Conducted an interesting experiment in my advance English 9 class recently.
We are currently reading The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation. When asked after the first eight books of the epic, The most confusing part of The Odyssey so far is ______ because _______, the most common response is the vocabulary is too difficult and/or the names are impossible.
As part of a 1-minute read I was doing in class one day, I used Rick Riordan’s Lighting Thief. Middle school and high school students have been highly engaged in Riordan’s books, The Lightning Thief being Book One of the Percy Jackson and The Olympians series. I read the first page and a half. As I was reading, I suddenly wondered, What about this book attracts so many young adult readers? Why is this text so much more approachable than Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey?
Finally, I asked these questions out loud to my group of ninth graders. One student said he liked Riordan’s first person narrative. Another student said the idea of a ‘half-blood’ hooked her. Finally, another student said the vocabulary in Riordan’s book was much easier to understand and more recognizable.
So, I fired up the doc camera and we examined the first 193 words of The Lightning Thief and the first 201 words of Book Eight of The Odyssey. First, we looked at Riordan’s novel. We went word for word to identify which words, if any, caused confusion and which words were recognizable. Of the first 193 words of this book, we identified six unrecognizable words. Therefore, we understood 97% of the words we read. This should result in deeper reading and comprehension.
We then did the same examination with The Odyssey. Of the first 201 words of Book Eight, we identified 11 unrecognizable words or names. Therefore, we understood 95% of the words we read. Whoa…only 2% less than The Lightning Thief. This should result in deeper reading and comprehension.
However, the students still felt more attracted to The Lightning Thief rather than The Odyssey. We did acknowledge that word order and more sophisticated literary elements used in The Odyssey has a strong impact on student engagement and comfort level.
Because of this little examination, I do believe students may not so readily say the most confusing part of The Odyssey is the vocabulary. They may say word choice, line structure, or use of extended metaphors cause them confusion, but at least now my students have a better idea of how to articulate what exactly causes discomfort as they read The Odyssey and other complex texts.