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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Why even kids who like to read hate English class


English teachers are teaching kids to hate reading, writes Pamela Paul, a New York Times op-ed columnist, in response to Nathan Heller's New Yorker story on The End of the English Major.


Students dread "painstakingly marking up text with colored pencils in search of 'literary devices' — red for imagery and diction, yellow for tone or mood, etc.," she writes. "Students are instructed to read even popular fiction at an excruciatingly slow pace in the service of close reading in unison."


Common Core standards de-emphasized literature in favor of nonfiction, writes Paul. What's left is often chosen for brevity and simplicity. "Texts" must not be "deemed antiquated or lie outside the median of student body experiences" or be “triggering.”

The assumption is that kids aren’t discerning or tough enough to handle complexity or darkness, whether it’s the nastiness of Roald Dahl or the racism and sexism in 19th-century fiction, and that they can’t read within context or grasp the concept of history.
. . . Citing the need to appeal to fickle tastes with relevant and engaging content, teachers often lowball student competence. Too often, this means commercial middle grade and young adult novels such as “The Lightning Thief” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or popular fiction like “The Outsiders,” or on the more ambitious end, accessible works of 20th-century fiction like “To Kill a Mockingbird” — all engaging novels that kids might read on their own — in lieu of knottier works that benefit from instruction and classroom discussion.

As a public high school student in the ’80s, Paul read “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Scarlet Letter,” Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce, Conrad and Henry James, "authors whose work opened my mind and tested my abilities of comprehension and interpretation."


When I was in high school in the late '60s, we read a Conrad novel with a very offensive title (even then), as well as "Heart of Darkness," which must have been canceled long ago. We marveled at the length of Faulkner's sentences. We fell in love with T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." We laughed with Dickens. We read a lot of short stories, which exposed us to many writers. I still have my high school anthologies.


My daughter was in high school in the late '90s. They read very slowly and intensively, which means they couldn't "do" as many books. Some of the books didn't need to be discussed. Well, she ended up as a literary agent.


She just gave me a copy of Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which she highly recommends. I said, "Creeps in this petty pace from day to day. To the last syllable of recorded time."

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Guest
Sep 29, 2023

Wow, I didn't even think I would come across such a godforsaken film, it's my favourite childhood story, Percy Jackson and his adventures, it was something incredible. Now, of course, I can't remember everything, but for some reason the royal crest of arms that was presented in this part stuck in my mind, I don't know why, but the fact is that so many years have passed and I still remember that coat of arms. It was very nice to remember my childhood and refresh my memory a little, I even learned a little something new from your article, it's very cool, thank you.

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Guest
Mar 18, 2023

I graduated in 2001; loved reading hated English. I don't enjoy literary analysis, creative writing, 5 paragraph essays, etc. Especially by high school, living reading and loving English class haven't necessarily overlapped in a long time.

I would have been much happier with content based writing, which is what I was able to do in college.

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Guest
Mar 15, 2023

"..in lieu of knottier works that benefit from instruction and classroom discussion.." My children and their friends would agree with this. Until AP English* begins, full inclusion reigns with below grade level selections. The Scarlet Letter for my 10th grader in honors English was a thick packet of questions that gave the teacher confidence that every word was viewed...and not enough room between questions to use full sentences in the response. Said teacher couldn't understand why the students became hostile....this was a group that had been learning lit elements as enrichment, before the no child gets ahead policy descended. They will not be sending their children to public school nor do they vote 'yes' on the school budget.


*AP English…

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Mar 15, 2023

My students have "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and five other Eliot poems for homework this week; they have already read Macbeth and Dickens, and, after Louise Gluck, will be moving on to Hamlet, 1984, A Streetcar Named Desire, Paradise Lost (Book IX), A Doll's House, and Never Let Me Go later this year, before The Grapes of Wrath begins next year: they mark up the texts, in order to write about them, and love them anyway (I keep having to write recommendations for their summer creative writing workshops), so the gloom and doom of Heller and Paul look overstated, to me.

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Guest
Mar 14, 2023

When I was in high school, I thought having all us reading Wuthering Heights, How Bernice Bobs Her Heir, and Lord of the Flies was intentionally done to discourage anyone from ever developing the joy of reading. In the old Washington Post Article, it was having high school boys reading.How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents or The House on Mango Street served the same purpose.

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