Students need to analyze, not just respond

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.

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  1. Sadly, the poster thing has made it into higher education. Several of my graduate classes this semester have a poster presentation requirement. I also have some friends (all with advanced degrees) who went to a professional conference where participants could either present their latest research article or…you guessed it…make a poster. Better buy some more glue sticks!

  2. Victoria riehle says:

    What is also sad and frustrating is this teacher/teachers believe they are integrating the arts through poster making. Unfortunately, many teachers need to step out of their comfort zone to integrate and in doing so will teach and experience a much deeper meaning.

  3. To be fair, in scientific circles, the poster session has been around for a long time. Making a good scientific poster is a really useful skill, and I do have my students do some lab reports as posters. Now, they are usually large single panels, but I did use glue sticks to attach pages to a backer board for easier transport back in the day.

    However, a research poster is about presenting your data well with a minimum of text, and is very different from the “splashy” posters that seem to dominate in high school (with lots of glitter and distracting images), just as a professional powerpoint presentation does not involve the cute animations that my entering freshmen prefer.

  4. Back to the analyze/respond question: close reading is a goal; reader response is a hook that will, we hope, motivate students to do the hard work of close reading (“what was it in the way the author used language that drew you in?”). With younger kids, and with students who are not naturally thrilled by literature, the frequent use of the hook may not please us, but it may be necessary. It’s wonderful when a whole room of students can skip the reader response stage, (i.e. the “it’s all about me” stage) but it’s hard to get there with high school students.

    And let’s face it: by high school, students’ interests have begun to diverge wildly, as they should. The future English majors/English teachers/artists/preschool teachers find it easier to get into close reading than the future statisticians/construction workers/physical therapists do, on average. Not everyone gets to the most sophisticated level of each discipline. That’s not to say that all should not be exposed to close reading; just that it’s not going to predominate in many high school classrooms.

  5. The problem with assigning new critical essays to be written outside of class is that they lead straight to plagiarism. How many new critical essays on Wuthering Heights do think google up? I jealously guard my new critical essay prompts designed to skirt Uncle Sparky.

    Additionally, there is nothing wrong with mixing in new historicism or gender/race criticism. It all asks the reader to go deeper into the text and notice and explain symbolism, metaphor, etc. from different perspectives (a very important skill in comprehending complex texts). An exclusively new critical approach is a) boring as snot b) leads to students who write essays as if they were test question responses. Light symbolizes truth. Done. In short, I find the entire premise that using other crititical schools is somehow limiting in developing these skills to be utterly bizarre. The data presented does not support the conclusion reached. Close reading is not a synonym for new critical.

  6. ” But college level assignments ask for more. Students must handle multi-layered statements with shifting undertones and overtones.”


    I don’t think it’s difficult at all to complete four years of college without handling one single multi-layered statement with shifting undertones and overtones.

    You can get a B, quite easily, in a class on Shakespeare without appreciating him at all.