« The End of Summer? | Main | Just Rewards? »

Literary Debate


According to a recent Education Week story, many middle and high school literature teachers are incorporating contemporary young-adult fiction into their courses as a way to make reading more relevant to students. However, some critics fear that the practice dumbs down the curriculum, while others charge that often dark and violent content of today's young-adult novels has no place in the classroom.

What's your view? What's the best way to get students interested in reading? What kinds of texts are best for the classroom?


The article is not as controversial as it's made out to be. The comments are balanced and the experts correctly concluded that students should read both classic and contemporary works.

The only argument about current books that gets under my skin is when a teacher says that at least the kids are reading something and so they let their students read most anything -- typically a book that is not challenging at all. That's like letting a student learn how to add single digit numbers and then claiming it's okay because at least he's doing math. Students do need to be pushed to think about themes and issues, writing styles and structures, and how authors mix fiction with fact. It doesn't happen by itself.

Reading is more enjoyable when you get past the words.

Even with the classics, my students find relevancy in the themes, the issues, the events, the characters. There are murder, other violence, incest,affairs, disloyalty, broken homes, ambition at any cost, kids sneaking behind their parents' backs to be together, man's injustice to man, covetousness, jealousy, etc, etc, etc. How much darker can you get? I am totally in favor of students reading the "latest" novel for pleasure but the classics should not be dismissed as the core of the curriculum. Let us please not fail to share the best of the best with our students, and let us please help students see that their issues are not new ones.

Our high school English department has been having this same conversation for a number of years now. We have moved away from any textbook instruction, providing balanced literacy opportunities in the form of literature circles, shared reading, read alouds and more. This means that the learners have had more choice and don't always choose the more "difficult" level texts. We have concluded, as we have incorporated many of the themes previously discussed, that it is important to incorporate a variety of materials both modern and classic, meeting learners where they are thereby focusing on differentiation. This is an exciting time to be an educator!

I agree with Mr. Esqivel that the article was balanced and fair. As a school board member, parents sometimes complain about the content of books used in classrooms. I find it ironic, however, that with the video games available, with CSI and its clones rampant, with the violence in many movies, and with the evening news cast that there is a concern about which books are appropriate. I do believe some books are inappropriate because of their content as well as their writing. Which suggests, to me, what is the objective of literature as it is taught. Shock and awe? Or the ability to think, to critically analyze, to sort through the written style, and more. As a parent, I prohibit my teen age sons from viewing certain movies and reading certain material, yet it with explanations about their content and impact on them psychically and emotionally. While teachers may be human, I find I can trust more often than not their professional judgement regarding content and impact. Remember when Ulysses by James Joyce was banned from the country? Yet, Lord of the Flies reflects an excellent perspective on crowd-think, individual values of courage, and even the lost innocence of youth. Indeed, classics and contemporary artists are welcome in the classroom.

I have seen in our HS especially, that books that with very violent content, poems too are part of the approved curriculum and no one is looking for any other literature choices or enhancements. Readings like "The Most dangerous game", Native Son, The Catcher in the Rye" as well as poems lilke "I like the Look of Agony" to name a few may be classics, but may not be the best choices for learning different styles. There must be other offerings available that aren;t so violent. You must remember we are talking about adolescent readers. Brain science shows that the prefrontal cortex has not fully developed for them like it has in adults and these images hold a different context to them then they did to us way back then all those years ago. Also, my girl read Romeo & Juliet and then watched a contemporary version where they show Romeo taking off Juliet's blouse and then showing them in bed the next morning. What does this communicate to yout?? Visual images really impact and enhance storytelling and underlyingly send the message that this is OK for them to do. They wil not likely consider the possible short or long term consequences of what they read or view. This info given by a teacher may convey the idea that this is all acceptable and normal behavior and that can have an impact on how these young people view the world and how to live in it. Teachers here are suppose to talk about these kind of uninteded lessons with students, but many cosistently do not. Much media, internet, movies, tv shows etc have some violent or sexual content. Does literature in school have to also? There must be a better way or other literature to get the skills needed in more productive/prosocial ways than what I am seeing.

I am also a parent, and have been concerned with the books kids are encouraged to read ever since I heard a teacher and parent say "well, at least the kids are reading" when talking about Harry Potter. That is really sad. Our family has determined that themes like witchcraft and other mysticism are not appropriate for us, and my kids know that they can read whatever they like after they move out on their own. (We do talk with them about these themes that we ban, the list includes the sexually explicit, violent, and others) By that time, their brains will have developed well enough to handle the dark themes of the various books we (gasp!) ban from our family. They will also likely not care, as they will be getting into college and reading far more useful material than what we have said no to. Kids won't go off the deep end of rebellion just because a family determines to not allow certain books. It's all in how the parents handle the situation and how much time and attention the parents give the kids in their everyday lives. We don't allow many movies, video games, etc for the same reasons. Violence alsois not tolerated here. (in books, media wherever) And my kids (and their friends) are glad for that. It would be a great thing if schools stopped thinking they had to push the envelope of immorality (for the most part) in what they offer to kids to read and learn all the time. But parents too must stop letting their kids push that same envelope for the time leading up to high school. We offer our kids a wealth of great books to read, and they read so much we actually have to ask them to "put the book down" sometimes.

The two parent complaints (Clymer's and Schwarz's) are sad and upsetting. They aren't even writing about the issues being discussed; they're making it about how they want to raise their own kids by controlling what they read, and they're bringing up the science of the brain as if they know what they're talking about-- their writing clearly shows they don't know much about the subject, only gleaned what they felt proves what they already believed to be true. I don't just teach "your" kids. I have 115 students and my job is teach all of them so that when they read any book, they will have the skills to read will on their own. Do you see how your concern about which book I decide to use is meaningless? The comments on the brain, quite honestly, are laughabale. I won't even respond to that.

As a professional in the education field, I find these remarks irrelevant to the actual teaching goals in the classroom. And if parents are willing to come onto a website for professionals, they should expect to have their ideas critiqued, either positively or negatively.

As a teacher who works with teen readers, I say let them read whatever motivates them. I teach Secondary Reading in a high school. There are too many other stimulators in my students' lives attracting their attention, so reading is usually the last activity they opt to choose. Whatever promotions we can use to sell them books means a few more pages will be read. Please understand that I am not for dishing them garbage, but I do believe if they are given the opportunity of choice without restrictions, they will naturally gravitate toward classic literature as their tastes are given the freedom to develop.

In Jim Trelease's "The Read Aloud Handbook," he discusses research showing that 80% of high school students never read the books they read in high school after they graduate. He then asks the readers of his book to imagine what it would be like if young people were taught to brush their teeth for 13 years, and after those 13 years, only 20% brushed their teeth. Wouldn't that be considered a massive failure?

I have asked teachers at my site, "When you were in 9th grade, did you run to the library the first day of school to check out "Romeo and Juliet"? Not one teacher has said, "Yes."

Is most high school English Department curriculum geared towards turning out students who are going to be college English majors or creating people who love to read? Is it possible to do both?

The average reading level of the 9th graders I teach is at the 4th grade level. Asking these students to read the "classics" is telling a person who is playing t-ball that he/she will be in the major leagues tomorrow.

The struggle of reading difficult texts can be beneficial, if you have the skills necessary to navigate those texts. But when a student lacks fluency, vocabulary context skills, and phonemic skills (to name a few reading skills)that student may completely shut down while reading a difficult text.

Another consideration is the amount of background knowledge possessed by a student. "The DaVinci Code" is at a 6th grade reading level, but not having the background knowledge to understand what is discussed in the book can make the book meaningless. Not one of my students had ever heard of the Louvre. Remember the scene in the movie "Freedom Writers" where not one student knew about the Holocaust?

Asking struggling readers to read difficult texts is like giving someone castor oil when they aren't sick.

I would like to support the idea of balance that is mentioned in the article and in some of the comments. My 9th and 10th grade classes read works as diverse as classical mythology and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to Killing Mr Griffin by contemporary author Lois Duncan and The Pact, an outstanding piece of non-fiction by Drs. Davis, Hunt, and Jenkins. A central part of our class time is tying together what all these literary works have in common. It does matter what students are reading, but at the same time, I believe that one positive reading experience (be it a classic or modern work) can get reluctant young people to open up to the world of reading.

Many slow readers in high school will read nonfiction that is interesting before they will tackle novels. One book that fascinates reluctant readers in high school is The Everything Kids' Baseball Book published by Adams Media in Avon, Massachusetts. Written by a physics teacher, it contains stats and fun facts that even adults are interested in. The Everything Kids Football Book is slated to be published in the Fall.

Mr. Esquival,

Do you not care what parents think? They were, afterall, the childs first and most influential teacher. I think that mocking the parent input here andm most likely, in your school undermines a potentially beneficial partnership. Parents are more than just contributors to a schools fundraising efforts. Any teacher, including myself, who does not value their input is denying that the parent knows best what affects their child. We allow choices at most schools and should allow similar choices of material. If we offer a book such as Harry Potter, we should offer a classic as well. I think our choice of literature is more about our own boredom with the content and much less about enriching the child.

It saddens me to learn that teachers/parents/
students/administrators use the fact that students score poorly on a reading test and equate it with remediation, remediation, remediation. Meaning, the students are not taught how to read grade-level text.

I even remember one principal forbidding me to teach my 10th graders how to understand TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, a novel taught at that grade level in regular and honors classes at the school. The students were really getting into the book and we had some great discussions.

Some techniques that I advocate and have found successful are to 1-use Trealease's recommendation of reading aloud; 2- use the research by Krashen to have my students read, read, read anything--then through nurturing and book discussions guide them into the 'classics' or hard core 'sci fi'. I chose these two genres because they are the two that I notice students who read at a post high school level have documented on their independent reading logs; 3-use poetry and shakespeare to learn about literary devices and apply what's learned to what they read; 4-teach students how to take a test by making them prove why their answer choices are correct; 5-develop vocabulary and use the words to instill study skills via student individual learning style; 6-work on intensive phonics which enables students to decode multi-syllabic words as I notice that poor readers have difficulty decoding 3+ syllable words.

The above are just a few ways in which I empower my students to be successful and to grow from hating reading to loving it and being successful not only in English but in other courses as well.

Since we are talking about reading, I want to share this information. It does not fall under the category that reading teachers might be interested in.

It has good information. Sometimes when one sees a title like this, it is easy to think you are going to have to struggle through it, but not to fear, there are some really good and specific examples about what they are referring to.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Julie: Since we are talking about reading, I want to share read more
  • Linda Nolte, English/ESL/Reading Teacher: It saddens me to learn that teachers/parents/ students/administrators use read more
  • sam-parent and Teacher: Mr. Esquival, Do you not care what parents think? They read more
  • Mary Jacobs Writing Consultant: Many slow readers in high school will read nonfiction that read more
  • Justine Philyaw, teacher: I would like to support the idea of balance that read more




Technorati search

» Blogs that link here