Do me a favor and say the following out loud: Students should read fewer books and write less explanatory prose.
Did that feel right to you? I doubt. But that is the message that the National Council of Teachers of English sends to its members. His recent position paper on “Media Literacy in the English Language Artsasks educators to “decenter” book reading and essay writing. He asks teachers to shift their focus from print media to digital media, including GIFs, memes, podcasts and videos.
The statement makes some legitimate points. It rightly calls for greater relevance and engagement in the classroom, redoubled attention to the basic literacy skills of speaking and listening. He insists that students learn to assess the veracity and quality of online sources, much like the good work done by Sam Wineburg and his associates at Stanford University.
But the declaration’s call to “go beyond” print is deeply misguided. The late and great media critic Neil Postman first pointed out that the ability to analyze multimedia stems directly from a solid foundation in reading and writing. Technology can only benefit education where text literacy takes precedence.
Literacy expert Richard Vacca writes that as adults, students today will need to “read and write more than at any time in human history.” Political commentator Thomas Friedman also reminds us that the essential skills for success in the 21st century is an advanced mastery of “simple reading and writing”. And yes, talk. It distresses Friedman that students already spend about seven hours a day engrossed in digital entertainment media.
The central irony of the NCTE’s call to “decenter” text is this: reading and writing were decentered decades ago. When I ask the audience what two activities we’re least likely to observe in middle school, it takes them about four seconds to answer, almost in unison: reading and writing. Many students do not even read the small number of titles assigned to them. An alarming proportion arrive at college as “book virgins”: they have never read an entire book.
The NCTE could have a huge positive influence by reminding teachers that books expand our lives and experiences, fuel the imagination and immerse students in the thought worlds of people from a variety of cultures, times and places. Practicing teacher and literacy expert Kelly Gallagher advocates that students become “voracious” readers. He is appalled by the increasing encroachment of pseudo-literary activities, which he has long dubbed “readicide” – the killing of reading.
During class visits, my companions and I observe writing and the teaching of writing less than any other activity.
Like many of us, he knows that novels and non-fiction books open up the world to young readers., offering them new ways of seeing and doing. They allow us to understand who we are at a critical time in life.
Books also uniquely expand our general knowledge. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham points out, “Books expose children to more facts and a broader vocabulary (a form of knowledge) than any other activity.”
And the writing? During classroom visits, my companions and I observe writing and the teaching of writing less than any other activity, even less than reading. I saw the results when I taught writing to freshmen. The majority struggled to organize their thoughts into a clear and coherent document. This explains why many students hit an academic wall in a variety of subjects when they arrive at university.
I would like to see the board take the initiative to educate its members about the unparalleled ability of writing to enable students to generate, analyze, synthesize and retain knowledge. Writing is almost miraculous in the way it allows us to think more deeply, logically and precisely. The eminent educational reformer Ted Sizer considered writing “the decisive paper of thought”, which should therefore “occupy the very center of schooling. Many scholars celebrate the ability of writing to help us express our best thought in its best form.
The NCTE statement raises other concerns: it strikes me as more ideological than humanistic— and overly enamored with what students find familiar and amusing. And I also believe that he needs more precisions. For example: what real proportion of the curriculum would the board reserve, perhaps reluctantly, for what it calls ‘traditional’ reading and writing skills?
The ELA community should definitely recognize the digital age, but not at the expense of books and explanatory writing. If the board is serious about wanting record proportions of students to become literate, expressive, and successful, it must first:
—To renouncer pervasive practices that are major killers of literacy, for example, skill drills (think “finding the main idea”); excessive use of spreadsheets, feature films, and aimless group work; arts and crafts projects masquerading as literacy activities, which run through high school.
—Recenter, after years of decline, an intensive focus on reading, writing, and (thanks, NCTE) speaking and listening. Restoring them to their rightful place represents the most auspicious opportunity for rapid and dramatic improvements in K-12 education as a whole.
With so much at stake, we dare not hesitate, impulsively, to accommodate contemporary but specious preferences about how we educate our children.