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College Preparation—It's Academic


Why are American high school students so unprepared for college? Is it poor teacher quality, lack of pressure—too much pressure? Many people think students would be better prepared for higher education if they had better teachers. But maybe it's not the quality of the teacher—maybe it's the quality of the academic work itself.

Reading nonfiction books and practicing more serious academic writing in high school are a necessary part of improving college preparedness, writes Will Fitzhugh in this Education Week Commentary. Fitzhugh, the founder of The Concord Review, the National Writing Board, and the National History Club, laments the accepted practice of assigning only fiction books, and often only selections of novels, rather than whole books or nonfiction reading on subjects like history. According to Fitzhugh, the most important factor in achievement is academic work, and nonfiction reading and writing are a necessary part of serious work.

What do you think? Should high schools require nonfiction reading? Are excerpts, rather than whole novels, sufficient for college preparation? Is the problem with college preparedness the work, or the teachers—or something else entirely?


As a person who studied English literature in college, and then went on to study for a degree in public adminstration, I do think that non-fiction reading is paramount to success. When I switched from a literature focus in undergraduate to a non-fiction focus in grad school, the effects were hard-felt.

The truth of the matter is that reading skills for fiction and non-fiction are very different. In my opinion, it is easier to absorb a story as it flows than it is to absorb a torrential rain of facts. (On the other hand, literary analysis of a story may be more involved than identifying the main purpose and key supporting facts in a piece of nonfiction.)

Basic things like how to best use highlighting, etc. can help. I think that one of the best prospective solutions are stronger collaborations between English teachers and social studies/history teachers. (I am also a former English Language Arts teacher.) In fact, there are writers that try diligently to present non-fiction using literary tools.

In middle school, students can get their feet wet with chapters in historic texts. A great segue in high school would be a book that is a biography of historical significance (not an autobiography -- this is not advanced enough and better left for the middle school level). From 10th grad onward, students should read at least one non-fiction book a year. If it could cover a popular topic in current events, all the better. In all classes, it would be a great idea to give students a chance to find a how-to book related to the respective subject matter in the class.

Generally, higher exposure to non-fiction allows young people to assess their strengths and weaknesses in reading both literature and non-fiction. They will then be able to work with teachers to form strategies that will facilitate success in college, the workplace, and beyond.

As someone who worked full time and went to school part time I know that students are not prepared for college and for the work place. Having to read on many different subjects is a help and makes a better well rounded person. Reading books other than textbooks gives them a prospective of different peopls. They need to read books by new author and also books that are by authors of different times. By doing this it will give them an idea if what was changed is true or just the author's own ideas.

I am not sure that the quality of education has much to do with fiction or non-fiction, but rather on the dynamic that exists in the classroom. "Hard" demanding teachers are unpopular with students, parents, and school administration. As a result, teachers, especially new teachers, tend to soften the work in the hopes that they will be liked by the students and their parents and the principal will not get complaints about them. We, as teachers, are held hostage at every level because no one appreciates the rigor that is necessary in college. In addition, the heterogeneity of classrooms does not allow many teachers to approach higher level thinking among students because many students just want to memorize to get a good grade on the test.

In my Honors Chemistry class I required my students to take reading notes that dealt with every paragraph in the chapter. Tedious? Yes, but academic reading is tedious sometimes. Comments that I recieved included "This is the first time that I have read a chapter from beginning to end." This comment was from an 11th grade student in a very high academic achieving school.
When I was in 7th grade I had an Ancient History teacher who required her students to outline the chapters in their text book. I don't remember a whole lot of ancient history, but the outlining and study skills I learned in that class got me through college and helped me earn my Clinical Chemistry certification without taking a clinical chemistry course.
My point is that, as educators, we sometimes have to require work that is not fun or easy so our students will have the skills they need to succeed when the going gets tough.
Part of a good education is teaching our students what to do when there is not a teacher standing in front of them telling them what they need to know (memorize) or a studyguide that predigests the required material.
By the way, only one or two of the courses I took in college involved fiction.

It is disheartening that an educator,or future educator, wrote the following sentences to a publication that focuses on academic issues: "Reading books other than textbooks gives them a prospective of different peopls.They need to read books by new author and also books that are by authors of different times. By doing this it will give them an idea if what was changed is true or just the author's own ideas."
I do not not know where this individual is receiving training, but colleges and university must not continue to send people into the field who are not adequately prepared to articulate their own thoughts. How can we expect them to assist or assess others?

A regular part of my own education, beginning in about third grade was the dreaded book report. I eventually came to enjoy doing these regular reports. My classmates and I visited the school library at least once a week and were encouraged to read a wide variety of books from classic novels to non-fiction. I did find that I enjoyed reading more after leaving school, but I think it was more of a stubborness on my part when faced with assigned reading.
I do not think one can really learn to enjoy reading without encouragement and a variety of material.. When it comes to reading material, the more, the better.

My son has been in "Gifted and Talented" classes since first grade. He is now in tenth grade and I just discovered that he has no idea how to outline what he reads in a History or Science text. The teachers are discouraged from using the texts in our school district. (I know, I am also a teacher.) My son has written two children's books and produced a museum exhibit, but has never written a research paper. I am appalled. I teach outlining and research to my third graders.

As a faculty member who is teaching a quarter of "Prep for College Reading" to students who did not pass the entrance exam in reading, I am appaled at the lack of reading skills displayed. Most of these students are in Criminal Justice, Medical, or Business courses. Simply finding the main idea in a paragraph seem to be too difficult. I have abandoned the prescribed text and have gone to authentic readings for class work. I intend to also include several class periods on reading and evaluating internet articles. In this day people must develop the ability to evaluate the truthfulness and authenticity of internet sites.

All students, remedial to gifted, need to read the main section and business section of a newspaper every day and respond to what they read in writing. This is especially important in the English class -- it offers the teacher an opportunity to teach evaluating sources, comparing fact and opinion, organizing an essay response (outline, thesis statement, supporting facts, conclusion).

The most difficult problem facing high school teachers is the student's need to be entertained all the time -- it's the Entertainment Generation. But students are indeed interested in money. World, national and state events all affect the individual's ability to get a job, make money, invest money, and prosper. Reading the newspaper every day and asking questions about how an event affects the student's wallet is a good way to interest students in non-fiction reading and writing.

English Departments don't "control reading and writing in schools." History Departments and other disciplines can assign whatever reading and writing they wish. I resent the implication that English teachers have some how kept Social Studies teachers from doing what they value. It simply isn't true.

It's not about the English Department or if students are reading fiction vs. non-fiction. Students should be able to read non-fiction in Social Studies classes too; however, the question remains, how do teachers react to non-fiction work? Do many teachers find non-fiction to be appeasing in the curriculum?

This is not a quick fix! We, as a people, have let reading for pleasure slip through our fingers. It is not just non-fiction that's lacking, it is reading in general (and writing). How many families relax together by reading stories? How many parents put their children to bed at night by reading them "a good book" and then go on to read themselves? How many teens read the daily newspaper or subscribe to a magazine (other then an ad book)? We need to get serious about this problem. I personally have students who can solve very complex mathematics problems but can't spell three words in a row correctly. I also have students that can grasp very complex science issues and explain them but if they were asked to read a passage and summarize it, they wouldn't have a clue how to do it.

I am from the "old school," one where classics were read and taught. I have continued to teach classics in my senior classes, and what I have found is that if students will buy into those novels, they get very involved in them. I also emphasize much writing in my English classes because these students are a reflexion of me. If they go to college and have to take remedial English courses, it means that I have not done my job sufficiently. It takes much hard work on my part because I actually grade their journals and essays; that is rather grueling work. But I feel I must prepare them not only for college but for life. One must be able to read and write adequately to fulfill any goals he has in life.

When my children were learning to read and write in elementary school, it was important to develop their creative skills as much as their critical thinking skills and their technical writing skills. In High School I hope my children read a variety of books, as well as practice different kinds of writing, including creative writing and expository writing in English class. While they read non-fiction in History classes, they are (appropriately) graded primarily on content, not technique. I think it is good to be able to analyze a novel or write and appreciate poetry, but English classes should also teach children how to write letters, memos, essays, formal research papers - the form of writing most adults do in the real world. This is especially important for children who increasingly do most of their communicating through instant messaging.

I teach reading to kids who hate reading. The bottom of the Standardized test barrel. These kids can comprehend, they can get involved, they can enjoy a novel that is full length, not written last year, and not about an underpriviledged gang member. What these kids need is background knowledge. Too often they are given something written just for them. They should read a book and learn whatever they need to understand it completely. My students get really involved and tell their parents about the story. I think it's because they know the story. We don't do them any favors not asking them to read real classic novels. It might be challenging, but just because it's old or new doesn't make a book good or bad.

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