutes to trace them all (some ten-year-olds might well take twice as long) and barely half the references yielded any real information on insects. In the same book a reference to ‘dogs‘ leads to: ‘The nematods are related to those that can live in a dog or cat – but exist in far bigger numbers.’ An adult will realize that this is a dud reference but what will our ten-year-old make of it?
Even more demoralising is when the index deliberately conceals the word you are looking for – tucking it away in some unexpected corner of the alphabet. We teach children to identify key words which define the information they are seeking and show them how to search for these words in the alphabetical sequence; so that if they want to look up what our book on living things in the home has to say about woodworm they will expect to find the term indexed at W. So how do you explain to them that on this occasion they won’t find woodworm at W but at F in the alphabetical sequence?
Just pause and try and think this one out… you are, after all, an adult and should be able to suggest to a puzzled child why he should be looking at F for a key word that begins with W. Let me put you out of your misery – the woodworm is the larva of the furniture beetle and the word woodworm has been indented as a subheading at that term. Well now you can explain where to look for caterpillar (that’s right – at B for butterfly). But where should we be looking for information about snakes or slowworms (neither is to be found at S in the index). This is where things start to get a bit more complicated because we find snake at R for reptile but slowworm isn’t at R (despite the fact that slowworms are reptiles) so how do we explain that in this case we look at L? Well you see slowworms are lizards… but hang-on a minute, shouldn’t lizards be indented at reptiles (together with snakes) and then slowworms indented at lizards? If you are starting to feel pretty confused, what do you think this index has done to the confidence of a child attempting to follow our simple rule about key words?
And don’t imagine this sort of thing only happens in natural history books – take a look at a book on the Gulf War that indexes President Sadam Hussein at H but indents President George Bush at USA. In the same book Patriot missiles are indexed at P but if you want Scud missiles you are referred to a subheading at Iraq.
Less prevalent but equally frustrating is the failure of some indexes to include key terms. Let’s compare two books in an interesting series on Exploration and Encounters. Each contains a similar double-page spread on navigation methods in the 15th and 16th centuries: one book indexes ‘navigation‘, the other doesn’t. One of these books is about the Portuguese voyages to the East in search of trade; a major theme is the conflict between Christian and Muslim traders. The word ‘Christians‘ is indexed but not ‘Muslims’ (although Muslims are discussed on nine of the 41 pages of text).
Let me mention just one final irritant: the failure of publishers to number all the pages in some information books (design considerations prevailing over concern for ease of retrieval). Where this occurs in a sequence of several pages it can be the final straw for the inexperienced information seeker following up a page reference from the index.
Let’s look at some examples of all these indexing faults in a book on Romans and Celts (aimed at Key Stage Two). Imagine a nine-year-old who wants to know about ‘slaves‘ – he finds five page references in the index but he is held up in his search for them as three of the pages he’s looking for have no page numbers. The first page he finds has a useful paragraph on slaves, the second has an illustration of a street scene with a slave (labelled), but the other three pages yield nothing whatsoever about slaves. He next looks for ‘soldiers‘ in the index but there is nothing at S so he tries A for ‘army’ – nothing there either. He gives up, having (naturally enough) missed the word ‘soldier’ indented at ‘war‘. If he had found this entry with its three page references (one unnumbered) he still would have missed a full page illustration of Roman soldiers with four useful sentences of text which the index has failed to include. But so far he hasn’t found anything on Celtic soldiers (or more correctly warriors). Although they are discussed and illustrated on four pages he will find nothing in the index. He tries ‘Boudicca’ – nothing at B but he finally tracks her down indented at ‘chiefs‘ (along with Julius Caesar!) He looks at W for ‘women’ but they have been indented at ‘people‘ – next he tries ‘food‘ – that’s at ‘people’ too, along with ‘clothes‘ and ‘cooking‘. Of course this is an extreme example of a bizarre index but there are hundreds of books which exhibit these` same faults on a more modest scale.
Is it surprising that many children abandon any pretence of using those ‘organisational devices’ that the National Curriculum is so anxious for them to master? In a world where a growing number of reference sources are available on CD-Rom shouldn’t publishers of children’s information books start to take the question of information retrieval more seriously? When it comes to tracking down specific information children could find that CD-Rom offers a more user-friendly approach – with lead-in menus providing all the virtues of a highly structured contents page and key word searching no problem (not to mention the added bonus of hypertext cross-referencing at the touch of a button). But that’s the start of another story…