The reading dilemma

Are the majority of secondary students reading their English texts?  This is a question that educators have been asking for a few years.  These 2 short videos suggest that this is a real problem here and here.  In the first video, students talk about all the books they didn’t read and how they managed to still write essays, participate in class discussion etc.  In the second one, Kelly Gallagher gives a brief summary of his book Readicide.  His premise is that certain practices within schools are killing a love of books. A quick survey of this topic on Google will produce blogs  that criticize the books that are read in school.  One blogger that I read said that she felt betrayed entering high school.  She loved what she had been had been reading in elementary school and then had to start reading classics when she entered high school.  A newspaper report links academic success with giving students choice( here).  The ACT report of 2012 shows that 33% of graduating students in the US did not meet the English standards for college readiness.  How does this apply to Canadian students since most of the information is US based?

The literacy movement of the last 10 years has put an emphasis on reading strategies and the notion of balanced literacy.  Although these certainly help the struggling readers, the majority of students that I have taught fit the category of aliterate; they can read but they choose not to if they can get away with it.  The problem with aliteracy is that one only grows as a reader in terms of vocabulary and comprehension with practice.  A student has to develop a certain amount of perseverance in reading as she/he moves towards post-secondary education or she/he won’t be able to handle more difficult text. Another issue that has come to light through the literacy agenda is that reading narrative text well does not mean that you will necessarily be able to read other types such as what is found in textbooks.  This also applies to writing; my own experience has shown me that students don’t readily take the skills they used in writing a literay essay and apply it to science writing or social science.  Hence, the thrust towards non-fiction texts that is showing up in curriculum

My own evidence for this topic is mostly anecdotal.  I have had many students tell me in later years that they never finished a certain book.  I know that many of my students look like they are reading the book in class but then go home and read summaries on the internet.  This shows up regularly when they have similar answers or pieces of writing etc. I know that my own son never read any of the novels he studied in high school and he still managed to pull off a mark in the 80’s in OAC English.  He read only comic books in high school but still went on to finish university and is now an avid reader but most of it is non-fiction.  I would say he is like a lot of the boys I teach especially the ones who are reading Manga or Calvin and Hobbs.  How is it possible to do well without reading the books?  You pay attention in class and write down everything, you read parts of the book , you use Sparks notes.  It’s quite possible to write a credible essay especially if you have paid close attention to the teacher.  The reality is that we have no fool-proof method of really being sure if they have finished a book.  We could read the whole book out-loud together which is what we more or less do with Shakespeare but then they still may not be reading but listening which is a different process.

There are some solutions but none of them will completely deal with the problem.  There are too many factors working against us-the internet, the emphasis on visual culture and instant gratification, the no-shame, no-consequence attitude toward cheating and the lack of money that is allocated for books.  Parents might be shocked at how little we get to spend on books-it sends a message that they are not a priority any more.  The solutions that I can suggest will only partially alleviate the situation and they  spring from my philosophy about teaching English.  I don’t actually feel that I would have short-changed a student if he/she never got to read Shakespeare or a novel like Lord of the Flies if what I had read with him had been meaningful and made the student want to read something else.  I’m not saying don’t teach these but I am saying that a student can grow academically through hundreds of other texts as well.  The advantage to using different and newer texts would be that there isn’t as much material to cheat with.  I also believe that the most important thing a student does in English class is use his/her own reading, thinking and writing skills.  Yes, it is wonderful to discuss ideas, to look at language, to analyze but ultimately, it’s not what I can explain about Hamlet  but what he/she has actually thought about or explored.  This leads to the idea that we need a greater variety of texts and they should be more relevant to today’s student. Of course, we’re back to money again.  And finally, although we want our students to be good essay writers, we need to use other tasks that are not as easy to cheat with.  This is challenging for the teacher but a reality.  If you give them a topic about appearance vs reality in Macbeth, you are inviting plagiarism and may get it from even the best students.

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2 Responses to The reading dilemma

  1. pbh says:

    OMg, you outed your son. ( I still wonder if he read in university either, though. )

    One could draw another (facetious) conclusion…teach the classics in high school to prepare them for a desire for voluminous and voluptuous reading in university. Turn off to turn on, like putting your thumb over a bottle of beer and shaking it until release. Beer anaologies are very pop-culture Canadian.

    The connect that disconnects me is the relationship between reading and writing. I was not a great reader as a kid, but I did write reasonably well. I know the great writers are generally widely read, but that is not always the case, just as some great musicians can’t read music. We had to read “The Mayor of Casterbridge”-types, and I did struggle through a few of them, but I doubt if they increased any desire to read, but may have given me, indirectly, somewhat of a structure to writing.

    The Brits are great readers, and read the classics first, if things haven`t changed more recently, and they know the power of words and depth from which to speak…maybe this is more of a North American problem.

    I wonder if it would be helpful to hand out a wide-ranging reading list at the beginning of a term, and get the kids to vote on which books would be taught. At least this buys them into the process, caught in their own web. Or could it be that the 14-18 year old brain isn`t interested much in anything other than sports, sex and crazy.

    Great essay, great topic.

  2. imanze says:

    Regarding essay writing, one has to be creative with the topic to discourage plagiarism. When every topic on that novel can be found online and there’s no money to buy new books, then what I do is have them write an essay as an in-class test. It’s better than cheating. Perhaps if a teacher argues thats not enough time (it has to be on an exam), if s/he chooses, s/he can use that essay as assessment- a draft- where students write a good copy in class another day.

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