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):

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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.

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