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In 25 Years, Little Has Changed on Schools' Reading Lists

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The "canon" of required literature in public secondary schools differs little from what was in vogue 25 years ago, a study by a federally funded research center has found.

The survey of 488 schools by the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature found that, as was true in a similar study in 1963, Shakespeare continues to dominate reading lists. Four Shakespeare plays are among the 10 most-assigned works, according to the new study.

Books by John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, most of which were popular staples in the mid-1960's, are also commonly assigned today, the study found.

Moreover, its findings reveal that required-reading lists are almost identical for public, Catholic, and independent schools, for urban and non-urban schools, and for schools with varied minority populations.

These findings suggest, the study concludes, that efforts to broaden the canon to include more works by women and minority authors have been "ineffective."

"In all the settings we examined," the report states, "the lists of most frequently required books and authors were dominated by white males, with little overall change in balance from similar lists 25 or 80 years ago."

"New strategies are obviously needed," it says, "perhaps strategies that focus on asking teachers to read and discuss specific titles during preservice coursework, inservice workshops, and department discussion groups, so that teachers can gain the familiarity with alternative texts that they now have with the texts that dominate the lists."

Romeo Up, Silas Down

The literature center, based at the State University of New York at Albany, is jointly funded by the U.S. Education Department and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Its study, written by Arthur N. Applebee, the director, notes that while there is considerable debate "about what should be taught, there is a singular lack of information about the titles that are actually being taught in American secondary schools."

The last such survey, it points out, was conducted in 1963 by the Educational Testing Service.

The new data, obtained from8questionnaires completed by department chairmen, reveal that more books are required now than in 1963. In 1988, 27 books were assigned by more than 30 percent of the schools surveyed; in 1963, the comparable figure was 9 books.

"Rather than being diluted in recent years, the role of the canon seems to have been strengthened," the author writes.

Of the commonly used Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet has replaced Macbeth at the top of the list, perhaps reflecting the popularity of the recent film version of the play, according to the study.

The only title to show a drop in popularity was George Eliot's Silas Marner, the third-ranking book in 1963 but absent from the top 10 in 1988. Citing a previous study of the literature curriculum, the report points out that critics had urged then that schools drop Silas Marner "in favor of better literature."

The study also found that:

There is little consensus about which grade levels are appropriate for the frequently taught books. All of the 20 most commonly assigned works are taught in three high-school grades, and 70 percent are taught in grades 9-12. But less than 1 percent of schools reported any titles that were required at more than one grade level.

Although students in upper tracks tend to read the same texts, there is considerably more diversity in the works those in lower tracks are asked to read.

This diversity may reflect teachers' efforts to find books that will appeal to less-motivated students, the report suggests. "On the otherhand," it notes, "the reports for lower-track students typically listed fewer titles of any sort, reflecting a curriculum with less overall emphasis on literature."

Copies of "A Study of Book-Length Works Taught in High-School English Courses" are available for $7 each from the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature, School of Education, 1400 Washington Ave. ED B-9, University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, N.Y. 12222.

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