Trend in high school literary study may explain decrease in adult reading proficiency

7048967605_1754966fcb_zWhen today’s high school students write a paper on Romeo and Juliet, the writing prompt is more likely to be “Do you believe in love at first sight?” rather than “Why is there a rushed sense of time in the play?”

The trend in literary study in grades 9, 10 and 11 is to ask students to provide a personal response to a work rather than carry out a critical analysis of it, says a recent study by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. That trend may be one reason for the decline in reading proficiency in the adult population, even among those with graduate degrees, according to the study.

“It is not clear why English teachers favor non-analytical approaches,” says the study, which is based on a survey of teachers. “Nevertheless, an under-use of analytical reading to understand non-fiction and a stress on personal experience or historical context to understand either an imaginative or a non-fiction text may be contributing to the high remediation rates in post-secondary English and reading courses.”

In 2003, only 31% of those with graduate study or graduate degrees were rated proficient in reading prose (i.e. they were able to go beyond a literal understanding of a complex book) while 41% were rated proficient in a similar assessment in 1992, according to the stuy.

In recent years, there’s been a growing general belief in the field that the meaning of a literary work is “undecidable”, that is that its interpretation remains open to a variety of possibilities. “Text-centered” or “reader-centered” are labels that have been used to categorize these different approaches to literary study. In this research, only 30% of teachers indicated that text-centered theories had an important influence on their teaching.

While teachers are less likely to rely on students’ personal response in the higher grades, they tend to emphasize biographical or historical context instead. The researchers also found a sharp decline in the last 4 decades in the overall time allotted to the study of a book-length work of imaginative literature.

Teachers who spend 20% or less of their time on a book-length work increases from 56% of grade 9 classes, to 60% of grade 10 classes, to 64% of grade 11 classes.

High schools should be applauded for offering more students the opportunity to take Advanced Placement English courses, but the ALSCW study indicates the needs of students who are neither in the top or bottom third of their grades are not being met. A more challenging English language arts curriculum needs to be developed for students in the middle third of academic performance in grades 7-12, the study says.

“Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey,” Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, 2010.

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