Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

No, Fewer Books, Less Writing Won’t Add Up to Media Literacy

Against NCTE’s call to ‘decenter’ print media
By Mike Schmoker — June 03, 2022 4 min read
conceptual illustration of a stairway of books leading out of a dark space filled with letters
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Indulge me and say the following out loud: Students should read fewer books and write less expository prose.

Did that feel right? I doubt it. But that’s the message the National Council of Teachers of English is sending its members. Its recent position statement on “Media Education in English Language Arts” demands that educators “decenter” the reading of books and the writing of essays. It instructs teachers to shift their focus from print media to digital media—including GIFs, memes, podcasts, and videos.

The statement makes some legitimate points. It rightly calls for greater relevance and engagement in the classroom, for redoubled attention to the core literacy skills of speaking and listening. It insists that students learn to assess the veracity and quality of online sources, along the lines of the good work being done by Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg and associates.

But the statement’s call to “move beyond” print is profoundly misguided. The late, great media critic Neil Postman first pointed out that the ability to analyze multimedia flows directly from a strong foundation of reading and writing. Technology can only benefit education where text literacy is given primacy.

Literacy expert Richard Vacca writes that, as adults, today’s students will be required to “read and write more than at any other time in human history.” Political commentator Thomas Friedman likewise reminds us that the primary skill set for success in the 21st century is advanced proficiency at “plain old reading and writing.” And yes, speaking. It distresses Friedman that students already spend about seven hours a day absorbed in digital entertainment media.

The central irony of NCTE’s call to “decenter” text is this: Reading and writing were decentered decades ago. When I ask audiences what two activities we are least apt to observe in an average school, it takes them about four seconds to respond, almost chorally: reading and writing. Many students don’t even read the scant number of titles they are assigned. An alarming proportion arrive at college as “book virgins”: They’ve never read an entire book.

NCTE could have an immense, positive influence by reminding teachers that books enlarge our lives and experience, nourish imagination, and immerse students in the thought-worlds of people in various cultures, times, and places. Practicing teacher and literacy expert Kelly Gallagher advocates for students to become “voracious” readers. He is appalled by the increasing encroachment of pseudo-literary activities, which he has long-dubbed “readicide”—the murder of reading.

In classroom tours, my companions and I observe writing and writing instruction less than any other activity.

Like so many of us, he knows that novels and nonfiction books open the world to young readers, offering them new modes of seeing and doing. They allow us to figure out who we are at a critical time of life.

Books also uniquely expand our general knowledge. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham points out, “Books expose children to more facts and to a broader vocabulary (a form of knowledge) than any other activity.”

And writing? In classroom tours, my companions and I observe writing and writing instruction less than any other activity—even less than reading. I saw the results of this when I taught writing to college freshmen. The majority struggled mightily to organize their thoughts into a clear, coherent document. This explains why many students hit an academic wall in a variety of subjects when they reach college.

See Also

Education Opinion Q & A Collections: Teaching Reading & Writing
Larry Ferlazzo, July 14, 2014
4 min read

I would love to see the council take the lead on educating its members on writing’s unrivaled capacity to enable students to generate, analyze, synthesize, and retain knowledge. Writing is almost miraculous in the way it enables us to think more deeply, logically, and precisely. The eminent education reformer Ted Sizer regarded writing as “the litmus paper of thought,” which should therefore “occupy the very center of schooling.” Numerous scholars celebrate writing’s capacity to help us to express our best thinking in its best form.

The NCTE statement raises other concerns: It strikes me as being more ideological than humanistic—and overly enamored with what students find familiar and fun. And I also believe that it needs further clarification. For instance: What actual proportion of the curriculum would the council reserve, perhaps grudgingly, for what they term “traditional” reading and writing competencies?

The ELA community should absolutely acknowledge the digital era—but not at the expense of books and expository writing. If the council truly desires for record proportions of students to become literate, articulate, and successful, it should first:

Renounce the ubiquitous practices that are the primary destroyers of literacy, for example, skills exercises (think “find the main idea”); the excessive employment of worksheets, full-length movies, and aimless group work; the arts and crafts projects that masquerade as literacy activities—which are rife right up through high school.

Recenter, after years of decline, an intensive focus on reading, writing, and (thank you, NCTE) speaking and listening. Restoring these to their rightful place represents the most propitious opportunity for swift, dramatic improvements in all of K-12 education.

With so much at stake, we dare not lurch, impulsively, to satisfy contemporary but specious preferences for how we educate our children.

Events

Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Roundtable Webinar: Why We Created a Portrait of a Graduate
Hear from three K-12 leaders for insights into their school’s Portrait of a Graduate and learn how to create your own.
Content provided by Otus

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Older Students Who Struggle to Read Hide in Plain Sight. What Teachers Can Do
Going back to basics may get to the root of the problem.
6 min read
Image of a seventh-grade student looking through books in her school library.
A seventh-grade student looks through books in her school library.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages
Reading & Literacy The Key Parts of a 'Science of Reading' Transformation, According to One State Chief
Under Carey Wright's leadership, Mississippi pulled off a reading "miracle." She has a similar transformation in mind for Maryland.
6 min read
Dr. Carey Wright, the interim state superintendent for Maryland, discusses improving literacy instruction and achievement with Stephen Sawchuk, an assistant managing editor for Education Week, during the 2024 Leadership Symposium in Arlington, Va. on Friday, May 3, 2024.
Carey Wright, the state superintendent for Maryland, discusses improving literacy instruction and achievement during Education Week's Leadership Symposium in Arlington, Va., on May 3, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Reading & Literacy Teachers Are Still Teaching Older Students Basic Reading Skills, Survey Finds
Who across the K-12 spectrum engages frequently in activities that promote foundational reading skills? The answer may come as a surprise.
4 min read
Group of kids reading while sitting on the floor in the library
Zinkevych/iStock/Getty
Reading & Literacy Spotlight Spotlight on The Science of Reading in Practice
This Spotlight will help you analyze new curricula designed to build knowledge, review the benefits of reading aloud to students, and more.