October 5, 2020
Last time, I wrote about the need for students to develop a writing routine. Today, I want to shift the focus to reading in schools. I will state at the top that a reading routine, allocating time for silent reading on a regular basis, is important. If you are a parent or teacher and take nothing else away from this post, please allocate specific time for and encourage independent reading.
As with my post on writing, this post will focus on junior high and high school students. I am not neglecting elementary school teachers and students—they deserve their own post.
The question for today is twofold. What are students expected to learn, and why do we teach the books we do?
What students should know
I want to start at the top, with curriculum documents. While I believe there is often a disconnect between the curricula and what happens in a classroom, it is still important to understand the mandate. English curricula vary from place to place; I am not an expert in curriculum (yet), but I have some familiarity with a few documents. For our purposes, I want to compare the United Kingdom’s National Curriculum (NC) and the Alberta curriculum to demonstrate how teachers should be teaching reading.
Here is a relevant sample from the NC, Key Stage 3 (grades 7–9 in Canada):
Pupils should be taught to:
develop an appreciation and love of reading, and read increasingly challenging material independently through:
reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, including in particular whole books, short stories, poems and plays with a wide coverage of genres, historical periods, forms and authors, including high-quality works from English literature, both pre-1914 and contemporary, including prose, poetry and drama; Shakespeare (2 plays) and seminal world literature
And here are some corresponding points in the Alberta curriculum (grade 7):
Experience Various Texts
- Experience oral, print and other media texts from a variety of cultural traditions and genres, such as journals, nature programs, short stories, poetry, letters, CDROM programs, mysteries, historical fiction, drawings and prints
- Identify and explain conflict, and discuss how it develops and may be resolved
- Develop, clarify and defend own interpretation, based on evidence from the text with support from own experiences
Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the Alberta government is still promoting CDROM programs in an age when modern technology has abandoned the CD drive. How do these two curricula, based on these small samples, compare?
Both stress experiencing a variety of texts, although the NC is more explicit. The NC states that (one of) the points of reading is to “develop an appreciation and love of reading”, whereas the Alberta model emphasizes identifying a key theme that ties into the Grade 7 Social Studies curriculum (conflict), as well as being able to make personal connections to texts. Both highlight forms and genres: again, the NC is more detailed. I am not sure why “mysteries” is spotlighted in the Alberta curriculum. Only the NC lists any specific author needed to be studied (Shakespeare). In higher Key Stages, this specificity increases, whereas the Alberta Curriculum does not dictate which texts should be studied.
What does all this say about how we teach our students literature, and what literature do we teach?
In my opinion, in order to achieve the aims of the Alberta curriculum—understanding conflict and change, and making personal connections—students must first be taught the NC aim of developing an appreciation for literature. This raises the question: can students be forced to love books?
Forced is, of course, a leading word, but the answer remains a soft yes. I believe students can be shown that reading is not a tortuous exercise, but, as with writing, the instruction must be explicit.
There are three general categories of students as readers. The first is comprised of those that, usually from a young age, have taken to reading and will read in their spare time without prompting. These young bibliophiles, and their older counterparts of which I count myself, come to a point where the physical act of reading and internalizing the story is the same. The enjoyment of experiencing a story is seamless.
The second group (again of which I count myself), due to certain physical or neurological conditions, cannot easily bypass the barrier between the words on a page and the story. For this group, reading is a slower process and sometimes a more physically taxing process, and the reward may not be worth the effort. Technology has helped in some ways, and that is why for the purposes of this post, e-books and audiobooks both count as reading.
Finally, there are students who have no concrete impediment to reading: they simply don’t like it. There are many reasons for this, but I believe (particularly at the junior high and high school levels) two main reasons are:
- They don’t have practice
- They are reading the wrong books
The first point comes back to the need for a reading routine in school. Reading, like writing, must be practiced. Reading requires the patience to experience the story at a slower pace than a film. Reading requires a certain level of working around new vocabulary and complex sentence structures. Reading, compared to film, demands more neural activity and thus, as with the runner, readers picking up a book for the first time after a long break will find themselves unable to get very far before tiring.
Every English class should develop an appreciation for reading by making it a habit in school.
That being said, if students are forced to read something they dislike, they will only pretend to read, all the while resenting it.
Thus, I ask again, can we force students to love reading?
Why do we teach the books we teach?
In the above sample, we see that the NC calls for students in Key Stage 3 to read two plays by Shakespeare. I don’t think we need to question this too much: Shakespeare has become synonymous with English literature, and is a pillar in England, so English students study his plays.
For the record, I am not delving into the irony of Shakespeare originally being studied as a rebellious act against the 19th century English curriculum—there is plenty on this subject.
Also for the record, I am obsessed with Shakespeare and have, since 2012, spent many hours reading his plays, writing about his plays, and reading supplemental material. I consider myself proficient with his work, and while I am not the only one, there are plenty of English teachers in Canada who have not read Shakespeare since they were in high school. This is fine: neither an English degree nor teaching certification requires you to be proficient with Shakespeare, familiar with his work, or even like his plays. And yet, despite that the Alberta curriculum does not dictate it, Shakespeare’s plays are taught year after year in the vast majority of high school English classes and some junior high as well.
So much has been written, including by me elsewhere, on why we should or should not continue to teach Shakespeare in North America in the 21st century. I don’t want to rehash the debate, but I bring it up to make my point.
If the first aim is to inspire “an appreciation and love of reading”, Shakespeare’s plays could help accomplish this. The stories are wonderful and, to dust off the clichéd defense, universal. However, there is a greater barrier to entry due to language (both vocabulary and poetical) and needed contextual information. A teacher who has not studied Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet since he was in high school might not be in the best position to guide students across this barrier, particularly if he sees Shakespeare as something that “has to be done”. A teacher who loves Shakespeare, has read the plays several times, and has delved into them beyond the level expected of a high school student can inspire students by unearthing the thrilling stories and multi-layered characters.
Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to say that teaching Shakespeare in Canada should be left to the discretion of the teacher, based on his or her comfort level?
But alas, too many rely on “so was it in my time, so is it now”, resulting in students having Shakespeare thrust upon them with varying degrees of success. Many students struggle through Shakespeare, their disdain for reading growing.
It is not only Shakespeare: the books students are exposed to in school, particularly if school is the only place they are exposed to books, inform students’ appreciation of reading. If the aim of the Alberta curriculum is for students to develop informed interpretations of texts supported by their personal experiences, then they need to be exposed to books with which they can form a personal connection. Some have argued that Romeo and Juliet accomplishes this because it centres on teenagers, but let’s be honest, that is a stretch. Some other classics that have survived in schools since the mid-twentieth century—Orwell’s works for example—can inspire some personal connections, particularly given our current social climate, but again, this requires the right teacher.
In Alberta, since the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there has been a push for more indigenous literature in schools. I think this is a great idea, but I would suggest that poetry and short stories might be more accessible if teaching a group of a students who have no personal connection to indigenous communities.
I believe the collective novel study (all students reading the same novel) should be eliminated from schools. Poetry, short stories, and essays are far more digestible when it comes to teaching curricular content, and plays have their place due to the need for active engagement, but there are other playwrights besides Shakespeare.
Most importantly, in order to inspire a love and appreciation of reading, independent reading studies should be part of every English class, where students (guided by their teachers) select an appropriate work of fiction or non-fiction that matches or slightly exceeds their reading level, and deals with a topic that is relevant to or interests them.
Once students have “bought into” the act of reading, then ask them to delve for insight and meaning, for character arcs, plot structure, literary devices, and all the other boxes we like to tick to ensure our students are strong readers.
But don’t lose sight of the goal: for if a student develops an appreciation of reading, and makes reading a habit, she is more likely to question what she reads, or read beyond the headline or tweet. Basic literacy will always be necessary, but today, an understanding of words is not enough: readers need to see what is hidden, what they are being sold. And fiction is a great training ground for these essential skills.
Finally, let us not be naïve: we can create the perfect environment, but ultimately, whether they enjoy reading or not is up to them. Some people will never enjoy reading. And some texts are not worth reading.
If this one was, and you have made it this far
Thanks for reading.
 Department for Education. National Curriculum in English: English programmes of study. [London]. 2014. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-english-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-english-programmes-of-study
 Alberta Learning. English Language Arts (K–9). [Alberta]. 2000. https://education.alberta.ca/media/160402/ela-pos-k-9.pdf
 In a rare move of self-promotion, here is a link to my writing on Shakespeare: http://www.alexbenarzi.com/shakespeare.html