Not Just Which Books Teachers Teach, But How They Teach Them

By 10/12/2010

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When high school students in English class sit down to write a short paper on Huck Finn or Romeo and Juliet or “The Road Not Taken,” the odds are low that they will proceed to analyze those works in detail.  The structure and language of each one might be receptive to careful, close reading, but most English teachers choose a different focus.  Instead of examining the ambiguities of the final line “And that has made all the difference” or pondering how and why Tom Sawyer takes over the action in the final chapters, students typically engage in “reader-response” exercises or in a discussion of various contexts of the work, including the biography of the author, relevant social issues at the time of publication, and the ethnic identity of the characters.

That’s the conclusion of an important study of teaching practices and text selections by Sandy Stotsky with Joan Traffas and James Woodworth.  The study appears here (PDF) and is published as an issue of Forum: A Publication of the ALSCW (Spring 2010) under the title “Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey.”  With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Bradley Foundation, Stotsky and her team gathered a representative sample of more than 400 English teachers and administered a 67-question survey instrument.

The survey explored the texts they assign, the balance of literary and informational texts, the popularity of certain classroom practices, and, as noted above, the preferred methods of interpreting the works.  When teachers were asked which approaches “might best describe your approach to literary reading and study,” the numbers broke down as follows (respondents could provide more than one answer):

Click to enlarge

To understand these results, we need to distinguish what these approaches entail.  “Reader response” can cover anything that emphasizes a student’s personal experience of the work, not just impressionistic questions such as “In what ways did this work speak to you?” but also more substantive ones such as “How does your background enable you to understand (or misunderstand) elements of this work?”

“Biographical or Historical” covers methods in which biographical or historical materials are brought to bear upon the text.  These might include, for instance, explaining the settings of John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels by way of the mid-century realities of Reading, Pennsylvania, and environs.  One might discuss To Kill a Mockingbird only after presenting Jim Crow mores in the early-20th-century South.

“Multicultural” approaches would emphasize themes of racial, ethnic, regional, and sexual identity and cultures.

Finally, “Close Reading or New Criticism” would emphasize the formal analysis of figurative language, plot, structure, imagery, and irony.

The chart above places formal analysis well behind reader response and biographical/historical approaches.  This is a damaging trend, one that shows a reduction in analytical methods since the last major study of the subject by Arthur Applebee in 1993.  Back then, 50 percent of teachers stressed close reading in the classroom.  Today, it’s a tertiary preference.

Here is the danger.  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.  Indeed, when ACT pored over college-readiness data from 2005, it found that “the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and students who are not is the ability to comprehend complex texts.”  More reader response exercises for 9th-11th-graders are only going to exacerbate the problem.

Comment on this article
  • Stephen Downes says:

    Close reading is rather more important in non-literary texts, however, the sample shown here includes only literary texts. While a sampling of close reading would be appropriate (30 percent seems right) it seems more relevant to focus on other aspects of literary texts, including most especially reader response.

    If the study showed that students are generally not provided sufficient experience in close reading to support their future higher learning needs, then it may have a point. But by examining only a part of their reading, a part not at all designed for close reading, and criticizing practice on that basis, appears to be a scurrilous and unfair criticism.

  • Mark Bauerlein says:

    The study does examine non-literary texts, too, Stephen, and nonetheless, close reading is essential for literary texts. Literary texts often contain dense metaphors and delicate ironies and complex symbols that must be analyzed slowly and carefully. Look at this by Emily Dickinson:

    After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
    The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
    The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
    And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

    Not only do we have words in need of explication, but prosody as well.

    One of the unfortunate assumptions in literary pedagodies is precisely the idea that literary reading is more about response/experience than it is about analysis/interpretation. That may be true in leisure life, but it’s not true in academic coursework.

  • Sandra Stotsky says:

    I highly recommend close reading of the study itself before comments about it are made. The study did look at assigned non-fiction, both literary and non-literary. as well as imaginative literature. It lists the most frequently read essays and speeches English teachers say they teach. It also includes in Appendix H the types of general informational and technical texts mentioned–by the small number of teachers who acknowledge teaching this kind of reading. Sandra Stotsky

  • Jim says:

    I agree that the high school English curriculum needs to be more challenging for all students (as the study recommends). But I don’t agree with you on what that means. I think Applebee might not either. I’d say the data represent a positive shift while still arguing that our teaching is not rigorous enough at the high school level.
    A few quick points:
    The kind of reading described in the quote from ACT is not simply the advanced reading of literature. You indicate this point, but focus your attention on the skills required for literary analysis.
    The majority of students in high school English classes will not go on to take upper-level English courses at universities.
    While new criticism is still privileged by many in universities, it is certainly not the only form of literary analysis that is privileged (and not the only one that counts as formal or gets to avoid scare quotes).
    I’d agree that “The Road Not Taken” is often misread or not fully read (and it’s not the only one). As someone who has worked with a lot of teachers, I can say that they misread it too. They’ve had plenty of college-level English literature courses.
    You list many skills and competencies that are required of students in college-level literature courses. You argue for “focused training in deep analysis of literary and non-literary texts.” Again, though, a high school English teacher is not preparing a room full of future lit students. I took a year of high school chemistry at a very well-regarded high school (and did well). I still had a lot to learn and had to study quite a bit when I took my first college-level chemistry course. College courses are meant to be advanced study. Close reading should be taught in high schools (and it is to), but if students come to college without the level of mastery in literary analysis that they need to have as English literature students then they’ll need to be taught, they’ll need to study, they’ll need to learn to read the ambiguity in “The Road Not Taken” from their teachers there. That’s the point of being an English major.

  • Helaine L. Smith says:

    As a teacher of literature, I can attest first-hand to the tremendous value to students of close reading as described by Mark Bauerlein and as urged by Professor Stotsky’s study. Students return years later to say how valuable their training was for college and for work after college. I think perhaps Mr. Downes is defining “relevant” as “popular” rather than as “useful to the development of the mind and spirit”–which seems to me the most “relevant” thing we can do for our children.

  • Mark Bauerlein says:

    Fair points, Jim, but I think you underestimate the importance of literary reading for college-level work. It helps not just with English majors, but many other classes as well–indeed, any ones in which texts are read that have any literary language in them. That includes expository writing courses, foreign language courses, a good portion of history and philosophy and art history and ethnic and women’s studies of various kinds, the fine arts, and journalism.

    That is why the ACT report, which you rightly note applies to reading in general, applies so well. My contention is that teaching high school students to analyze closely the language of poetry and fiction is excellent training for handling complex texts of all kinds at the next level.

  • Diana Senechal says:

    A New York City “predictive” ELA exam included “The Road Not Taken” a few years ago. The questions and multiple-choice answers were so poorly conceived that I wrote to the testing company. Someone wrote me a courteous reply defending the questions.

    One of the questions read:

    26. Which best describes the lesson the reader can learn from the poem?

    (1) Making decisions in life is the most difficult thing you will have to do.
    (2) You can always change your mind if you make a bad choice.
    (3) The road that fewer people travel by is the best choice.
    (4) Make your decisions carefully because you cannot change your past.

    Is the reader supposed to “learn a lesson” from the poem? I don’t think so. In any case, none of these answers is appropriate for the poem. When the test questions themselves don’t reflect careful reading, we’re in trouble.

  • Robert Oliphant says:

    Mark’s work to me evokes Paul Valery’s dictum that “poetry should be memorable,” the corollary of which is that literary instruction should make the memorizing process more efficient and satisfying. Hence the importance of explaining why Dickinson and Whitman are less “memory friendly” poets than, say those of a Petrarchan sonneteer like Keats. Hence also the desirability of measurable achievements like those of the Poetry Out Loud program (bitterly opposed by professional litterateurs, I’m sorry to say. . . . By way of bona fides, as noted in an LA Times piece (May 10), I’ve recently memorized scads of the stuff as an Alzheimer’s deterrent…. Bob Oliphant (WWII Air Corps vet)

  • Marktropolis says:

    MarkB: perhaps teachers would spend more energy on close reading if they didn’t have to worry about all those dang test scores. You know, the tests and testing that is promoted by the editors (and political allies) of Education Next as a part of the so-called “accountability” movement. Since we live in an era of test-driven curriculum (thanks in large part to NCLB), teachers don’t have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to what or even how they teach.

  • E says:

    I would have to agree with the author of this article. In high school, we spent much more time discussing things related only slightly to the books we read than figuring out exactly what the author was saying. The benefits of “Reader Response” are very few. It distracts the students from paying much attention to the text – all they have to do is talk about their opinions or experiences with some issue that it touches upon. It is easy to write an essay on “Huckleberry Finn” without reading it when all you have to do is talk about how racism has affected your life. You do not have to read the book, you do not have to think about the book, and you do not even really have to think much about the essay – it is a pretty wide-open question. The kind of thinking that “Reader Response” questions require is, of course, good in and of itself – but it is more suited to a philosophy class than a literature one. It is examination of the self, not of the ideas of such-and-such an author. If we want students to broaden their minds, we must give them assignments that require them to at things that they are not yet familiar with.

  • Mark Bauerlein says:

    You must be kidding, marktropolis. You think that teachers are shifting toward personal response in order to prepare for the reading test? Is there any worse way to build reading scores than to train students to consult their personal experience when reading a passage?

    This is one of the important implications of Stotsky’s study. It suggests that one reason 12th-grade reading scores have dropped is because of the reading pedagogy in 9th-11th-grade classrooms.

  • Jen says:

    I am the director of an independent high school. I read the Forum report and was particularly interested in the descriptive stats about what is being read when in the HS curricula. While I find the authors’ analyses mostly convincing, I have one strong lingering question and a related comment … I assume that the teachers answered questions about their pedagogical methods and were given discrete choices – ie, I employ reader response most, close read less. It leaves me wondering about all those times when a conversation about biography or history teed up an analytic conversation. In other words, I wonder if the instrument the researchers used might not have allowed for how teachers regularly mix their methods – perhaps to better effect that just using one or the other? And, my comment … I frequently talk with our humanities teachers about our struggle to get students to talk about what they think and why they think it as opposed to what they feel about a text. (I’m also a history teacher). We are constantly consciously battling the “I feel” habit in the classroom – I would be interested in what Bauerlain’s thoughts on this phenomenon as part of our larger culture of discourse. And, lastly, I mention it everywhere I go – I wish that more researchers would pay some attention to independent schools. We are a diverse sector that has lessons to offer.

  • Mark says:

    Yes, Jen, I think it is, in part, a reflection of a “the triumph of the therapeutic.” as one thinker put it back in the 60s. We find a continuous attention to people’s feelings, an exploration and divulgence and revelation of inner lives that strives for the profound and meaningful and falls all too often into the banal and bathetic. At its psychological end lies self-esteem promotion, and at its political end lies the non-offense policy. I’m afraid it doesn’t help young Americans acquire a thicker skin, adjust their teen narcissism (which we all were prone to) to real adult life, and realize that an intellectual response to most things is more illuminating than an emotional one.

  • palisadesk says:

    “You must be kidding, marktropolis. You think that teachers are shifting toward personal response in order to prepare for the reading test?”

    In my district, that is certainly the case. The high-stakes reading test is a constructed-response test for the most part, and *every* selection requires a “personal response” from the student, “making connections” to his or her own experience. All are variations on opinion pieces, although the student is also required to “support your argument with details or examples from the text.”

    Every sample response in the anchor papers given to teachers to help prepare students for the test was a first-person, reading-response-journal sort of writing. None were critical, third-person analytic pieces. So guess what gets emphasied (and monitored by administration) in class?

    This won’t get students farther ahead on AP English, but in today’s inclusive classrooms, passing the high-stakes local test takes precedence.

  • Mark Bauerlein says:

    Because marktropolis mentioned NCLB, palisadesk, I had the impression that he meant the low-stakes tests that attempt to classify schools, not individuals. What high-stakes tests do you mean?

  • Alison H. says:

    As a professor of English Education, I try to teach my students (all pre-service English teachers) the fine points of using theory to frame literary reading. Interestingly, I use “The Road Not Taken” when we discuss how New Criticism operates during literary reading. The problem is, of course, after the close reading, the students realize that more than one reading is possible because of the ambiguity in the last line (and in other phrases throughout the poem). Then enters Stanley Fish’s theory of interpretive communities (a reader response theory, as I understand it): Close readings can yield a variety of interpretations, all of which depend, not on an author’s words, but on how an author’s words are used by readers in negotiation for meaning. I think a reader response approach can go a long way in helping teachers to understand how students can explore diverse interpretations of the same text. A close reading is an important part of this process, but does not define it. That is, a close reading allows for the detection of complexity, while reader response theories provide a perspective on the why and how of complexity.

  • Sandra Stotsky says:

    The last sentence in Alison H’s comment is worthy of lengthy discussion. The ALSCW study didn’t recommend ONLY close reading. There is value in spending some instructional time on “reader response.” What the study found was that close reading was short-shrifted. for the study of both imaginative and nonfiction texts. That is the pedagogical problem that needs rectification . Students apparently spend extremely little time doing close reading and an enormous amount of time on reader response or contextual information. The frequent use of peer-led small-group literary discussions does not tend to contribute to close reading. So, the issue is not an either/or matter but a professional judgment by the teacher on the amount of time to spend teaching students how to read and understand what the author actually wrote. From this approach the skills for critical thinking–in any subject–develop. It is not easy work for teachers, and it is not easy learning for students. But that is what intellectual development thrives on. Sandra

  • elizabeth thompson says:

    Reader responses are safe and easy for teachers. Asking a question and having a wonderful discussion about what a text means to you is vastly different than dissecting each line and analyzing structure. I am finishing a Masters in Education. My undergraduate degree is in English. My professors want to see me accomplish both skills. They want me to be able to contribute to whole class discussions, but they also want to see that I can take a poem apart and put it back together.

    If I took my car to a mechanic who raved about the reasons he likes a certain model of car, but he can’t get under the hood and tell me what’s wrong, I’m going to go someplace else. Same thing with teachers. If we teach our students how to aesthetically view a text, but don’t teach the skills to pull it apart and put it back together, we are doing them a great disservice.

  • drpenglish says:

    Three years after this discussion, I can only point out the obvious to any Frost fan:

    There’s little ambiguity to the final line of his poem if you notice that the speaker “WILL be saying with a sigh” that his road “has made all the difference” even though he just got done conceding that both paths had been worn “about the same” and the original untaken path was invisible past where it “bent in the undergrowth.”

    Where’s the ambiguous reading? the poem isn’t panegyric to the creative life, but an unequivocal, if crafty warning about our powers of self-congratulation.

    Just sayin’

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