Misguided Reading Policy Creates Wrong Lessons for Students as Writers

Having taught writing to teenagers and young adults at the high school and undergraduate levels for over thirty years now, I have a standard approach to the first few classes: We identify and then unpack and challenge the lessons the students have learned about writing.

For these foundational lessons to work, however, I have to gain the trust of my students so that they are open and honest about the real lessons (or more accurately framed as “rules” they have conformed to implementing). One of the best moments in this process is when I very carefully ask them to explain to me how they decide when to use commas.

Usually someone is willing to confess: “I put commas when I pause.” And then I ask who else uses that strategy, and essentially every time most, if not all, of the students raise their hands.

Next, I help them trace just how this completely flawed rule entered into their toolbox as writers. I note that when they were first learning to read, especially when they were being taught to read aloud, teachers in the first, second, and third grades likely stressed how we pause slightly at commas and a bit more at periods when reading aloud.

Students usually nod their heads, recalling those early lessons, and even specific teachers.

The next part is tricky and really important. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, then, students receive a good deal of direct grammar instruction, often framed as rules (although this is a key problem of such instruction), often done in isolation (the ultimate fatal flaw of grammar instruction), and almost universally offered well before students have reached the level of abstract reasoning (brain development) necessary to understand how grammar works as a system [1].

Throughout most of my teaching career at the high school level, students were issued a traditional grammar text (Warriner’s [2]), and in that text, commas had an entire chapter and something like 47 rules. Since most students were uninterested, unmotivated, and incapable of understanding all that dense information on commas, they simply did what most humans would do—fabricate something they could manage from the information they understood.

Thus many students flip a reading aloud guideline that associates commas with pausing into a horribly inadequate “rule” for punctuating sentences.

As a teacher of writing, then, I am vividly aware of how we have traditionally misled students with both our reading and our writing policies, significantly grounded in prescriptive and mechanistic approaches to language—approaches that teach the wrong lessons and do more harm than good.

That awareness leads me to recognize that the current Common Core movement is likely to increase that problem, not address the need to implement effective and thoughtful reading and writing policy.

For one example is the concern raised in Common Core calls for kids to read books that ‘frustrate’ them. Is that a good idea? by Russ Walsh:

The Common Core, in its pursuit of “college and career readiness,” calls for ramping up the complexity of texts read by children in all grades after second grade. Some reading educators, including University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Tim Shanahan, have argued that this means we should not be focused on having students read in texts at their instructional level, but in texts that are at their frustration level.

This call for students reading at the “frustration level,” sadly, is nothing knew.

Student have typically been required to read texts that don’t match either their language development or their background or perceptions of existence—works that are to them needlessly complex and difficult simply to comprehend (much less interpret).

Take for example nearly any student reading Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Setting aside that plays were never intended to be read texts, both of these works are variations of English so far removed from contemporary students that (just as they have done with comma/pausing rules) they decide that all good writing must be impenetrable—arcane words, labyrinthine sentences.

As a result, when I stress that good writing must be specific, concrete, coherent, and above all else clear, students are baffled.

Common Core, again, appears to me nothing new; as I have noted “close reading” is New Criticism repackaged. But I do fear that calls for students reading at frustration levels are likely to perpetuate the very worst of traditional reading policies and practices.

Reading and writing are the core of all learning, and as such, we should take much greater care that our reading and writing policy is grounded in healthy and effective approaches to literacy. We must also recognize that our reading practices feed our writing practices.

As has been all too common in formal schooling, Common Core appears poised to once again drive misguided reading policy that will teach our students the wrong lessons as young writers.

And if nothing else, that puts me at a constant frustration level.

[1] See Ann L. Warner’s “If the Shoe No Longer Fits, Wear It Anyway?” English Journal, (September 1993):

Why Do Students Not Retain Knowledge of Grammar?

We English teachers must ask ourselves why students do not retain what they learn about grammar. Is it because we don’t hold them accountable for it? Are high-school teachers right to complain that they shouldn’t have to teach grammar because their students should already know it? Or is it possible that students don’t retain this knowledge because they aren’t intellectually ready to understand it before high school? Are the linguistic concepts of grammar too abstract for younger students?Jean Piaget, Laurence Kohlberg, and other psychologists maintain that individuals experience sequential levels of cognitive development. Some studies suggest that only about half the adolescent and adult population reaches the highest levels of formal operational thinking (Reimer 1983, 37)—which may well be the level of abstraction required to grasp the fundamentals of traditional English grammar. Jean Sanborn, in her article “Grammar: Good Wine Before Its Time,” maintains that “The study of grammar, of the ‘rules,’ belongs at the end of this process of linguistic development…” (1986, 77).

Tate Hudson’s dissertation work, reported briefly in “Great, No, Realistic Expectations: Grammar and Cognitive Levels” (1987), confirms Sanborn’s position. In her research, Hudson found that failure rates on grammar tests were dramatically higher for students not yet functioning at the abstract or formal stage of development. Only fourteen percent of the middle-school students she tested were at the stage of formal operations.

Perhaps the reason many students don’t retain grammar information is because they can’t. Ironically, the least verbally capable students are often the ones subjected to the most grammar instruction.

[2] I recommend instead Style, Joseph Williams

7 comments

  1. ozarkmountainhiker

    Thank you for the clear advice to educators and policy makers. I fear we will not hear in our rush toward false concepts of “rigor.” My personal experiences in reading and writing affirm your statements about reading at the frustration level as well as trying to teach grammar out of context. Do we find examples of the countries we want to compete with rushing down this road we seem so intent on following?

  2. Margaret Benson

    So glad you made the point about children having the abstract thinking skills to understand the logic of grammar, including punctuation. I recently came across an article by David Elkind (“We Can Teach Reading Better” in “Images of the Young Child,” NAEYC, 1992) in which he argues that for children to understand the properties of letters of the alphabet (their ordinal properties, as well as the complexities of their sounds) they may need the logical properties of thought that Piaget does not think most children have until they are around age 7. So we are getting it wrong from start to finish!

  3. Audrey Kalman

    When kids–or anyone else–become frustrated, they turn off. My high-school-aged son is reading Thoreau in 11th-grade English, which, I would argue, has about as much relevance for him as written Shakespeare. He came home complaining about it (to a mother with degrees in creative writing and journalism) and I really had no good answer as to why he should read it. Because it’s good for him? Because it represents a particular period in American history? Because everybody else had to read it when they were in high school? How can we expect students to get excited about the texts if they find nothing relatable in them, and the teaching is constrained by “rubrics” in such a way as to make generating excitement impossible? I would much rather have him deconstruct pop songs (which he is doing on his own with a music teacher) and come home excited about language and words.

  4. Bob O'Neil

    Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that reading and writing might work better if intertwined (as in doing research) and that there might be no better way of learning the value of words than in writing poetry. So I put together a poetry anthology that intertwines them. It is at http://www.heydays.ws.

  5. Cleargrace

    I learned about punctuation thru reading, but my four years in high school with a wonderful, dedicated English teacher was where those skills were polished, and I gained understandings that I still use.
    In response to Audrey, and the frustration your son feels about his high school texts: shared texts build a common core of knowledge and reference. High school classes in reading are like trips to other places; we are exposed to something beyond our immediate world. Students are given some of those common texts to help create in them the ability to participate in a shared democracy and shared communication of ideas. We read for knowledge as well as understanding. As a writer, you probably use phrases and common verbiage that rose out of the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird… The list goes on, and it is those lists and classroom discussions that enrich our language and keep writers from having to explain each and every little reference they make. But such lessons are, as the author of this blog notes, rightly meant for the appropriate cognitive level, and some students are ready at different moments. I pray that your son’s disconnect with the material is more due to a uninteresting class discussion of the material. And now, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I must check my punctuation and grammar before I hit the “post” button!

  6. Scott Simmons

    New Critical values are the bedrock of my love for writing and of so much more in my life, so I must confess a bias when I say I believe whole-heartedly in frustration-level reading (for students and for human beings).

    But not all the time, for Pete’s sake. You don’t train for a competition by working out to exhaustion every day.

    When you DO ask students to take on frustration-level reading, it should come with commensurate reward. That can come from the teacher, but it can also come from the text itself. I read “Jane Eyre” and “Julius Caesar” as a 13- or 14-year-old, and both were challenging, for exactly the reasons you describe. I resented “Jane Eyre” because it was a slog. I fell for “Caesar” because its oration and soap opera thrilled me. Shakespeare wasn’t an easier read, but he earned his keep in my heart.

    How do we adults feel when we’re asked to take on greater responsibilities or work longer hours with no extra pay? Resentful and disenfranchised, for the most part. Students surely feel the same when more is demanded of them and no more is offered in return.

    • plthomasedd

      Thank you, Scott. Many of us who love to read chose to suffer hard (maybe too hard, too early) text and that was “good” for us. However, we are a rare lot. Great comment.

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