Saturday, April 26, 2014

Trivializing reading comprehension, II

Seventh graders at our local public school are divided into two levels based on perceived ability. Here are the opening passages of two of the books that the upper-level 7th graders were assigned to read this year. First, from Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Afterwards a boy-child was born to Shield,
a cub in the yard, a comfort sent
by God to that nation. He knew what they had tholed,
the long times and troubles they'd come through
without a leader; so the Lord of Life,
the glorious Almighty, made this man renowned.
Shield had fathered a famous son:
Beow's name was known through the north.
And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.
Shield was still thriving when his time came
and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping.
His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea's flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them.
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour,
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, amidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean's sway.
They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did
who cast him away when he was a child
and launched him alone out over the waves.
And they set a gold standard up
high above his head and let him drift
to wind and tide, bewailing him
and mourning their loss. No man can tell,
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran
knows for certain who salvaged that load.
Second, from the opening of Sinclair's The Jungle:
It was four o'clock when the ceremony was over and the carriages began to arrive. There had been a crowd following all the way, owing to the exuberance of Marija Berczynskas. The occasion rested heavily upon Marija's broad shoulders—it was her task to see that all things went in due form, and after the best home traditions; and, flying wildly hither and thither, bowling every one out of the way, and scolding and exhorting all day with her tremendous voice, Marija was too eager to see that others conformed to the proprieties to consider them herself. She had left the church last of all, and, desiring to arrive first at the hall, had issued orders to the coachman to drive faster. When that personage had developed a will of his own in the matter, Marija had flung up the window of the carriage, and, leaning out, proceeded to tell him her opinion of him, first in Lithuanian, which he did not understand, and then in Polish, which he did. Having the advantage of her in altitude, the driver had stood his ground and even ventured to attempt to speak; and the result had been a furious altercation, which, continuing all the way down Ashland Avenue, had added a new swarm of urchins to the cortege at each side street for half a mile.
This was unfortunate, for already there was a throng before the door. The music had started up, and half a block away you could hear the dull "broom, broom" of a cello, with the squeaking of two fiddles which vied with each other in intricate and altitudinous gymnastics. Seeing the throng, Marija abandoned precipitately the debate concerning the ancestors of her coachman, and, springing from the moving carriage, plunged in and proceeded to clear a way to the hall. Once within, she turned and began to push the other way, roaring, meantime, "Eik! Eik! Uzdaryk-duris!" in tones which made the orchestral uproar sound like fairy music.
"Z. Graiczunas, Pasilinksminimams darzas. Vynas. Sznapsas. Wines and Liquors. Union Headquarters"—that was the way the signs ran. The reader, who perhaps has never held much converse in the language of far-off Lithuania, will be glad of the explanation that the place was the rear room of a saloon in that part of Chicago known as "back of the yards." This information is definite and suited to the matter of fact; but how pitifully inadequate it would have seemed to one who understood that it was also the supreme hour of ecstasy in the life of one of God's gentlest creatures, the scene of the wedding feast and the joy-transfiguration of little Ona Lukoszaite!
Heaney's translation of Beowulf runs to over 100 pages; The Jungle spans 413. The 7th graders are supposed to "annotate" each text with underlines and comments. They also read other texts, including an article about post modern literary theory.

Back in my day, we 7th graders were reading books like To Kill A Mockingbird:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
I said if be wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn't? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.
Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley's strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher's dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line that ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.
Children of my generation read less on their own than kids a generation earlier, and the quantity and difficulty of our reading assignments--as well as our verbal SAT scores--reflected this.

But the children of the wired world are reading even less. Thanks to this diminished reading, as the College Board has recognized, their vocabularies are smaller than ever. Similarly smaller than ever, as textbook companies have recognized, is their capacity to handle complex sentences, particularly archaic sounding ones. And also thanks to today's reading habits, along with the failure to hold kids responsible for substantive bodies of factual information in social studies, students today are acquiring less historical background knowledge than ever before.

So how is it that these particular kids--bright though they surely are--are able to make sense scores of pages of Beowulf or of 100s of pages of The Jungle? Or of academic essays in literary theory? The more I wonder about this, the more I see a parallel between:

(1) the assumptions about reading comprehension seen in the Common Core Standards (and in Common Core proponents), and

(2) the assumptions about reading comprehension seen in certain "rigorous" English classes.

After various exchanges with the Common Core enthusiasts vis-à-vis how accessible certain passages are to students with language comprehension challenges, I had already started to wonder what people today mean by "reading."

As far as comprehension goes, reading should mean the same as listening: i.e., attending to entire sentences, phrase by phrase, and making complete sense of them. Of course, it's not clear that people really even listen any more. Willingness to sustain attention, even in everyday conversation, seems always to be at a record low.

As for "reading," perhaps all it amounts to these days is letting the words flow over you, taking in (or underlining) certain key words and maybe making a few text-to-self connections in the margins. Then, when you have to write a paper--or do a project--about something you've "read," you do Internet "research," looking up the plot and characters on SparkNotes, and seeing the movie if one is available.

In the process, all of these high expectations backfire. What I wrote in my Atlantic article about special needs students:
Forcing all students into the same, age-pegged standards deprives atypical students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals at their level of developmental readiness. Far better for an eighth grader who is four years behind in language to read texts with vocabulary and sentence complexity just above her current skill level than to struggle through 67-word sentences in Tom Sawyer using story boards as crutches.
applies, with a few minor word changes, to students in general:
Forcing all students to meet above-grade-level expectations deprives most students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals at their level of developmental readiness. Far better for a student to read texts with vocabulary and sentence complexity and assumed background knowledge just above her current skill and knowledge level than to struggle through college-prep level texts using SparkNotes (whoops, I mean "Internet research") and movies (whoops, I mean "cinematic texts") as crutches.

27 comments:

Auntie Ann said...

I'm guessing the choice of books is because of this: Lexile to Grade equivalents. The Common Core has adopted the Lexile measurement as the judge of reading level. But it has also accelerated the assumptions about reading level.

According to the linked page, an average 7th grader (between 25th and 75th percentile) can--can, not should--read books with Lexiles between 735L and 1065L. According to that, both "Beowulf" (1090L) and "The Jungle" (1170L) should be out of range for most 7th graders.

But, the goal of CC is to get kids to the 12th grade reading level in 12th grade, so CC assumes a 7th grader can read Lexiles between 970L and 1120L (which would still put "The Jungle" out of range.)

All of this might be a worthy goal of students just starting out in 1st grade; but to dump current 7th graders, who have no experience with such complex texts, into books well above their actual reading level--way outside their proximal zone--is nuts.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how to begin to disagree with you, or whether I really do. This is the latest in a series of posts about the reading requirements of the common core that have led me to the impression it's the one thing they got right. Does saying that I find those texts appropriate and good choices for capable seventh graders mean I disagree with you?

I know my son will be able to read and understand those texts in seventh grade. I should imagine that the upper level of a typical seventh grade should be able to read them. If they can't, maybe they shouldn't be in the upper level, or maybe I'm seriously out of touch with common people. Am I wrong to imagine that if you're picking the texts for the upper level seventh grade class, that's not the class with the special ed students or students with language comprehension challenges? Have things changed that much since I was a kid?

From the assumptions you express (e.g. kids don't read much these days and don't know much about history), it appears that you don't have a problem with generalizations and assumptions per se, but more with assumptions that contradict those you accept. You identify common core assumptions about reading ability that seem to conflict with the accommodations and assumptions made by textbook publishers and the College Board. Does that necessarily mean it's the common core assumptions which are wrong? Isn't it possible that the common core goals in this case are laudable and appropriate, and the problem is the other assumptions?

It seems like you're saying we should just throw up our hands and say "well, kids don't read and don't listen, what can we do?" That approach has already lead to dumbing down the SATs and generalization of remedial classes at colleges. Maybe if the kids who would currently are just passed along until they run headlong into their incapacity at the college level were identified through failure to meet rigorous requirements in seventh grade they would get the remediation they need before it's too late.

I can certainly see a problem with springing a higher standard on kids all at once. If kids' education and reading has been lax from kindergarten through sixth grade, and suddenly they hit Beowulf in seventh, that will be a shock. But kids who live with a higher standard from an early age wouldn't have such a problem. Perhaps we shouldn't focus as much on the shock of the change as the laxity of the early years.

One of the things all school struggle with is trying to make children unlike their parents. If parents would never voluntarily read Beowulf, it'll always be a fight to make their children do it. On the other hand, a child whose parents read him classics at bedtime should have no trouble reading Beowulf in seventh grade. I suspect few children are raised in that fashion - most probably fall asleep to the TV or with game controllers in their hands.

I'm left with the impression that someone with whom I would likely agree devised these standards, and then abandoned the question of their implementation. I wonder if there is any way to address implementation. Can we ever meaningfully talk about standards in a country that has largely abandoned its culture and a school system staffed by the unsophisticated dregs of teachers' colleges?

ChemProf said...

In my district, at least, there is no "upper level" seventh grade class. All seventh graders (and middle school students in general) are in mixed ability classrooms, and Common Core specifically calls for no tracking until high school. So while I'd agree this would be fine for a very capable seventh grader, the point that it is not okay for a learning disabled student is quite valid.

The big problem here is the insistence on heterogeneous groupings, so that the two options are either no challenge for the upper group or too much challenge for learning disabled students.

Katharine Beals said...

@Anonymous, the point of this post wasn't to talk about the world as it ought to be, but to talk about a reality in which half the 7th graders at a non-magnet school (albeit the "upper" half of those students) are expected to "read" texts that, as Auntie Ann points out, are at Lexile levels that are out of range for most 7th graders. Regardless of what we might wish, students (regardless of how smart or neurotypical they are) will progress fastest when matched with material within their Zones of Proximal Development.

The main point of this blog post (Trivializing Reading Comprehension, II) is to raise questions about what today's education professionals take the terms "reading" and "comprehending" to mean.

Anonymous said...

So Katherine, are you proposing that all the children should have some sort of test administered to them to determine their "Zone of Proximal Development," and that they should then all be assigned literature that fits properly in their Zone? Wouldn't that mean that there is no longer such a thing as a group assigned reading? Would that be a good thing for schools to stop doing?

It seems to me that the "main point" of your post, as you put it, is either meaningless linguistic navel-gazing or just poorly expressed. "Reading" and "comprehending" to the sort of people who assign Beowulf to the upper section of a seventh grade class mean just what they mean to everybody else: reading and comprehending.

Your cogent point is that Beowulf is inappropriate reading for 7th graders because it's too difficult. That may well be true, as Auntie Ann says, for most 7th graders, including the upper division at your school. That doesn't mean that "reading" and "understanding" mean different things to anybody (although it may mean that teachers need to pencil-whip some forms to claim success).

When a person encounters a difficult text, they don't have to "read" it instead of reading it. They just have to try a bit harder to read it, or spend more time, or achieve a more faulty understanding of it. Encountering difficult texts is, fundamentally, something children should do, not something that should be avoided for them. Predigesting literature into bowdlerized pap is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Personally, I'm more interested in my children participating in a world, social set, or school where it is not true that classic literature is inaccessible to seventh graders. And we do. I'd like all children to be able to participate in such a world, but I doubt their families or schools will prepare them for it.

I continue to believe that there is merit in determining where children ought to be upon entering college (and in my experience, are not), and working backwards, grade by grade, to figure out where they need to be each year in order to get there on time.

I know that means that, in some years, some kids will be caught short by texts too difficult for them on this path. But they will be caught sooner or later, and it's better to have this happen in 7th grade than Freshman Year, where they might just drop out of college in response. There are also kids who are dead bored all the way through school because the school never approaches anywhere near their "Zone of Proximal Development," which is in line with the needs of college readiness instead of current grade-level recommendations. Those kids might be happy to see some engaging classics pop up in school.

lgm said...

There are teachers who believe that setting high expectations will allow all students to progress. Some will have to work harder than others, to make up for their previous social promotions or their lack of quality personal reading.
Others will have to have assistance, in their support classes, if they have a learning disability or special needs. Dumbing 7th down for their benefit was not the original intent of inclusion.

lgm said...

Do you have a link to data on the assertion that chuldren read less, split out by immigration status or locale? Im seing the same people as always getting their children to the library or providing ebooks for the ereader.

My son in 7th was reading the classics I read in 7th, but his fully included class was listening to audiorecordings rather than reading. So, White Fang at home, Sounder at school. Two grade levels dumbed down.

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous writes: ‘So Katherine [sic], are you proposing that all the children should have some sort of test administered to them to determine their "Zone of Proximal Development," and that they should then all be assigned literature that fits properly in their Zone? Wouldn't that mean that there is no longer such a thing as a group assigned reading?’

Only if reading abilities are so scattered that every student is at a completely different level. I’m guessing this is highly unusual, even at small schools; it is, however, an argument in favor of larger schools.

Anonymous writes: ‘Would that be a good thing for schools to stop doing?’

It would be far better than assigning books that are out of range for most 7th graders. In addition to slowing the acquisition of reading comprehension skills, this practice makes assigned readings less engaging and risks turning kids off to reading in general.

Anonymous writes: ‘It seems to me that the "main point" of your post, as you put it, is either meaningless linguistic navel-gazing [?] or just poorly expressed. "Reading" and "comprehending" to the sort of people who assign Beowulf to the upper section of a seventh grade class mean just what they mean to everybody else: reading and comprehending.’

Since I’m not able to get inside the minds of those who decide curricula, it’s hard for me to know what particular words might mean to them. However, since certain words relating to cognition and pedagogy—e.g., “higher level thinking,” “in-depth” understanding, “showing mathematical understanding,” and “learning” a foreign language—have taken on nonstandard meanings in the edworld, I raise the question of whether the same is true of “reading” and “comprehending.” When it comes to printed word recognition and foreign language learning in particular, some educators have overgeneralized what we know about first languages acquisition, assuming that mere exposure suffices for comprehension of all languages (e.g., L1 and L2) in all modalities.

Furthermore, while the same standards for comprehension should apply whether the input is oral or written, in practice there are enough differences in grammatical complexity, word choice, anaphora, and assumed background knowledge, between oral and written texts as to raise important linguistic questions about different levels of so-called “comprehension.” One interesting phenomenon that I and others have observed is that readers—even average-to-good ones—regularly overlook unfamiliar words and gaps in their assumed background knowledge, and parse sentences more shallowly than necessary for full comprehension, while reporting that they’ve fully comprehended what they’ve read. What is true of readers, of course, is true of all of us: we don’t notice what we don’t notice; we don’t know what we don’t know. Teachers who are unaware of how this plays out in reading, and how this results in varying levels of reading comprehension —and who fail to probe full depth of understanding—may confuse superficial comprehension with complete comprehension.

Anonymous writes: ‘When a person encounters a difficult text, they don't have to "read" it instead of reading it. They just have to try a bit harder to read it, or spend more time, or achieve a more faulty understanding of it.’

Or a lot harder, or a lot more time—which (this bears repeating) not only slows the acquisition of reading comprehension skills, but makes assigned readings less engaging and risks turning kids off to reading in general.

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous writes: ‘Encountering difficult texts is, fundamentally, something children should do, not something that should be avoided for them.’

Balancing this goal with reasonable accessibility is why ZPD-level placement (where ZPD, quoting Vygotsky, is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance”) is optimal.

Anonymous writes: ‘Predigesting literature into bowdlerized pap is part of the problem, not part of the solution.’

That’s why I don’t suggest it.

Anonymous writes: ‘Personally, I'm more interested in my children participating in a world, social set, or school where it is not true that classic literature is inaccessible to seventh graders. And we do. I'd like all children to be able to participate in such a world, but I doubt their families or schools will prepare them for it.’

Indeed.

Anonymous writes: ‘I continue to believe that there is merit in determining where children ought to be upon entering college (and in my experience, are not), and working backwards, grade by grade, to figure out where they need to be each year in order to get there on time.’
Indeed.

Anonymous writes: ‘I know that means that, in some years, some kids will be caught short by texts too difficult for them on this path.’

Only if everyone moves through school at the same rate. A better, faster path to college-level reading skills (or to whatever a student’s potentially highest reading skills are) is ZPD reading assignments from the get-go.

Anonymous writes: ‘But they will be caught sooner or later, and it's better to have this happen in 7th grade than Freshman Year, where they might just drop out of college in response.’

Yes, indeed. And it would be even better if they followed a ZPD path from the get-go.

Anonymous writes: ‘There are also kids who are dead bored all the way through school because the school never approaches anywhere near their "Zone of Proximal Development," which is in line with the needs of college readiness instead of current grade-level recommendations. Those kids might be happy to see some engaging classics pop up in school.’

Indeed. But concerns about boredom apply equally to those at both ends of the ability spectrum.

Katharine Beals said...

LGM, I don't have that data. But I do hear constant laments from parents and teachers that kids these days are reading less than ever, and (from parents) that (for all the bedside reading and trips to the library) it's really hard to get their kids to read as much as they did.

lgm said...

What I am hearing from the honors students is that they dont have time to read, due to the excessive amount of homework and summer assignments. .Most of that is the work that used to be done in the lower grades before full inclusion. It is now pared down and a catchup, game packs the middle school honors offerings.

lgm said...

The rest is time consuming art projects for the benefit of the included.

SJ said...

The Lexile difference between Sounder and White Fang is rather small -- 900 (Sounder) v. 970 (White Fang). Not two grade levels. One might argue that White Fang is of more enduring cultural value, but it isn't significantly more difficult.

The difference between "reading" and "comprehending" should be obvious. My second grader read the Beowulf passage aloud with few errors, but her comprehension was not good because quite a lot of the vocabulary was unfamiliar to her. She generally reads independently in the 800-900 Lexile level.

Saying "Seventh grade children should read classic literature" is obvious but oddly meaningly. Classic literature varies widely in terms of difficulty and subject matter. Of Mice and Men is classic literature. It isn't Beowulf or bust in the seventh grade.

Also, I believe an "e" was inadvertently omitted from Mr. Heaney's name in the original post.

kcab said...

I have a seventh grader and some mixed feelings about this topic. As in your local school, my son's class read a version of Beowulf this year, but it was an adaptation, not Heaney's translation, which I would have preferred. (In fact, I checked Heaney's Beowulf out of the library and tried to get DS to read it in addition.) I believe the classes are all heterogeneous at the local middle school, so the adaptation was probably a more reasonable choice for the school. Still seems like a lost opportunity for my son to read a rich text.

That said, I'm not sure that reading challenging texts is the best route to reading comprehension. I've been told that reading comprehension is best increased by reading texts well below one's challenge level - but I don't have a reference to hand.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks, SJ, for catching that!

Anonymous said...

Me again, Katherine. Thanks for engaging.

One of the parts of your argument I find difficult to accept is criticism of edu-professionals employing edu-jargon to make policy for students they don't teach, levied by an edu-professional, employing edu-jargon, to make policy for students she doesn't teach.

I find the ZPD concept to be interesting and obviously helpful in understanding the process of teaching, as I'm sure you do. I know when I've stepped too far with the kids I teach; the glaze-over is apparent, and tells me to pull back on the complexity of my assignments.

I wonder how one can really implement it, though, in the case of unguided, independent reading by a class of 30 plus kids. No teacher is present during the reading to watch the child and see any visible signs of the assignment exceeding the reader's capability. The teacher's only contact is with the entire class at the same time, at at time when they're not actually performing the task in question. They may self-report their assessment the appropriateness of the text, and they may perform secondary assignments, such as reviews or essays, poorly or well, but how can a teacher really adjust the difficulty in any other way but assigning a different text for the whole class next time?

You've said you're not advocating for testing children to quantify the ZPD. Are you advocating guessing? Self-identification? How does your advocation of appropriate ZPD calibration translate into actual policy?

You've suggested that you support larger schools to permit greater stratification of class ability. Is more tracking your principal policy suggestion? You've mentioned kids not moving through school at the same rate. Is greater flexibility in grade-level assignment and higher rates of grade retention your policy suggestion?

You must be aware that there's a gulf between theory and praxis in education, brought ever wider as direction is taken out of the hands of the teacher, and that even your own best ideas, once codified and paragraphed and keyed into curriculum for mass implementation, may produce unpleasant results.

I recognize that I am biased in the matter: I found school terribly boring, but rather enjoyed college and especially graduate school. My son found school terribly boring, and was happy to leave. I am most aware of, and sympathetic to, students for whom the level of study and discourse in public school is so far beneath their ability as to be maddening, and when I advocate for any students it is for these.

My family is not currently a consumer of schooling, and my son interacts with his teachers only on a personal basis, rather than as part of a huge, policy-directed class. His work can thus be assigned with reference to him personally (his perceived ZPD, if you will) and his relationship with his teachers, rather than as part of a district-mandated curriculum.

Though I am not a famous researcher of reading with a professional axe to grind (which honing might be assisted by a squirt of self-fulfilling prophecy) I am both an experienced reader and teacher, and I can say without doubt that any theoretical understanding of reading as full comprehension of a text is faulty. To apply the ZPD to a text, the most learning happens not when you feel you fully understand a text, nor when a text is entirely bewildering, but when a text presents itself as a mysterious other world into which one ventures with no assurance of safe retreat.

I do not believe that Heaney's translation of Beowulf should be beyond any reasonably intelligent seventh-grader. In fact, it looks great, so I just ordered it. In conclusion, I thank you for your (anti-)recommendation; I believe my nine year old will love it twice, once when I read it to him (after we finish Gulliver's Travels) and once again when he reads it himself sometime before seventh grade.

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous,
I appreciate your responses. You ask interesting questions, and I plan to address some of them in a later blog post. For now, let me say three things.

First, I am talking about ideals (and problems with current practices); not about policy. But here’s what I would do if I were somehow in the position of running my own school. I would begin by hiring teachers well versed in the psycholinguistics of reading comprehension. On an ongoing basis, I would have these teachers assess students via in-class quizzes that monitor comprehension of current reading assignments. I would then, in consultation with the teachers, use the results of these assessments to group (and, over time, regroup) students by ability, both within and across classes (yes, what some might call “tracking,” though it would be subject-specific), and assign ZPD readings accordingly. I would give kids who are gifted outliers the option to read independently; I would have teachers focus on those students who most need help. And I would make sure that the books we assign contain settings, plots, characters, ideas, and/or concepts that will engage all children, even gifted students who read well above the book’s reading level.

As for the accessibility of Heaney’s Beowulf to "reasonably intelligent" 7th graders, this is a question that should be determined empirically, based on those ongoing reading comprehension quizzes and an understanding of how the challenges of this particular text compare with the challenges of texts assigned and assessed earlier.

Lastly, it’s hard for parents who are gifted readers, and/or whose kids are gifted readers, to put themselves in the shoes of average or struggling readers. It’s hard for people who have never had to worry about their own kid’s reading skills and who haven’t spent time in regular language arts classrooms in today’s public schools or time tutoring typical kids extracurricularly to see just how deficient reading instruction in schools has become and how this plays out in later grades for non-gifted readers. It’s hard for people whose kids aren’t lacking in extracurricular opportunities to learn things and whose kids are natural sponges for information—many kids (whether from distractibility or self-absorption or narrow obsessions or anxiety) tune things out or lack the levels of curiosity that drives others to know everything about everything—to appreciate how deficient today’s schools are in encouraging kids to absorb the core cultural and historical knowledge that becomes increasingly crucial for later reading comprehension. It’s hard for people whose kids read copiously on their own to see just much less other kids are reading on their own—even ones whose parents read great books to them every day and take them to the library once a week and keep screen time to a minimum and give them books, rather than video games, at every gift-giving occasion. And it’s hard for people who haven’t thought deeply about what goes into language comprehension and reading comprehension to appreciate the subtle challenges faced by non-gifted readers and the different levels of incomplete comprehension that may slow progress or subtly turn kids off to reading.

the said...

>>The Lexile difference between Sounder and White Fang is rather small -- 900 (Sounder) v. 970 (White Fang). Not two grade levels. One might argue that White Fang is of more enduring cultural value, but it isn't significantly more difficult.

AR has White Fang as 7.4, while Sounder is 5.3. Two grade levels different.

Sounder was traditionally done in 4th here, White Fang used to be done in 7th, before full inclusion. I do agee that a skilled 4th grade reader can handle both. I don't agree that listening to all of the lit in 7th grade is appropriate for the entire class. That means those who need to come up in their reading skill never have a chance.

lgm said...


>>It would be far better than assigning books that are out of range for most 7th graders.

Why would the parents accept the placement if they felt the level was too high? Did guidance not use reading levels as part of the placement process?

If the goal is to offer material to honors students..those above the 90% nationally, say, the books are appropriate.

My son was in the 95% nationally per PSAT and couldn't get an honors seat or an AP seat in high school. There were that many students locally that ranked ahead of him...and we are not in an affluent area. We simply are nonurban, so we don't have reg ed students that rank in the bottom fifty percent on a nationwide basis.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the whole point of having an honors track that you can address work that's too hard for most students?

Katharine Beals said...

LGM writes: "Why would the parents accept the placement if they felt the level was too high?"

Because they don't know the curriculum ahead of time and prefer that their kids be with similarly advanced students.

"Did guidance not use reading levels as part of the placement process?"

Good question; I'm guessing they didn't.

"If the goal is to offer material to honors students..those above the 90% nationally, say, the books are appropriate."

Remember, this is a non-magnet neighborhood school, in this is the top 50% of the kids. An honors program would be more selective than that.

The Jungle, in particular, presupposes background knowledge in American history that I know these students don't have. One mother I know has had to teach it to her son herself (her son is a big reader, but his reading habits tend towards military history rather than immigration).

lgm said...

>>Remember, this is a non-magnet neighborhood school, in this is the top 50% of the kids. An honors program would be more selective than that.


Nah, not in history. History has been dumbed down. My 9th grade nonhonors American History class read The Jungle and more original documents than my son's APUSH class does. And no one that is a functioning student takes Regent's US History here...it is just a regurgitation of middle school history..they take CC or AP instead. Most honors students can ace the 11th grade US History Regent's Exam as 8th graders.



>>The Jungle, in particular, presupposes background knowledge in American history that I know these students don't have. One mother I know has had to teach it to her son herself (her son is a big reader, but his reading habits tend towards military history rather than immigration).

Here, the book is assigned to give them the opportunity to reflect on what they've learned in their field trips and do further research, not to have their parent do that. My kid picked up on a lot of the music and explained that to his nonmusic friends; they picked up on other things and explained that to him. All I explained was the significance of Lake Shore Drive, comparing it to a similar area here. I can see how it would be tougher in 7th though, as they haven't made the trip to D.C. to tour the Smithsonian...but they have visited Ellis Island and the state historical museum.





Katharine Beals said...

Here "The Jungle" was assigned for English class. 7th grade social studies, meanwhile, has focused not on immigration and labor history, but on genocides.

lgm said...

What did the English teacher say the objective of the unit was?
I have asked that before of 7th..Shakespeare is taught here in 7th and that unit typically makes students decide whether they really want to be in the honors program or not.

momof4 said...

Based on my experience with four high schools, in four counties and three states, it's safest to assume that guidance counselors are useless in anything academic (including college choice and apps), and they may be an actual hindrance. All of the ones I've encountered are vastly more interested in the social/emotional area. I know Ivy League-caliber students who have been told not to take the SAT II math and physics because they would be taking APs in those subjects (but those AP grades arrive after graduation!) All three of my sons' 8th-grade HS course registration classes were told that "no one takes more than 1-2 honors classes", despite the hard fact that the whole top 25% of the class takes ALL academic courses at honors and AP level (school had and still has honors prereqs fosr all AP. Parents are a much better source of info IME.

lgm said...

Here there has been a lot of controversy in the poltics of selecting students for honors seats, so the g.c.'s are fairly upfront on 'fit' via test scores. State test scores as well as COGAT are used in placement for honors, so it's no secret. A parent can get that info and decide if he wants his child to be the low man in honors or the high man in nonhonors.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we can all agree to disparage guidance counselors. Mine had me take a test and then told me I should be a long-haul truck driver.

I told him "No offense, but if I want career advice I'll talk to someone with a job I'd like."