Reading & Literacy Commentary

Let’s Spread the Blame for Reading Underachievement

By Sandra Stotsky — December 06, 2010 7 min read

Why have the reading skills of American high school students shown little or no improvement in several decades, despite substantial increases in funds for elementary and secondary education by federal and state governments? Two possible reasons—a fragmented literature/reading curriculum and a neglect of close reading—spring up from the results of a study, “Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey,” of which I was the principal author. Released this year, the study was sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, or ALSCW, and conducted by the University of Arkansas’ Survey Research Center.

One of the study’s core findings is that a fragmented literature curriculum coupled with high school English teachers’ approach to the study of both imaginative literature and nonfiction impedes development of the knowledge and skills the broad middle-third of our students need for authentic college coursework. Additionally, the study found that there is no substitute for a coherent curriculum that addresses culturally and historically significant authors, literary periods, and movements in our own or other civic cultures, or careful analysis of assigned texts.

The ALSCW study presents an analysis of the responses of more than 400 representative public school teachers across the country who were asked what texts they assign in standard and honors courses and what approaches they use to teach students how to understand imaginative literature and literary nonfiction. The study excluded elective, basic, and remedial courses, as well as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and other advanced courses because we were interested in students who were reading at about grade level, not the most- or least-able readers.

Concurrent with our national study, two of my colleagues at the University of Arkansas (one in the English department and one in the English education department) and I surveyed a representative sample of more than 400 English teachers of standard and honors courses in grades 9, 10, and 11 in Arkansas public schools with a questionnaire almost identical to the one we used in the national survey. My colleagues and I followed the Arkansas-state survey, which was conducted by the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire, with eight focus-group meetings of English teachers from the state’s four congressional districts. The results of the Arkansas survey, “Literature Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11 in Arkansas,” are almost identical to the results of the national study, serving to validate it.

As the ALSCW report indicates, the content of the literature curriculum for students in standard or honors courses is no longer consistently traditional or uniform. Only in a small percentage of courses do titles repeatedly appear. While we found that 72 percent of students in standard and honors courses read “Romeo and Juliet,” 68 percent read To Kill a Mockingbird, 59 percent read “The Crucible,” and 48 percent read “Julius Caesar” before they graduate from high school, one cannot discern what other titles these students read since percentages for most of the other works mentioned fall below 30 percent. These low frequencies suggest how little is left of a coherent and progressive literature curriculum with respect to two of its primary purposes: to acquaint students with the literary and civic heritage of English-speaking people, and to develop an understanding and use of the language needed for college coursework across a broad range of disciplines.

 To remedy the deficiencies in what and how students learn in high school English courses, changes need to be made in our high school and college English departments and our education schools.

We also found that the texts teachers assign generally do not increase in difficulty from grade 9 to grade 11. This is not surprising because most English teachers enjoy a great deal of autonomy in what they assign as major titles, poems, short stories, literary nonfiction, and technical or informational texts. And their professional organizations do not provide guidelines for intellectually progressive curriculum sequences in grades 9-12, since the syllabuses used by the College Board were abandoned a half-century ago.

Perhaps more damaging than the absence of a coherent and increasingly challenging literature/reading curriculum are the pedagogical approaches that the study indicated English teachers prefer to use. They do not favor close, analytical reading of assigned works. Instead, they prefer such non-analytical approaches as a personal response or a focus on a work’s historical or biographical context—for instance, class discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird that emphasize the link between the trial of Tom Robinson and the Scottsboro trials rather than focusing on the novel’s plot, characters, style, and moral meaning. More problematically, we found that they are more likely to use a non-analytical approach to interpret literary nonfiction than close reading. Why they do so, we do not know from this study, but much of the academic and pedagogical coursework or professional development they have taken may be to blame.

Unfortunately, non-analytical approaches not only divert student attention from the assigned text, they also consume much of the time teachers can allot for literary study. The use of small-group work to organize literature discussion in the classroom also tends to further diminish the amount of class time on close reading, according to another finding from the study. (The survey results, however, do not indicate how frequently teachers use small-group work.)

While biographical or other materials can supplement a close reading of any text by, for example, introducing the seminal ideas of the author’s time, a stress on personal response or on contextual materials does not replace the need to teach students how to read the text itself. The influence of a reader-response approach on several generations of English teachers must be apparent in every college class. College students cannot easily engage in an argument about any work they are studying if they have not learned that they must first try to understand what the author wrote, nor can they readily invoke historical or cultural context to inform their reading. Today, most students enter and leave high school with little historical and cultural knowledge, as the declining National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in history and civics also inform us. If English teachers do supply their students with contextual materials for an assigned work, the content of such materials is apt to be as new to them as the work is, which means that the teacher’s use of them in the classroom is more likely didactic than analytic. In other words, more time is spent explaining the materials than analyzing the text.

To remedy the deficiencies in what and how students learn in high school English courses, changes need to be made in our high school and college English departments and our education schools.

First, high schools should revise their English curriculum to incorporate a progressively more challenging core of literary and nonliterary texts with cultural and historical significance for our own country and other countries; however, workable principles for shaping sequences of reading assignments in a single course and across grade levels would need to be hammered out.

Second, English and rhetoric and composition departments at colleges and universities need to emphasize the analytical study of literature, especially for those students planning to become secondary English teachers. Third, English and reading education departments in education schools need to teach prospective teachers how to do and teach close reading. The U.S. Department of Education and state legislatures must give priority to the funding of professional-development programs for English and reading teachers that emphasize teaching close, careful reading. Close attention to the designs of language, traditionally fostered through literary analysis, remains vital to the development of an informed, capable citizenry.

According to Diane Ravitch, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, our high school literature curriculum was once coherent. We had a “de facto curriculum for most of the 19th century, when the textbooks in each subject were interchangeable. For the first half of the 20th century as well, we had an implicit national curriculum that was decisively shaped by the college entrance examinations of the College Board; their highly respected examinations were based on a specific and explicit syllabus, designed by teachers and professors in each subject.”

If we are to make all students in this country college-ready, such a syllabus or curriculum framework, updated and broadened, is needed.

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