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Study Challenges 'Idiosyncratic' High School Reading Selections

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High school students today tend to read an "idiosyncratic" and unchallenging selection of texts and are generally not learning how to do close reading, concludes a recent study published by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. The study argues that that those factors have contributed to a decline in reading skills among American adults.

According to the study’s author, Sandra Stotsky, three recent indicators of reading achievement—an assessment of adult literacy, the test of reading achievement for grade 12 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and a report on voluntary literary reading among adults—all evidenced a dramatic decline in adult literacy skills since 1992.

That’s in part a product of the types and difficulty levels of books secondary students are reading in school, says Stotsky. She points to a 2009 report by Renaissance Learning, the company that makes Accelerated Reader, stating that Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and the Harry Potter series top the list of books most widely read by secondary students.

In fact, "10 of the top 16 most frequently read books by the 1,500 students in the top 10 percent of reading achievement in grades 9-12 in the database for the 2008-2009 academic year were contemporary young adult fantasies," the paper says. By the time students get to college, Stotsky writes, they have had "few common reading experiences" aside from those young-adult fantasies and "almost all the books they read are relatively easy to read."

In ALSCW's own survey of the books teachers in grades 9, 10, and 11 are assigning, Stotsky found that even the most frequently assigned texts, including Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird, are only being read in about 25 percent of classes. That demonstrates, she says, that "most American students experience an idiosyncratic set of readings before they graduate from high school." A previous study by Arthur Applebee in 1989 showed that more than 80 percent of public secondary schools assigned Romeo and Juliet.

In addition, Stotsky found that while a majority of teachers still use literary anthologies, they tend to teach fewer than half of the texts in them. Teachers overall, she says, have "a great deal of autonomy in what they choose to assign."

Stotsky’s research also concluded that the readability levels of books assigned do not get more difficult from grade to grade. She found that the mean readability level for books assigned in high school is between 5th and 6th grade, suggesting that teachers try to balance easy and hard books.

The Engagement Factor

Robert Pondiscio, director of communication for Core Knowledge—an organization that advocates a shared, sequenced curriculum—said the ALSCW’s study highlights a troubling fragmentation in high school English reading lists. "Not everyone agrees that there’s a body of knowledge in the English language that should be taught, learned, and mastered," he said. "As a result, a lot of teachers are more inclined to pick works of literature they want to teach, and allow kids to pick what they want to read."

Some English teachers, however, said the study overlooks key instructional issues.

Using a standard anthology makes sense in that it provides "quality control" and established benchmarks for each grade, acknowledged Jim Burke, an English teacher at Burlingame High School in California. "But you get into complicated territory with student engagement," he said. Teachers have to consider whether works chosen are accessible, of interest, and represent the diversity of students in a classroom.

By way of example, Burke noted that recently he chose to teach the 2003 novel The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which is not considered part of the traditional literary canon, to a freshmen class. The students "devoured the book," he said.

Burke, who has written almost 20 books on teaching, including The English Teacher's Companion: A Complete Guide to Classroom, Curriculum, and the Profession, conceded that The Kite Runner is not as academically demanding as a book like Lord of the Flies. His students had to look up Arabic words while reading, but the text’s English vocabulary and use of literary devices are not as rich as that of William Golding’s book. However, said Burke, "it’s impossible for me to say that this unit was anything but a success—my kids read a 350-page book in three weeks … and wrote strong essays on the last day."

Gail Tillery, who teaches English at North Forsyth High in Atlanta, Ga. and is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, agreed that engagement is a major consideration. "There are two minds about this issue. I can force students to slog through texts and they are miserable and hate it and it’s absolute torture for everyone involved," she said, or she can assign modern texts kids relate to and "get the best writing I’ve ever had."

Tillery had a similar experience to Burke’s when she assigned one of her classes the 2005 memoir The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. "I've never in my career seen kids respond to a book like they respond to this book," she said. "It’s phenomenal, the book talks we’ve had."

Questioning Reader-Response

In addition to fragmented reading lists, Stotsky points to another explanation for the reported decline in adult reading skills. Students are no longer learning to do close, analytical reading in high school, she says. Close reading, called "New Criticism" when it began being used in classrooms in the 1940s, emphasizes the relationship between a text’s form and meaning. Instead, Stotsky says, teachers use a reader-response approach, in which students ground their response to a text in their personal experiences.

For Pondiscio of Core Knowledge, the issue goes back to the coherence of curricula. "Close reading of text is easier when you have rich, coherent background knowledge to fall back on, which too many students do not," he said.

But teachers sought for comment took issue with Stotsky’s down-grading of the reader-response approach.

Finding a way to bridge students’ experiences to the text is a "perfectly valid strategy," said Burke, and should be seen as an incremental step toward analytical reading. He says he uses an analytical approach for about 75 percent of assignments and a personal response approach for 25 percent. In his Advanced Placement classes, Burke uses reader-response for 20 percent of assignments, because "AP kids need to connect to themselves, too."

Most students won’t read a text they don’t feel connected to, added Tillery. For that reason, building a text-to-self link is critical.

Mary Tedrow, an English teacher at John Handley High School in Winchester, Va. and TLN member, noted that while she’s seen an acute decline in students’ reading comprehension skills over recent years, she’s also noticed a complementary uptick in visual literacy skills. "Kids are very sophisticated when it comes to making an analysis of visual media," she said, which she sees as building the same analytical skills as close reading. Students are intuitive about camera angles in movies and have high expectations for visual storytelling, she pointed out. "I’m not sure they’re missing out on critical thinking if they spend time looking at visual mediums through the same critical lense."

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