It’s not just which books English teachers teach, but how they teach, argues Mark Bauerlein on Ed Next. Instead of asking students to analyze the text closely, teachers are more likely to assign “reader-response” exercises or focus on “the biography of the author, relevant social issues at the time of publication, and the ethnic identity of the characters.”
Bauerlein cites Sandra Stotsky’s survey (PDF) of more than 400 English teachers, which asked how they approached teaching fiction and non-fiction.
“Close reading” is chosen less than one third of the time, while “reader response” is very popular, especially for fiction. That’s a problem, Bauerlein writes.
Without focused training in deep analysis of literary and non-literary texts, students enter college un-ready for its reading demands. Students generally can complete low-grade analytical tasks such as identifying a thesis, charting evidence at different points in an argument, and discovering various biases. But college level assignments ask for more. Students must handle multi-layered statements with shifting undertones and overtones. They must pick up implicit and explicit allusions. They must expand their vocabulary and distinguish metaphors and ironies and other verbal subtleties.
Those capacities come not from contextualist orientations (although “outside” information helps), but from slow, deliberate textual analysis. The more teachers slip away from it, the more remediation we may expect to see on college campuses, a problem already burdening colleges with developing capacities that should have been acquired years earlier.
In an analysis of college readiness, ACT found that “the ability to comprehend complex texts” is what distinguishes college-ready students.
My daughter was assigned to make posters, instead of writing papers, all the way through high school. There was even a poster assignment in 12th grade for AP English. Poster-making skills did not prove useful in college. Fortunately, she knew how to write.