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.

Scaffolding or Teaching?

There has been uproar recently about teaching prescriptions arising from the Common Core State Standards. In a guide for publishers, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel (the main authors of the standards for English Language Arts) discourage teachers from engaging students in “pre-reading” activities. Students should focus directly on the text, without distraction. Teachers may provide “scaffolding” (that is, necessary information or other instructional support) but should not do anything to replace the students’ actual reading. Coleman and Pimentel revised the guidelines in April in response to criticisms and concerns. But the revised version still assumes that an informational lesson or the offering of insight is “scaffolding.”

Not all direct instruction is scaffolding, though. The very term “scaffolding” implies that students should ultimately be doing the work on their own. Teachers provide temporary support to help them get there, then take it away when they don’t need it any more. For instance, a teacher might provide vocabulary words and their meanings, then provide the words and have the students look them up, then have students identify and look up words on their own.

But when  we study literature, our independent reading is only part of what we do. We learn, also, from classmates and the teacher. Their insights add to our own. In college and graduate school, the professor is supposed to offer insights into the text. This isn’t “scaffolding.” This is teaching and scholarship.

As students advance in a subject (let’s continue to consider English for now), two things happen at once. On the one hand, they become capable of handling the material independently at a certain level. On the other, they come to recognize that there’s more to be grasped. Certain kinds of instruction do indeed “scaffold” the material to help the students gain basic understanding. Other kinds take them beyond that basic understanding. The categories overlap, of course.

So the question becomes: what are we teaching? There’s a difference between literacy and literature instruction; the one focuses on reading; the other, on interpretation of specific works. In the elementary years, literacy may be the focus. Students read across the subjects and build knowledge along the way. They reach a point where they can pick up a book, read it with little help, and answer questions about it. Teachers should give them essential background information so that they ultimately won’t need such help. But as they advance through the grades, the focus of English class moves toward literature. The point now is to help them see things in a work that aren’t obvious even after a careful reading.

Given the differences between literacy and literature study, where do “pre-reading” activities (activities that prepare for the reading) come into play? When should they be avoided? Certain kinds of “pre-reading” activities distract and deflect from the text, no matter what the level. I have seen lessons that did everything but delve into the book. Students looked at the picture on the cover, made predictions about the text, connected these predictions to their own lives, and on and on. I saw a lesson on Maya Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” where students spent most of the time making lists of things that scared them. I have seen “genre” lessons—even in first grade—where students learned to determine a book’s genre and make guesses about its content before reading it. (I have seen similar activities, albeit a little fancier-sounding, in some graduate school courses.) Often I have wanted to say: “For crying out loud, let’s read the book!”

But information provided by the teacher can be interesting and helpful, even essential. Many works assume knowledge on the reader’s part, so it makes sense to give students this. I assume that the original audience of Homer’s Iliad knew who Athena was and where Troy was. They also understood, at least instinctively, what dactylic hexameter was; they grasped not only the story line, but its cadences. Why not give young students (and older students) such an entrance into the reading? If students already know their Greek mythology, why not revisit it? And if the teacher knows Greek, why shouldn’t she recite a little of the original Homer for them? Wouldn’t that give them a sense of its sounds and rhythms?

Some information may not be essential but may bring students farther into the text. This spring, when teaching Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich to tenth graders, I brought in a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I wanted the students to consider Aristotle’s idea of virtue as a mean, then look at the “happy mean” of Ivan Ilyich’s life and consider why this is so different from the sort of virtue that Aristotle describes. Granted, the students could have read Tolstoy’s story without the Aristotle passage. They would even have understood that Ivan Ilyich’s “happy mean” was not so happy. But the juxtaposition with the Aristotle gave them a greater sense of Tolstoy’s irony and of Ivan Ilyich’s miserable situation. I would not call this scaffolding.

Nor would I call “scaffolding” what my college professors have taught me. I remember reading Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” for the first time, in Russian. The professor pointed out the skewed logic as she read passages aloud and laughed herself to tears. We were all capable of understanding the Russian text. But she pointed out Gogol’s subtle logical tricks and wordplay—things that made us pay all the more attention. Yes, I would have enjoyed Gogol even without this instruction, but it was this practice of listening to certain passages, hearing her comment on them, reading them again to myself, and thinking about them some more that made me fall in love with his work. I ended up writing my dissertation on Gogol.

So, we have two complementary truths, two aspects of education. One is that schools should bring students to a point of independence. Another is that the independence is fullest and richest when we continue to learn from others. The Common Core State Standards, and education policy overall, should acknowledge this latter truth.