Guest Authors: Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, Dorene Ross
ZipDialog recently featured an article by Annie Holmquist, “9th Grade Reading Lists: 1922 versus Today”.
Now, after many comments on that piece, we’re bringing together three experts with very different experiences to add their comments in a Guest Author Forum. Our guest authors are Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, and Dorene Ross. More on them in a minute, but first the background to this forum.
The earlier ZipDialog post made four points:
- Today’s reading lists are more culturally- and ethnically-diverse.
- The 1922 readings were substantially more difficult.
- Reading and writing comprehension in later grades are lower today than previously
- It is unclear what causal relation, if any, connects these easier readings and poorer results in writing and comprehension.
OUR THREE GUEST AUTHORS:
♦ Vernon Shelton taught English at Delta Academy in Marks, Mississippi, for six years and, before that, worked for twenty-years at a state correctional facility, where he taught Adult Basic Education.
♦ Bob Lehrman is one of the country’s most respected speechwriters. He has written for the White House and Congressional leaders and authored the standard text used by political speechwriters. He teaches speechwriting and is also an author of Young Adult novels.
♦ Dorene Ross is a Professor Emeritus from the University of Florida where she was a teacher educator and researcher. In the last 15 years her research and teaching focused primarily on schools serving populations with high concentrations of poverty. She now works part-time helping K-12 educators improve their instructional impact on children’s learning.
These are wonderful commentators, who approach the issue of reading comprehension with very different experiences and expertise.
The Challenge of Teaching English in high school today
—Vernon Shelton (high-school English teacher)
The largest challenge I found in teaching literature to high school students was their aversion to the sometimes impenetrable (to modern ears) language used by authors of what I considered to be classic works of fiction. Because I was teaching at a private school, I was free to use any material I chose in class.
Books like Huckleberry Finn or Heart of Darkness are banned in many schools because they contain what today are deemed to be offensive stereotypes and language. The characterizations used by Twain and Conrad are integral to the point of those stories, which is that humanity transcends race.
The Scarlet Letter presented another problem. To a generation accustomed to watching TV shows where car chases and fiery explosions are the norm, a book in which most of the action takes place in the minds of the characters doesn’t seem very exciting. One student told me that his father had actually quit school when he was pinned to the mat by Hawthorne’s syntax.
Before we started to read Hawthorne’s classic, I asked for a show of hands of those who watched “Grey’s Anatomy”. A large number of hands were raised. I then told them we were going to read a story about a single mom who had to raise a child in a community that was hostile to her, a “baby daddy” who was too cowardly to come forward and provide any child support, and a jealous old man who was possessed by the Devil. I said if that isn’t a perfect story line for a prime time soap opera like “Grey’s Anatomy”, I didn’t know what was.
Putting classic literature in terms that contemporary students understand may add to the burden that a teacher must carry, but I think that the benefits are worth the trouble. I do think that any reading is good, but to exclude the traditional classics because they seem outdated is, to me, a terrible mistake.
Dumbing Down? Don’t Buy It
—Bob Lehrman (speech writer and author)
I’m someone who has written both Young Adult novels and political speeches — including speeches for the Senate, House and White House. I use the Flesch-Kincaid readability stats all the time. Now that I teach speechwriting, I ask my students to use them, too.
That’s easy to do. If you use Word they are on your computer. They tell us a lot.
This morning, for example, I downloaded Michele Obama’s Democratic convention speech. Obama’s speech clocks in at a 7.3 grade level. Do I think her speechwriter, Sarah Horowitz deprives listeners by not writing denser prose? No. What she did was allow millions of Americans — who average a 7th grade reading level — to understand what the First Lady said.
English is a rich language. When one examines early speeches — I’ll get to novels in a little bit — no one should be disturbed. You don’t have to say “currently,” or “additionally.” You can say “now” or “also.” You don’t want to write 30-word sentences, which are hard to say and hard to understand. You can write two or three sentences, convey the same ideas, and for reasons too hard to to cover here, reach more people.
What about novels? I wrote four for young adults. They were serious, controversial, and difficult for many teenagers. The Flesch-Kincaid levels were under a fourth grade level.
How could that be? First, once film became popular, they influence novels in two ways. Writers used to write pages of description to set the scene. They couldn’t compete with film which could accomplish that in a moment. Compare Silas Marner or The Deerslayer with the best modern novels and you will see the difference right away.
Second, dialogue became more natural. Take this typical bit of dialogue from The Deerslayer. “I know the spot and am not sorry to see so useful a friend as the sun.My name is not Hurry Harry if this is not the very spot where landholders camped the summer past.”
These days, YA novelists might say it this way.
” I know this place. Last summer the landholders camped here. Hey. I’m glad the sun’s shining.”
The first one is 13th grade. The second is 3d grade. Would we prefer the original? I don’t think so.
Yes, there’s been a hundred-year trend to more colloquial language in imaginative writing (which includes oratory.). I’m a lot happier to see kids reading Harper Lee (5.6) than Cooper (11.2). Or listening to Barack Obama (7.3) than Herbert Hoover (whose readability stats I would have to look up.)
Happy to reply to anyone who wants. Incidentally — what I wrote here? 5.9 grade level
Can We Compare Student Reading Assignments in the 1920s and Today?
—Dorene Ross (education researcher, consultant to high-poverty schools)
The study is interesting but so many factors go into the reasons for today’s 12th grade scores that it is challenging to interpret what it really means. Here are a few of the many questions the study raises for me:
In 1922 the national high school graduation rate was around 17%; in 2014 the national graduation rate was 81%. So one would assume that the students doing the reading in 1920 were the cream of the crop—the kids who are taking AP courses today. A better comparison therefore would be to compare reading levels of books read in AP courses versus those in 1920. I’m guessing the reading levels would be more comparable. In general in international comparisons, when US overall is compared to other nations we are more toward the middle of the pack but if you use SES as a control our students come out near the top. I say near not at the top but we have NEVER been at the top because US schools traditionally put more emphasis on creativity and problem solving and less on test taking and so our scores have tended to be lower than nations that put more emphasis on tests. That certainly has changed and I’d argue that’s not a good thing but that is a separate issue. So my question related to this study is what the reading level of books read in 1920 versus today really tells us. If they examine the books read in AP courses the issue would be much more compelling (but I can attest to the fact that the books assigned in AP courses while more culturally diverse have many of the same kinds of readings I had in school and many that are quite challenging).
Of all the factors that correlate with achievement, poverty (not culture or race or language) is the strongest correlate. And the poverty level of the school is a much stronger correlate than the poverty level of the family because poverty schools have teachers who are less likely to be fully credentialed, less money for technology and libraries, etc. etc. So I have to question whether raising the reading level of the books read is likely to have much impact on overall achievement.
Our national emphasis on testing has had the most “positive” impact on 4th grade scores because those scores are the most impacted by the push to master the basics of reading. Tests in 8th and 12th grade put much more emphasis on reasoning, background knowledge, and inferential thinking (that requires background knowledge). As we have narrowed our school curriculum to what is tested we have absolutely lowered the conceptual level of what is learned in schools. This impacts lower achievers more than higher achievers. So I question whether tinkering with reading levels is what we need to do. Instead I’d argue we need to really examine the impact of high stakes testing, and specifically the amount of time that is spent taking and preparing for these tests (i.e. doing practice tests, and practice exercises) and the amount of money that is going to testing companies (who also, coincidentally, make all the practice materials and make TONS more money on the practice materials than the actual tests).
So I guess what I’m saying is that it is interesting to look at and compare reading levels but as you note correlation is not causation and we have a lot of knowledge about what would impact achievement in schools (e.g. Smaller classes, high quality teachers in every classroom, psychological services for children and families, quality summer programs for poverty youth, high quality early childhood education, treatment for vision and asthma problems) and very little national will to do it. Instead we focus on “market based” solutions like charter schools and vouchers where some folks can make a lot of money but there is minimal evidence of overall positive impact. There are isolated incidences of positive impact but when you control for SES and disability and second language status the evidence is that public schools overall perform as well as charters overall.
♥ Hat’s Off to Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, and Dorene Ross for their contributions and to Annie Holmquist for the article that prompted this forum.
Your comments are welcome here or on Facebook, where this Forum will also be posted.