The most recent SAT results present troubling news. Last year’s seniors have the dubious distinction of having the lowest verbal scores in forty years. A perfect score for each of the three sections is 800. Each section indicated a drop in performance, with math losing one point to 514, writing declining two points to 489 and reading dropping three points to 497. These statistics should cause English teachers to pause and reflect. Changing the curriculum to include more rigorous reading and writing standards now appears crucial.
Unfortunately, the “literature” assigned in many English classrooms tends toward popular fiction. As I perused the summer reading list in my local library, I became distressed to see the suggestions. While Water for Elephants may pose light diversion, it lacks the gravitas that one would expect for students entering a senior year honors English course. When was the last time that a public school curriculum included The Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy or Crime and Punishment? Even a cursory look at British and American novels written in the eighteenth or nineteenth century indicates much more complicated sentence structure, broader themes, and more opportunity for philosophical discussion. In order to improve the ability to infer and assess an author’s tone and attitude, and style, students need exposure to great works.
Furthermore, high school English teachers should teach the English language. Students learn to manipulate language by understanding the mechanics and grammar. How can they improve if they receive an essay that a teacher scores holistically? They need guidelines and suggestions that include methods on how to correct sentence errors, provide transitions, and optimize their personal style? Using examples from the students’ reading as well as their own writing (anonymously, or course) can prove not only instructive, but also entertaining. A return to the rhetoric classes of the past would necessitate that the high school teachers be well versed in the grammar. Administrators organizing in-service programs for continuing education credits must prioritize course work; proficiency in our mother tongue must be at the top of the list.