In the preface to our report, "The Subtle Danger: Reflections on the Literacy Abilities of America's Young Adults,'' we stated that "it is urgent for serious debate to begin on the issue raised by [the NEAP Young Adult Literacy] assessment and for national and local attention to be paid to the literacy problems of young adults.'' In this spirit we welcome the participation of Mr. Finn in this discussion. We regret, however, that Mr. Finn took this occasion to criticize NAEP rather than simply disagreeing with our ideas. NAEP exercised no influence over the content of our monograph before or after it was written.
In "The Subtle Danger'' we emphasized both the relatively low levels of literacy found in the young adult population and the strikingly poor performance of some minority groups. We discussed the implications of the strong relationship found between literacy ability and such civic and social behaviors as voting, keeping up with national events, and participating in community organizations. We further pointed out that, with projected increases in the percentage of minorities in the young-adult population, present literacy trends could yield even more serious inadequacies in future labor pools.
In our report we suggested that responsibility for improving literacy skills lay principally with the family, the schools, employers, and the media. When we examined the reading curriculum of the schools, we found a mismatch between the reading skills currently taught and those that young people so often lacked. To redress this imbalance we suggested that "in addition to the skills for understanding and enjoying fiction and poetry, [the schools] should emphasize those skills and strategies that underlie the processing of expository prose and non-continuous documents like bureaucratic forms ''
Mr. Finn imagines that our interest in "balance'' is a veiled attempt to supplant the study of literature, and he condemns us for what he admits we did not say. With distorted logic he defines our intentions not by the text we wrote, but by comments taken from recent press coverage of a symposium held on our report. He transforms our call for balance into his vision of total imbalance and then attacks us for the extreme that he created. It is not our intention to remove great literature from the K-12 reading and English curriculums nor would it be the necessary effect of our recommendation.
When we criticized the literary emphasis of the reading curriculum, we directed our attention mainly to the elementary school, where very little great literature is presently taught, but where nonetheless the curriculum focuses primarily on concepts appropriate for analyzing literature and poetry, like plot, characterization, and main idea.
This distinction between the literary basis of the reading curriculum and the actual reading of great works of literature explains how we can think there is too much literary emphasis in the schools and Mr. Finn can reply in horror that there is too little literature taught.
Although Mr. Finn says he is "as distressed as anyone'' about young adult literacy levels, the only assistance he offers to people struggling to interpret simple everyday prose is more literature. For those whose life chances may be restricted by inadequate literacy skills, Finn offers nothing but a rich diet of Odysseus, Lear, and Raskolnikov.
In doing this he reveals a confusion between learning to read and reading to learn. For the millions who read below the 4th-grade level, assignments on the relentless malice of Poseidon or the disinheriting of Cordelia will provide neither increased ability nor, unfortunately, any meaningful appreciation of our cultural heritage. There is room for exemplary literature at the lower levels of instruction, but when learning to read is the central goal, the selection of reading material must be guided primarily by the skills and strategies we want children to learn. Thus, if we care about the skills surveyed by the Young Adults Study, the elementary reading curriculum should include more expository prose and documents.
Mr. Finn charges that we would track children, reserving literature for the bright kids and dead-ending the rest in functional literacy tasks. Or, he speculates, maybe we just don't want literature for anyone. The reason he has trouble divining our attitude on this matter is that nowhere do we suggest either. Never in our summer of conferences and writing, and nowhere in "The Subtle Danger,'' did we suggest a different curriculum for different kids. There may be some room for elective courses in English at the high-school level, but otherwise all children, K-12, should have the same curriculum in reading and English, including both the study of great literature and the development of a high level of reading and writing skills. It is entirely feasible to do both.
Decades of research on instruction and learning have demonstrated that Mr. Finn's immense faith in transfer of learning is misplaced. If we teach literature in the reading curriculum, he believes, students will induce the skills they need to analyze and apply complex concepts in other forms of writing, without practice or application.
He also seems to think that specifying the content for reading is sufficient, that the skills take care of themselves, and that those who talk about skills lack a commitment to the cultural content he cherishes and wants to reassert. He is sure that we don't share that commitment, and he rejects our statement about the necessary role of the schools in cultural conservation as a "pious'' slogan.
Apparently, we are too flabby on that score to get under his banner. He ritually cites E.D. Hirsch, who is under his banner, and who is somewhat more subtle on this content-skills question than Mr. Finn. But Mr. Hirsch's essays should be taken to mean that the mere presence of major works of literature in the curriculum will guarantee that students acquire the rich set of interpretations, experiences, and emotions that these works offer.
Mr. Finn seems to have no remedy for the present inability of many students to read critically, other than to expose them to even more texts that they have difficulty comprehending. In their earnest repudiation of people who think that skills can be taught without teaching content, advocates of cultural literacy sometimes forget that the problem cuts both ways.
We will not abandon our recommendation that schools should give more attention to teaching prose literacy skills just because Mr. Finn says we're attacking literature; we are not. Nor do we accept the accusation that we want to build a curriculum on tax forms and parking tickets, or track different kids for different reading futures.
We reject the denigration of adult prose skills as trivial or merely practical, when in fact the skills we are talking about range from moderately difficult to sophisticated, are necessary for a deep understanding of our world, can be the entree to elegant and satisfying activities, and are not learned automatically through the reading of great literature. Indeed, the problem-solving base that we suggest is as essential for the interpretation of fiction as it is for non-fiction and everyday documents. Its orientation is towards critical-thinking skills--the same skills that have been found to be lacking in students at all reading levels.
We do not want to abandon the millions who struggle to acquire adequate literacy skills. We want teachers across the entire curriculum to teach the skills and concepts that will help children become more intelligent workers, more intelligent citizens, and more intelligent future learners--flexible, critically equipped, and ready to participate in complex literacy tasks. We believe that the schools are failing to identify and emphasize these skills which are a necessary complement to knowledge of our cultural heritage. Mr. Finn sees only part of this part of this picture. He says that we "want to have it both ways.'' You bet we do.
Richard L. Venezky
University of Delaware
Carl F. Kaestle
University of Wisconsin
Andrew M. Sum
Vol. 06, Issue 24