Saturday, September 13, 2008

Super Chunk!

While perusing two of my kids' library books today, I found another example of how chunking works/doesn't work/perhaps doesn't matter.

My son, a third-grader, brought home two books that, on the surface, appear to be very similar. One is on earthworms, the other on snakes. Both are geared to introduce kids to these animals, to describe their variety, what they eat, how they work, what they do and where they (the kids, not the worms or snakes) can go for further information. But the ways the books were presented were peas and carrots. Both, however, are chunked.

In the earthworm book -- the heavily-chunked one -- starts with a table of contents, followed by a page called "fast facts," which talks in brief about the kinds, ranges, habitats, food, and young of worms, followed by a series of pages (appearance, homes, eating and enemies) each accompanied with a picture. Each topic gets one page, no more, and sometimes a bit less. Then there's a hands-on activity, words to know, and a list of places where my kid can read more. The text is informative, if a bit repetitive, and flows in simple, subject-verb sentences.

The other book on snakes is completely different. The writing is more complex, posing questions, using a more conversational tone and incomplete sentences. (We also "get to know" the writer thanks to a blurb at the back; the earthworm author gets no such treatment.) The chunking is present, but not as easily evident. One topic follows the other, but they're not set off by headers, nor limited to one page. The only graphical hint that the subject is changing slightly is the drop-cap that begins each section. At the end there is a section that mixes "words to know" with descriptions of various snakes. We also get an index, along with places to "find out more."

As I mentioned, one of these books clearly has chunking stamped throughout, while the chunking in the other is more subtle. If my son were required to write a report on either snakes or earthworms, however, based on these books, I'd urge him to use the earthworm book, since the heavier-handed chunking offers him more clear start and stop points for various items he might want to mention in his report. If, however, he were asked to offer a book report on one of these books, I'd urge the snake book, as the author uses language and photos more skillfully to incite curiosity and have the reader pose questions.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: I still believe some texts will lend themselves better to chunking than others. However, other elements of writing style also have to be taken into account in deciding how "heavy" the chunking may appear in the text. In general, these two books appear similar. But in the specific, they approach the subject matter differently. Might it be safe to assume that chunking in some documents is desirable, the the heaviness or lightness of the chunking might depend on the end goals of the text?

It's a squishy answer I'm not sure I like all that much, but it's easy to see how taking a light or heavy approach at chunking might make some pages more useful than others -- depending on how users want to use the pages. With chunking, we might be able to influence how users use what we present. But still comes the question of the week: How do we choose? There's got to be an answer somewhere, Sloth.

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