High School Students & Reading

The NAEP released a report on reading ability that indicates that, although scores for high school seniors have risen a few points from 2005, they are still below the level achieved almost twenty years ago. The difference in scores might appear insignificant (292/500 vs. 288/500). However the percentiles of achievement remain troubling. Only 38% of high school seniors performed “proficiently.” In fact, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, stated, “Today’s report suggests that high school seniors’ achievement in reading and math isn’t rising fast enough to prepare them to succeed in college and careers.”

First, let me admit that I began my professional experience as a high school English teacher. I have a Masters degree in British and American literature, so admittedly my viewpoint is somewhat biased. However, I firmly believe that exposure to challenging literature enriches the readers’ experiences in several ways. It not only enhances language skills (reading ability, vocabulary, and writing style), but it can also posit themes that challenge assumptions and beliefs. Therefore, when I assign novels and plays to my middle and high school students, I tend toward the “classics” of Western literature.

While some students in honors courses may be exposed to major literary themes and authors, many others manage to leave high school without having a broad base of literary exposure. At best, they may read an excerpt of a classic. Many schools do not require that all of their students include the following concepts and authors in their coursework: Aesop’s Fables, Greek, Roman, and Viking mythology, haikus, sonnets, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte, Hardy, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, to list just a few.
If a particular work presents potential difficulty to the students, I usually provide an introductory reading, to enable them to grasp the cadence of the language or sentence length. As one brief example, I recently asked students from a variety of school districts if they were familiar with the classic Christmas story by William Sydney Porter (aka O. Henry), “The Gift of the Magi.” Most were not, so I assigned the reading, along with a series of questions that I had devised to ascertain comprehension. Take a glance at the introductory paragraph, and compare it to the sentence structure and vocabulary of most contemporary literature.

“One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in
pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the
vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation
of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it.
One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”

Many high school students find the selection challenging. The short story provides opportunities for an analysis of writing style, vocabulary study, historical relevance, and theme in a few short pages. Provide opportunities for enrichment, and improvement will follow.

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