Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vocabulary and Language are Important! (except words used to describe literature)

Kathleen Porter-McGee:

There is almost no hope of preparing our students—particularly our most disadvantaged students—for what lies ahead if we don’t ask them to do rigorous work that is worth doing every day. In English class, that means actually reading great—often challenging—literature. In science and history, it means ensuring that all students have access to real content and the academic vocabulary that goes along with it. ...

At the same time, we scratch our heads and wonder why our students are ill prepared for the rigorous work they will be asked to do in college and beyond. But we need look no further than these examples to understand why they aren’t ready: it’s because we haven’t prepared them. ...

The reality is that if you flip through the SAT or through the table of contents of any conventional literature textbook, you’ll find page upon page of esoteric vocabulary: circular plot, denouement, elegy, epigram.

These are words that are perfectly good to know. But, let’s be honest, these are not words that our children need to master to prepare for the rigors of college and careers.

What’s worse, for students in the Latino community, these can become unnecessary barriers. These are not words that deepen student understanding or that help propel them into more advanced coursework. And so, we need to help teachers and students focus on the first things first.

Finally, this effort—this fight—demands that we give our students the support they need to meet the expectations we’ve set. In English language arts, the standards focus on reading texts that are worth reading. It means emphasizing the importance of content and vocabulary. And it means bending instruction and support to meet students where they are, rather than bending work to meet what we think they can handle.

You can argue that you don't need to know literary terms if you don't think literature is important. Or if you don't think school is important. Or if you're some kind of reader response purist perhaps. But it makes no sense at all to argue that literary terms are unimportant when you are also emphasizing reading complex literary texts for the purpose of creating analytical arguments about the texts, with the objective of preparing students for college.

It just makes no sense.


Tom Hinkle said...

More troubling to me is the emphasis of reading "great texts" instead of reading period.

I'm teaching a reading workshop for the first time, where kids choose books and spend most of their class time reading, and I'm seeing students saying things like "I've read as many books in the first month of this class as I have since 7th grade."

Let's not pretend that our traditional English curriculum has most students reading at all. What it does is show them how to "read" them (i.e. fake their way through while having only read partially or read but only partially understood).

The idea that the big problem we're facing now is a lack of canonical texts in the English classroom seems utterly laughable to me. The problem is a lack of a culture of reading, or of a curriculum that does the hard work of putting kids in touch with books that are likely to get them excited.

Tom Hinkle said...

To me the idea that the problem with English classes is a lack of literary canonical texts is laughable and yet another piece of evidence of how little experience the common core folks seem to have in the classroom.

The choice is not between kids reading great texts or reading garbage. It's between kids "reading" great texts, as they pretty much already do, with teachers putting in all the "scaffolding" needed to help kids pretend they understand or have read texts far above their level, or teaching classes that actually engage in the hard work of turning our kids into readers.

I'm teaching a reading workshop for the first time and I had students today write in reflections that they've now read more books in my class than they have since the 7th grade. The problem of course is not that the books haven't been assigned, but that they've never been read.

To me, the question of whether we spend our time teaching difficult vocabulary and close reading strategies, as common core seems to want, or instead spend it teaching traditional lit literacy (genre, rhetoric, etc.), as you argue for, is largely a moot one. The bigger issue is why, if we value reading, do kids spend so little time actually reading in most middle and high school classrooms?

Tom Hoffman said...

Hi Tom,

Yes, that too, certainly, but that's also a longstanding debate in English with two well-developed points of view.

Meanwhile, I don't get where this anti-ELA vocabulary thing in CC is coming from. It isn't just wrong its just... strange.

Tom Hinkle said...

Fair enough.

I suppose the CC position might make sense if what they were saying is: look, you English-y types are screwing up reading and writing instruction with all your literary mumbo jumbo. Let's make sure the kids can read, let's look at text complexity, let's make sure they can write, and who cares if they know what iambic pentameter means.

That viewpoint actually isn't that out of line with my own, but it doesn't resonate with the line of new critical thinking that also seems to run through common core. To be honest, though, I can't remember just now how much of the new critical stuff is actually in the standards and how much of it seems evident from looking at sample lessons and so forth.

Tom Hoffman said...

Exactly! I'm sympathetic to a general argument that literary terminology isn't that important if you want kids to connect with and be enriched by literature. Its just that they're not making that general argument at all.

To be honest, it might just be that they can't see how the two parts of their vision (from the point of view of outside the classroom) are incompatible. I mean, I am constantly amazed by how blind people can be to that. For all the trouble caused by false dichotomies in education, a close second is blindness to incompatible goals.

Mostly the actual standards are New Critical insofar as they are extremely focused on just the text. If you're going to talk that much about text, you're going to need to have some words to use!