Friday, September 15, 2006

What Do You Mean By "Reading?"

As Shannon Hale continues her intelligent, thoughtful postings on classics, she quotes Laurie Halse Anderson's reaction to current, low reading scores:
Read this from a report of the National Institute of Literacy:
"The ability to read and understand complicated information is important to success in college and, increasingly, in the workplace. An analysis of the NAEP long-term trend reading assessments reveals that only half of all White 17 year olds, less than one-quarter of Latino 17 year olds, and less than one-fifth of African American 17 year olds can read at this level.

By age 17, only about 1 in 17 seventeen year olds can read and gain information from specialized text, for example the science section in the local newspaper. This includes:

1 in 12 White 17 year olds,
1 in 50 Latino 17 year olds, and
1 in 100 African American 17 year olds."

I wish we had all of our 17 year olds to the point where we could have them enjoy Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, and, yes, Hawthorne. But to get them to that point, THEY MUST LEARN HOW TO READ. Their chances of developing into literate adults are greatly enhanced if we hand them books that are interesting, engaging, and written in the vernacular. Most of the Classics do not fit that definition.

(end LHA quotage)

Here's something I've always thought when I read reports like this. The critical words are "read and understand complicated information", such as "the science section in the local newspaper." It could just as easily be any of the following texts that high school graduates should be able to read, understand and critique: newspapers, magazine articles (including blog posts!), work memoranda .... do you see where I'm going?

Within the context of this report, reading isn't literary reading or fiction reading. It's not decoding the meaning of the color green or the use of mirrors or foreshadowing. It's about being able to know when a newspaper is reporting a story accurately so that an educated voting decision can be made. It's understanding the reports on stem cell research so you know what the heck it is, rather than simply what politician is for or against it. It's about writing what has gone on in your corporation during the past year in a way that explains honestly why stock shares are up or down. It's about following procedures in a company manual. It's a lot of nonfiction reading, and analysis; about using the right words to communicate meaning rather than metaphor.

So my question is -- how and when is that being taught? Is it even part of the high school criteria? Because while I love literature, and books, and reading fiction for pleasure, I want the people running companies, voting, diagnosing diseases, arguing legal cases, doing my plumbing, etc., to be able to read and understand information. And teaching Shakespeare isn't going to do that. At law school, I had a legal writing class to teach the correct way to read and write legal briefs and documents; I'm sure that other professions have similar things.

(I'm not saying no Shakespeare; I'm saying Shakespeare isn't the answer to the problem raised in the report.)

Edited to add: I am not disagreeing with Laurie Halse Anderson; I actually agree that getting someone engaged in and interested in reading is the first, vital step; I'm just saying, that in addition to looking beyond classics to engage the reader, look beyond fiction, especially when the study isn't about fiction. Building on & agreeing with her thoughts, not disagreeing. I'm afraid I may not have been clear about that!


christine M said...

I think you are right, Liz. Being taught how to interpret news articles especially business and science types would be a lot more useful to the average student than how to interpret what the light meant in Gatsby.

There's all kinds of reading, and each one must be encouraged - but not necessarily at the expense of others.

Nancy said...

Good post! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I agree to some extent's similar to the argument that "business math" (how to calculate a tip in a restaurant, etc) should be taught (or emphasized) instead of algebra, since it's "more useful". Maybe both should be taught. But first of all, these more 'academic' subjects can be useful in ways that one doesn't imagine at the time - there're plenty of English majors in my program who're suddenly realizing how useful learning algebra would have been, now that they're taking statistics. Secondly, these academic subjects teach you how to think, reason, etc - and (when done properly) inspire an interest in learning that goes beyond usefulness. How "useful" are art and music, really?

Classes in interepreting news, etc could be very productive if done properly. I guess I see them very easily degenerating into the same category as state-required "health" classes, though - basically schedule-blockers that people like me used as free journaling time.

(Incidently, the New Criticism ("what the light meant in Gatsby") isn't the only way Shakespeare, etc can be taught while still falling under the heading of 'academic subject, although it's by far the most common....)

Liz B said...

Jill, I'm a great believer in needing bits of everything, classics, contemporary, fiction, nonfiction; so its about both being taught. It just seems that when an article is about information processing, and the response is about literary discussion and analysis, their is a disconnect. I've read comments about nonfiction books that are very much "oh they are just a regurgitation of facts." No, they aren't; and that's part of the concern. To think things thru a bit more clearly, I think what I'm saying is why isn't nonfiction part of English studies? I cannot recall English being anything other than literature; and from kids coming into the library, that has creeped into history/social studies, with students reading historical fiction. I know that some teachers do great stuff with historical documents, etc.; but again, nonfiction isn't just history.

And add to my pet peeves high school teachers and students who scoff at certain subject areas as one's a person will never need in the real world. The real world may surprise you! (and yes, I've heard teachers say that about other subjects.)

As for getting things out of a variety of subjects -- its why I don't agree with students only taking courses they like or think they are good at. Sometimes its good to get the discipline of learning to do something well despite not having a fondness for it; but its also a bit about looking outside traditional places and finding out some interesting things. For example, my undergrad major was computer science, minor in math; both of those were a tremendous help to me, despite not doing anything in either subject, because of the other things I learned; organization, discipline, structure, theory.

Anonymous said...

I think we're agreeing with each other, just from slightly different angles. :) Also, there was just something in the ongoing argument that begged for a devil's advocate...

(hey, I didn't know you did cs/math! way cool. Soooo many librarians were English and history majors. I'm in the process of convincing one of my class discussion groups,
in which no one has ever done linguistics (my major), that no, it isn't a branch of anthropology, philosophy's a branch of MATH...)

Anonymous said...

Hey Liz, I am a big LHA fan (I've heard her speak at a read ahead lunch - and she was brilliant) and she's giving a good arguement for those classics loving fundamentalists - 'yea, it's ok to read contemporary fiction.' And I agree with you, it is crucial to teach equal parts art, non-fiction, and information literacy (the ability find, sort, understand, and evaluate information when needed).

However, I spent some time tutoring at Shea Middle School (since closed) in inner-city Syracuse. What I saw there really opened my eyes - to the reality versus the ideal you are talking about.

There are so many schools burdened by standardized tests, teachers required to follow strict lesson plans, and a serious lack of materials (including too many students assigned to one educator), that regardless of what percent of schools these problems effect, it is far too great a number. And so I see a huge divide, growing larger, within the US. And students become excellent test takers but horrible problem solvers.

So you see a large percent of the population that does not even know to question Fox News as a resource (hence a misinformed voting populas). Do I sound bleak? I hope not!

Anonymous said...

One of the best classes that I took during my undergraduate days (civil engineering at Duke) was Engineering Communications. It was taught by two professors from the Civil Eng. department, and it included programming, presenting information graphically, and writing reports in such a way to really communicate your results to people. Oh, and making presentations. Sure, I enjoyed the elective classes that I took in art history and religion and english, but I think that engineering communications was the most useful class that I took.

Thanks for an interesting discussion!

Anonymous said...

It seems to me the place to learn evaluation of more complex technical or nonfiction reading material in school is in science and math and history and logic and electives such as journalism. English is for literature, an area of the humanities that deals with expression of the human condition largely through the written art of fiction (though there is the essay--effective analysis and argument--actually, that is an area that could be expanded). What seemed strange to me in that quote wasn't so much that the person implied that critical reading skills could come through literature, but that she believes people would be able to enjoy Dostoevsky and the other most vaulted purveyors of literary craft and big ideas mostly by presenting learners with contemporary books "in the vernacular". Really, to reach the gold level she's shooting for, learners need to be introduced to smaller versions of the big stuff, then work in the medium--this is communication over a longer period of time than the contemporary, with a language to learn.