22 April 2014

Reconsidering high school English classes

From an op-ed piece at Salon:
I’ve begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write...

For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I’ve puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I’ve sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don’t know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language...

And so recently, I’ve started asking them: “What exactly did you do in high-school English class?” And whether I ask them as a group or individually, whether I ask my best students or my worst, the answers I get are less than reassuring...

Those who didn’t make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can’t recall. One student recounts a month of junior English class in which she and her classmates produced digital short film adaptations of the trial in “The Scarlet Letter.”

“Sounds fun,” I say to this student, a girl who would not know how to summarize a source or correct a sentence fragment if her life depended on it.
More at the link.


  1. Like the man said: "Incentives work. Even perverse ones."

    When you assess schools for graduation rates, you end up with increased graduation rates.

  2. My long-term hypothesis is that "kids these days" can't write because they simply do and did not read very much. It's not just about reading the classics, although that's great - it's about reading anything, and as much as possible. If you have enough words and sentences pass before your eyes while you're young, you'll learn, at least roughly, how things go together and you'll be able to put things down on paper in some sort of coherent manner.

    Even now, in my 40s, I read more quickly and (try to) write more professionally than many people I meet. As near as I can tell, it's simply because I sucked up books at a furious rate when I was a child, and a teen - and still read for pleasure a fair bit today. Not "good" books, either - mostly Sci-Fi paperbacks.

    1. I felt the same way when I taught graduate-level science courses; smart kids used large words correctly, but spelled them phonetically because they had heard them multiple times but had not seen them on the written page often enough.

    2. I could not agree more. I've been studying Spanish as a second language for 10 years now, and have experienced the language laws of input vs. output. One teacher explained it as 90 parts input = 10 parts quality output. I suppose the ratio is not so harsh in the native language, but the idea is the same. As reading goes downhill, writing will follow. Also, many people seem to believe that the native language doesn't require hard work.

      I started reading like a machine at 5 years old. I still read whatever interests me, this blog included. I'm studying Spanish at the graduate level now, and I've survived the process without long-term spoken immersion. The majority of my input has been from reading. I don't recommend my method necessarily, but I've succeeded more than the experts would say is possible. Now I am basically fluent in writing, but less so when speaking. And...my English spelling is turning rusty. It's all connected.

  3. As a teacher in a middle school, I can tell you our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders read (multiple books throughout the years - both in class and outside of the classroom) and write (creative writing, non-fiction/research, etc.) the vast majority of their time in English class.
    I cannot speak for other schools, but in Eau Claire, WI, students read and write a LOT.

    1. Eau Claire... North? by any chance?

    2. I had the advantage of a mother who was an English teacher. We had lots of books around the house. When I got to college, we sometimes were instructed to read and critique each others' papers. It was pure agony.

  4. I taught Spanish for Spanish Speakers. They read for the first 10 minutes of class. I spent a fortune on books magazines, newspapers, and anything else I thought might call their attention. We had regular writing projects--to inform, to investigate, etc. I can't tell you how many hours I spent reading, correcting, and commenting. The were so surprised that I actually read their work, they read every word of my commentary. They then had to rewrite the papers, incorporating corrections I had marked. I assure you, they learned to write. The thinking process as well as the mechanics (I also taught them grammar overtly) skills transferred to their English classes. Because I got to know each student well from his or her writing, and they got to know me from my comments, we really bonded. It was a tremendous amount of work, but worth every second we invested.

    I was able to get away with teaching grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. because it was all in Spanish. We teachers were constantly told in workshops, etc. never to teach these things overtly. I remember when my girls were in second and third grade bringing home papers with "Good Work!" even though there were numerous mistakes. When I asked, the teachers told me they didn't correct mistakes because it would make the children feel bad, and they would eventually learn. I think it was just laziness.


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