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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Why Joe College can't read

College students have trouble reading anything long or complex, complains Adam Kotsko, in Slate. He's taught humanities classes in small liberal arts colleges for 15 years. Five years ago, he noticed a sharp decline in reading comprehension. It was like turning a switch off.


Students used to be able to handle 30 pages of reading per class session, but now "are intimidated by anything over 10 pages," he writes. He has to spend class time "establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument — skills I used to be able to take for granted."


His colleagues see the same thing. "Yes, there were always students who skipped the readings, but we are in new territory when even highly motivated honors students struggle to grasp the basic argument of a 20-page article."


"Vibes-based literacy" -- little systematic instruction in phonics -- leaves students unable to sound out long words, and unwilling to try, Kotsko writes.


Students also lack reading stamina: They have trouble staying focused on a challenging text. In middle and high school, they read short passages to prepare for tests, but rarely whole novels, Kotsko writes. He links to Peter Greene's lament that students' knowledge of literature "is Cliff's Notes deep, and they may never develop the mental muscles to work their way through a long, meaty piece of literature."


Learning "to follow extended narratives and arguments" is a valuable life skill, Kotsko argues. Young people who can't engage with complexity won't be prepared for the world.


He lays blame on Common Core, teaching to the test, smartphone addiction and other factors. I'd add: The contempt for knowledge, which gives readers context, and the tendency to assign simplistic young-adult books.


"What’s happening with the current generation is not that they are simply choosing TikTok over Jane Austen," he concludes. "They are being deprived of the ability to choose."


Reading comprehension "is dependent on exposing students to lots of content and vocabulary and to giving them the tools to make sense of complex sentences and language structure. writes Stephen Sawchuk in Education Week. "It also means growing students’ stamina -- their ability to read at length." 


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5 Comments


linda.g.oc
Feb 21

Preparing kids to be able to read and digest real college-level works (fiction and non-fiction), as well as real HS college-prep works, requires a steady diet of increasingly complex reading assignments throughout ES and MS. It also requires a solid knowledge of grammar; in order to comprehend long sentences with multiple subordinate clauses and anaphora. Further, it requires significant background knowledge across all of the disciplines, because advanced texts assume readers have such background. All of that requires kids to develop the sustained attention and motivation necessary to the process. I doubt that more than a quarter of college kids meet that standard.

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Gregory Dougherty
Gregory Dougherty
Feb 20

If they didn't assign modern "relevant" garbage as the reading assignments, then perhaps students would actually read them?


Teh reason why "great works" survived to the present was because people actually read them. The only reason anyone reads the modern dreck that makes it into the schools (as opposed to popular books that people willingly buy with their own money) is because they're forced to.


So if Cliff Notes lets them not read the trash, they don't

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Bon Hagar
Bon Hagar
Feb 20

As a semi-pro musician, my idols have always been the studio cats. They work day-in, day-out inventing new songs and tones all the time so, I ventured to learn how to learn songs and retain them. Yeah, what's to a 2min, 45 sec pop-ditty? Quite a lot when one crosses genres and the cultural differences between Muscle Shoals, Stax & Volt, LA, Nashville and NYC. But, 60's era, integrated AM radio is where I became enamored with music of all styles. A crazy ex-girlfriend got me into reading novels in my early 20's. Crazed novelist Stephen King said; "You want to learn to write stories? READ, lots of other people's stories". The reading habits remain but thankfully, crazy-ex is in…

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JK Brown
JK Brown
Feb 19

Paul Graham wrote a great essay 20 years ago on what happened to the teaching of writing when they gave rhetoric to the English Department so they'd have some revenue. Of course, most composition teachers prefer at "theme" over teaching actual writing. Same, it seems, now with reading. If a student learns how to read, how to study, they will see most of what comes out of the humanities has no real content. And the professors don't want their scam revealed.


And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors. This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has…
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m_t_anderson
Feb 19

Reading "literature" is a cinch compared to reading scientific or mathematical texts. I told my undergrads to read slowly and repeatedly, then assigned them class presentations of homework problems where they were required to explain their reasoning. Which could be found in the readings. Not on TikTok. Not on Chegg.

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