Formal Schooling and the Death of Literacy

My privilege is easily identified in my being white and male, but it is the story of my life that better reveals my enormous privilege established by my mother when I was a child.

I entered formal schooling with such a relatively high level of literacy and numeracy that from those first days I was labeled “smart”—a misnomer for that privilege.

From Green Eggs and Ham to Hop on Pop, from canasta to spades, from Chinese checkers to Scrabble—games with my mother and often my father were my schooling until I entered first grade. And none of that ever seemed to be a chore, and none of that involved worksheets, reading levels, or tests.

Formal schooling was always easy for me because of those roots, but formal schooling was also often tedious and so much that had to be tolerated to do the things I truly enjoyed—such as collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of comic books throughout my middle and late teens. I was also voraciously reading science fiction and never once highlighting the literary techniques or identifying the themes or tone.

During my spring semester, I spend a great deal of time observing pre-service English/ELA teachers, and recently I had an exchange on Twitter about the dangers of grade retention, notably connected to third-grade high-stakes testing.

And from those, I have been musing more than usual about how formal school—how English/ELA teachers specifically—destroy literacy, even when we have the best of intentions.

From the first years of K-3 until the last years of high school, students have their experiences of literacy murdered by a blind faith in and complete abdication to labeling text by grade levels and narrow approaches to literary analysis grounded in New Criticism and what I call the “literary technique hunt.”

Misreading the Importance of Third-Grade Reading

As I have addressed often, reading legislation across the U.S. is trapped in a simplistic crisis mode connected to research identifying the strong correlation between so-called third-grade reading proficiency and later academic success.

Let’s unpack that by addressing the embedded claims that rarely see the light of day.

The first claim is that labeling a text as a grade level is as valid as assigning a number appears. While it is quite easy to identify a text by grade level (most simply calculate measurables such as syllables per word and words per sentence), those calculations entirely gloss over the relationship between counting word/ sentence elements and how a human draws meaning from text—key issues such as prior knowledge and literal versus figurative language.

A key question, then, is asking in whose interest is this cult of measuring reading levels—and the answer is definitely not the student.

This technocratic approach to literacy can facilitate a certain level of efficiency and veneer of objectivity for the work of a teacher; it is certainly less messy.

But the real reason the cult of measuring reading levels exists is the needs of textbook companies who both create and perpetuate the need for measuring students’ reading levels and matching that to the products they sell.

Reading levels are a market metric that are harmful to both students and teaching/learning. And they aren’t even very good metrics in terms of how well the levels match any semblance of reading or learning to read.

The fact is that all humans are at some level of literacy and can benefit from structured purposeful instruction to develop that level of literacy. In that respect, everyone is remedial and no one is proficient.

Those facts, however, do not match well the teaching and learning industry that is the textbook scam that drains our formal schools of funding better used elsewhere—almost anywhere else.

Remaining shackled to measuring and labeling text and students murders literacy among our students; it is inexcusable, and is a root cause of the punitive reading policies grounded in high-stakes testing and grade retention.

The Literary Technique Hunt

By middle and high school—although we continue to focus on whether or not students are reading at grade level—we gradually shift our approach to text away from labeling students/ texts and toward training students in the subtle allure of literary analysis: mining text for technique.

Like reading levels, New Criticism’s focus on text in isolation and authoritative meaning culled from calculating how techniques produce a fixed meaning benefits from the veneer of objectivity, lending itself to selected-response testing.

And thus, the great technique hunt, again, benefits not students, but teachers and the inseparable textbook and testing industries.

The literary technique hunt, however, slices the throat of everything that matters about text—best represented by Flannery O’Connor:

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

In other words, “A poem should not mean/But be,” as Archibald MacLeish explains.

Texts of all genres and forms are about human expression, about the aesthetic possibilities of creativity.

No writer, like no visual artist, writes in order to have the words or artwork replaced by the reductive act of a technocratic calculating of meaning through the algebra of New Criticism.

To continue the hokum that is “reading level” and to continue mining text for techniques—these are murderous practices that leave literacy moribund and students uninspired and verbally bankrupt.

The very best and most effective literacy instruction requires no textbooks, no programs, and no punitive reading policies.

Literacy is an ever-evolving human facility; it grows from reading, being read to, and writing—all by choice, with passion, and in the presence of others more dexterous than you are.

Access to authentic text, a community or readers and writers, and a literacy mentor—these are where our time and funds should be spent instead of the cult of efficiency being sold by textbook and testing companies.

11 comments

  1. howardat58

    Perhaps all this is intentional, that “they” don’t want kids to develop their creative side, only to be able to read utility bills, tax returns, instructions, labels, and so on. Not BOOKS, for heavens sake. Too subversive.

  2. Eric Bergman

    My experience is that most people in this field–on any level–for the most part have good intentions, if not ill-informed. Yes, New Criticism continues to dominate the thinking and behavior of our teachers, even the good ones. Yet, a mere mention of Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response theories brings blank stares. Complete bewilderment. Why so little attention to RR? People of the world, there are many, many different ways to engage our students. Without that, good luck.

  3. jonathanlovell

    You see the dominance of the new critical pedagogy, at the middle and high school levels, as a lot more pervasive than I do here in California, Paul. I’d say the present reigning pedagogy is to view a text through a range of different critical lenses, with a strong focus on the social justice lens. I don’t think this now reigning approach is any more harmful than the new critical approach, but I don’t see it as any more helpful either.

    As you kmow, the point where I see the whole enterprise break down is when we ask our English majors, who have had little to no training in the field of composition studies, to figure out, more or less on their own, how to link their teaching of reading to their teaching of writing.

    If I was forced to produce the sort of claptrap that results from this hurried and often thoughtless yoking of these two separate disciplines, I’d be inclined to give up on both enterprises (reading AND writing) myself.

  4. Norah

    Brilliant Paul. I love your introduction. The way you were parented/educated is obviously the best. I did the same for my children, and they are now doing the same for theirs. Unfortunately the formal school system does little to inspire. I also love your conclusion. The content of your final three paragraphs is important for anyone involved in literacy education (and isn’t that everyone?) to be aware of and respond to.

  5. Pingback: Formal Schooling and the Death of Literacy | Projects for the New Paradigm
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  7. Jan Adkins

    I’m a writer of non-fiction for young people, and I’ve always believed my audience is the brightest, most discerning, and hardest working audience anywhere. But editorial fears of “too much” or “too complex” or “above their grade level” has galled my best work. Treasure Island, among my children’s favorite early books, was far “above their grade level” but it excited them and drew them into strange, dramatic worlds. I remember being terrifically excited by Joseph Conrad when I was in middle school; not that I understood everything about which he wrote, or that I knew much about the human condition, but the story and the language rolled on like a schooner with a quartering wind; I knew Conrad was with me and I knew perfectly that he was using language brilliantly. I’m proud of the work my colleagues and I have done with Vicki Cobb’s Non-Fiction Minutes: we seized on the best tales (and all the best tales are real) and presented them like little pastries, small and full of flavor, 400 words, no more. We theorized a good deal as we went along but the general direction of our pedagogy was to create a buffet of exotically varied topics and let our young readers select the pieces that excited their curiosity. We hoped and believed that the buffet would lead to broader appreciation of styles, genres, subjects, and encourage literary exploration on their part. We didn’t begin by labeling what our young readers would or should like: we watched them dine at our buffet and noted what intrigued them. Were we encouraging sensationalism and an all-sugar buffet diet? I think not. If we can agree that Damon Runyon and A. J. Liebling showed mastery in writing about sports that was just as skillful as Virginia Woolf writing about social relationships, then we admit that some students won’t fit our “correct” preconceptions and won’t be pigeonholed in a grade-and-age level. Young readers, make no mistake, develop sophisticated tastes for literature early on. The early favorites may not always reflect good taste. Our job as teachers and authors is not to dictate tastes but to support any discernment and curiosity which will encourage more reading, more discernment, refining taste and making the process of reading – which is surely learning in its simplest form – enjoyable and a lifelong pursuit. Preconceiving levels and test structures that yield metrics is not progress and is not education; the metrics are corporate tools to homogenize teachers and students, and are artifacts of government suspicion – are those layabout teachers doing anything? The real question is, are kids having fun reading?

  8. Norah

    Reblogged this on Norah Colvin and commented:
    Paul Thomas in this post describes the literate home environment of his early childhood days, an environment that created his advantage, his privilege in becoming literate.
    He also describes the tedium of school days that had to be endured rather than enjoyed, and decries the cult of measuring and labeling texts and students that “murders literacy among our students”.
    He goes on to say that ” The very best and most effective literacy instruction requires no textbooks, no programs, and no punitive reading policies.
    Literacy is an ever-evolving human facility; it grows from reading, being read to, and writing—all by choice, with passion, and in the presence of others more dexterous than you are.”
    I couldn’t agree more.
    If you enjoy this post by Paul, check out this follow-up post Everyone Learns to Read by Direct Instruction on his blog the becoming radical. You may find many other posts of interest as well.

  9. Pingback: Let them play! | Norah Colvin
  10. Pingback: Becoming a Teacher of Writing: The Year of Peter Elbow | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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