Literature Class Is Not Reading Class

The StudentOne of my greatest concerns about the Common Core is that it will do what so many other reforms have done: drag everything toward an average, be it a high or low one. This may well happen if literature class is turned, once again, into reading class.

Reading class emphasizes the process of reading. The Balanced Literacy versions focused on “reading strategies” and “just-right” books. A Common Core version goes something like this: During class, the students read a “complex text.” Then they answer “text-dependent questions.” Then they write an argumentative piece that uses concrete textual evidence.

In reading class, the teacher is not supposed to give presentations—or, if she does, she is to keep them brief. Instead, she assists the students as they read and write. Class time is work time.

In literature class, by contrast, students do the reading at home and come to class to discuss it. The teacher does give presentations, the length and substance of which will vary. Class discussion may focus closely on certain passages or relate different passages to each other and to the whole. Questions may move from simple to complex, and they may also take unexpected directions. For the most part, basic comprehension is assumed;  the class discussion focuses on interpretation. Of course there are exceptions; certain texts present exceptional difficulties and must be read slowly in class. On the whole, though, one assumes that the reading has been done and that the class can now tackle the subtleties of the text.

In a literature class, it is understood that the teacher will offer knowledge and insights. She presents context, background, interpretations that illuminate class discussion (without taking anything away from the students). She poses questions that build on each other and that draw on past discussions. She uses judgment in this regard, weighing the good of presentation against the good of elicitation. The proportion will vary from lesson to lesson, text to text, and course to course.

That’s how it works in college courses (in literature, history, and philosophy). You don’t spend time reading in class, unless you are focusing on a particular passage. Nor do you expect the professor to refrain from offering knowledge. Some professors choose to talk very little. Others give extended (and brilliant) lectures even in seminar. The different styles provide different angles on the subject. Certain lecture courses and lecture-style seminars are continually oversubscribed because (gasp!) the students value what the professor has to say.

Now, many students in grades K-12 (and even in college) lack the practice of reading for class. They may benefit initially from classes where the main task is to read and write. Yet this is a state of disrepair. In a more robust situation, students (from middle school onward) would be responsible for poring over the reading, on their own, until they understood it. Where, when, and how they did it would be up to them. True, many students don’t have a quiet place to study. Yet it isn’t that difficult to make quiet places available (in libraries and even in the schools), provided students shut off their devices and actually study.

Poring over the reading! That is one of the most important things a student can learn how to do. I have had English-language-learner students who made drastic progress in a single year, mainly because they had grappled for hours with difficult texts at home.  Every day they came to school with more vocabulary, grammar, and grasp of idiomatic and figurative language. This enhanced their speaking in class; they were thoroughly acquainted with the subject of the lesson and could thus join the discussion.

Maybe schools need two kinds of classes: reading classes for those who don’t have the practice of reading on their own, and literature classes for those who do. If this is so, then there should be a sturdy bridge from one to the other, so that the students in reading class don’t get stuck there.

After all, liberal education involves the exchange of ideas. You can’t exchange ideas until you have ideas about something. To have those ideas about something, you need to have spent time thinking about the subject. To think about it, you must know what it contains. Not all of this can take place during class time—so, for students to exchange ideas in class (in a way that isn’t superficial), they must study more on their own.

Independent, “unscaffolded” reading—one of the end goals of the Common Core—should be the starting point, whenever possible. Provide the “scaffolds” for those who aren’t there yet, but don’t make the advanced students descend.

P.S. (June 15, 2017) People continue reading this post, four years after I posted it. Please feel free to leave a comment.

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11 Comments

  1. I think we actually need to do what Common Core claims to be propelling us towards doing: learning how to read and write about science in science class (for example) and how to read and write about literature in English class. But I don’t really think that will happen. There is no reason why students who need additional support with reading texts of all kinds can’t continue to be enrolled in a class that provides that as well as a grade-level English class (as is typically done now here). But again, I think English class became reading class under NCLB and may remain so under Common Core. Yes, students need to be reading informational texts as well as literature, but shouldn’t they also be learning information via texts in classes outside of English? Wouldn’t that actually make more sense? If we understand that students need to be able to decipher technical writing as adults, then perhaps we should also be requiring they take courses that give them a reason to decipher technical writing. Like maybe a computer repair class. Instead of reading about computer repair in English class one day and a passage from Hamlet the next day.

    Reply
  2. Thank you for your comment. I agree with you about the selection of literary and informational texts. The texts should be appropriate for the subject. A literature course should have literary texts; a technical course should have technical texts.

    Reply
  3. Diana,

    I think your idea of separating “reading” and “literature” classes is brilliant. This would be a great way to address students with deficits in foundational reading skills, while still ensuring that they have access to rich content.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Mark. Some might say it’s just the same as tracking, but it need not be. The two classes could include much of the same material. Students in the “reading” class could transfer fairly easily into the “literature” class, once they developed the practice of reading the texts on their own, outside of school.

      Reply
      • Yeah, that makes sense. We’ve actually been discussing implementing something like this at my school. We’re adopting the Expeditionary Learning curriculum, which thankfully expects students to read whole novels, much of it outside of class. But we are concerned about some of students, who may not have the habits to do so. Such an extra class would benefit those students, and also provide an opportunity for addressing foundational skill deficits in decoding and language.

  4. The fix for the Common Core would be to simply do what its authors clearly intended to in their initial design & first draft — remove ELA entirely from the Common Core Standards for Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking (or whatever they called it exactly in the first draft). Make it clear that English Language Arts class is covered by a separate set of standards, or, as I’d prefer, expand and refocus the new ELA into the humanities in general (with a separate set of standards).

    This wouldn’t necessarily be as big of a cultural/institutional shift as it might seem on the surface. Heck, when I was in middle school in the early 80’s we still had both English and Reading classes, double “reading” blocks are pretty common today, and even among ELA teachers, there are clearly some that focus on “literacy” and others on “literature,” so splitting up between the two more formally should be a lot more doable than a lot of similar departmental reorganizations.

    Reply
  5. ponderosa

     /  August 22, 2013

    When I taught English, I grew to despair of having students read assigned novels at home. Your post makes me think that this habit might be teachable. I imagine starting small –giving photocopies of articles or short stories –figuring out ways to make kids accountable for really doing the work –having some lively discussions in class to show that reading at home has a pay-off. And then working up to longer texts, including novels. Build a habit. Too often, I think, kids viewed a reading assignment as not “real” homework because there was no paper to turn in. This certainly seems true in the Reading Workshop model –so many teachers assign thirty minutes of reading per night in their “just right” book. Hard for the teacher to really know if the kid read. But a whole class reading assignment –the teacher can devise questions that plumb whether the kid actually read.

    Tangent: my latest unified theory of teaching: skills are inborn, but knowledge and habits are acquired. Teachers can’t teach the former, but can teach the latter.

    Reply
  6. Hideko Secrest

     /  September 2, 2013

    Hi, Diana, I’m a latecomer to your blog, but I’m really enjoying it. I’m also enjoying reading your book. I teach a class in an independent school, but even there some of the students aren’t used to reading outside of class. It frustrates me (and the students who have prepared) when we have to take up class time reading the text. While I love the idea of separating classes into “reading” and “literature,” the school I teach in is too small to do that. My stopgap measure to try to make sure the students have read the text ahead of time is to give a multiple choice quiz (ungraded) on the reading for that week at the beginning of the week. There is no way to pass the quiz without having read the text. Even though my school doesn’t use grades, by having the students correct each other’s quizzes, it puts the pressure on them to actually do the work of reading ahead of time. It doesn’t always work (there were some students who never read anything at home), but it helped a little. Your comment about shutting off their devices is also key. I find a dismaying number of teenagers who are unable to cope without their smartphones, constantly texting, looking up Facebook, or playing games. It can’t be good for the brain to be constantly leaping about like a grasshopper.

    Reply
    • Hi Hideko, it is great to hear from you! I like the quiz idea. At the very least, it alerts the students to what they might be missing.

      Last spring, my tenth-grade students read Notes from Underground. Many complained that they couldn’t relate at all to the “Underground Man.” I tried to encourage them to think of “relating” in ways that weren’t immediate and obvious. Then I realized that those who couldn’t “relate” were, to a great extent, those who hadn’t been doing the reading (or who had read a little and then stopped). It turned out that a number of students considered Notes from Underground one of the most remarkable works they had ever read.

      This question of “relating” may have something to do with the Facebook/texting/gaming as well. It seems that many young people (and adults) see these digital devices, services, etc., as their own special place, where they can chat with their friends, do what they want, and have fun. A book, by contrast, may seem distant, forbidding, and unsatisfying, especially if its meaning isn’t immediately clear.

      Reply
  1. The Great Sin of Introducing a Text | Diana Senechal
  2. A “Good” Common Core Lesson? | Diana Senechal

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