Phi Beta Cons

Why High Schoolers’ Reading Skills Are Sickly

Sandra Stotsky, an illustrious professor of education reform whose specialty is  K-12 curricular standards, is the principal author of an important recent survey addressing why the reading skills of American high-school students have ignominously stagnated in recent decades, despite infusions of ever more munificent public funding.

The survey, “Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey,” concludes that the essential problem is

a fragmented literature curriculum coupled with high school English teachers’ approach to the study of both imaginative literature and nonfiction. [Note: The pedagogical approaches English teachers prefer — not a close, analytical reading of assigned works but rather non-analytical approaches such as a personal response or a focus on a work’s historical or biographical context — impede development of the knowledge and skills a large percentage of students need for authentic college coursework.] Additionally, the study found that there is no substitute for a coherent curriculum that addresses culturally and historically significant authors, literary periods, and movements in our own or other civic cultures, or careful analysis of assigned texts.

The verdict is forbidding:

little is left of a coherent and progressive literature curriculum with respect to two of its primary purposes: to acquaint students with the literary and civic heritage of English-speaking people, and to develop an understanding and use of the language needed for college coursework across a broad range of disciplines. 

The study does not just demonstrate the causes of reading underachievement but also specifies what needs to be done to correct the deficiencies. Do read more, for our higher-education institutions will remain fatally hobbled until this systemic pre-college institutional breakdown is forthrightly confronted.

Candace de Russy — Candace de Russy is a nationally recognized expert on education and cultural issues.

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