Monday, August 21, 2006

Reading for Older Kids

Lost in the kerfluffle about standards, curricula, NCLB and proficiency, I wonder if we have lost sight of an important cohort of kids, ones who are more advanced in their educational careers, high school students. What have we taught them about reading? The more you read, the easier it becomes to see how words have an impact and how to make an impact with words. Why is that not a primary theme in education? Merely ensuring our students read at grade level, it not teaching them about reading, about the joys of the written word.

Most of the high school literature texts I have seen are little more than anthologies; excerpts of works that present no context, do little to engage the reader and even less to educate students on how to read various types of texts. Outside of English class students are expected to read various texts, but again, the texts do little to engage the reader since they tend to be a dry recitation of politically correct facts, with little context and not much in the way of narrative style.

We as a nation have spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money learning how to teach reading to youngsters. There have been copious, often contradictory, studies on how best to teach reading, whether, and which parents, read to their children and how it affects their skills later, what youngsters are reading, how they are reading it, and on and on. But I have never seen or heard of any research on how to engage older readers; students who are in high school and college where reading is one of the fundmental methods of transmitting knowledge and yet appears to be a forgotten and assumed skill; a skill that lacks any sort of passion behind, not matter what may motivate that passion.

Over the past week or so, I have been reading a book by Derek Bok called Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. At the same time, over the weekend I read a Washington Post op-ed by Michael Skube entitled Writing Off Reading and another piece in Washington Monthly by Kevin Carey (of The Quick and the Ed)called "Is Our Students Learning?" All three pieces, at some point, call into question the quality of education at the collegiate level. As Skube wrote in relation to reading skills of his students at Elon College,
We were talking informally in class not long ago, 17 college sophomores and I, and on a whim I asked who some of their favorite writers are. The question hung in uneasy silence. At length, a voice in the rear hesitantly volunteered the name of . . . Dan Brown.

No other names were offered.

The author of "The DaVinci Code" was not just the best writer they could think of; he was the only writer they could think of.

In our better private universities and flagship state schools today, it's hard to find a student who graduated from high school with much lower than a 3.5 GPA, and not uncommon to find students whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher. They somehow got these suspect grades without having read much. Or if they did read, they've given it up. And it shows -- in their writing and even in their conversation.
But later Skube notes that many of the same top flight students who come to the nation's colleges lack the reading and writing skills of high schoolers.
As freshmen start showing up for classes this month, colleges will have a new influx of high school graduates with gilded GPAs, and it won't be long before one professor whispers to another: Did no one teach these kids basic English? The unhappy truth is that many students are hard-pressed to string together coherent sentences, to tell a pronoun from a preposition, even to distinguish between "then" and "than." Yet they got A's.

How does one explain the inability of college students to read or write at even a high school level? One explanation, which owes as much to the culture as to the schools, is that kids don't read for pleasure. And because they don't read, they are less able to navigate the language. If words are the coin of their thought, they're working with little more than pocket change.
So incoming students lack the necessary reading skills when entering college. But the students Skube spoke about were College Sophomores, who had at least one year of college education behind them and presumably a literature class previously or concurrently with Skube's class.

Bok's book takes to task the faculty and administrations of colleges for failing to understand the necessities of a collegiate education, including critical thinking skiils, the ability to write and speech effectively, the design of curricula both in general education and the majors. It might be easy to think Bok has some sort of political agenda, but his book focuses on systemic problems, problems that Skube points out. General education requirements do little to equip students with skills they need for lifetime learning--not just getting their degree. Reading, effectively and with purpose, is a skill that cannot be disregarded--yet we still don't have a clue how to engage those students who presumably know how to read, yet cannot speak with clarity, conviction or even proper grammar.

Finally, Carey points to the reason:
The higher-education sector is ultimately driven by the market. Colleges and universities will strive and compete on whatever terms the market provides. As long as status and success are predicated on building endowments and recruiting more students with high SAT scores, college leaders will continue to focus on fundraising, marketing, and little else. If, on the other hand, success meant teaching students effectively and helping them do well in their lives and careers, universities would change their priorities.
While it is true that collegs have little direct impact on the degree of preparation of their students when they enter college, they do have a direct role in those skills when they leave. If words are the coin of the intellectual realm, we are an impoverished nation indeed if our college students not only lack necessary reading and writing skills, but fail to understand the necessity of reading at all.

Education should not be just about facts, figures, analyses and tests. A truly quality education instills a thirst for knowledge, if not for all forms of knowledge, at least for some forms of knowledge, however specialized they may be. But one cannot escape the need to read and we should be instilling in our young people, of all ages, a love for the written word, a passion for reading--reading whatever, and reading quality works and words.

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