Complex Texts: Are Students Too Dumb?

Recently, the National Council of Teacher Educators (NCTE) posted an article to their Facebook page that was published by ASCD in 2011 with the attention-grabbing line that students were “too dumb for complex texts”.

Really? Students are too dumb for complex texts? The last time I checked, the human brain had not changed its mental capacity in the last 30 years in order to render it incapable of comprehending complex texts.

While I agree that complex texts are a struggle to teach in English classes, students being “to dumb” is not the cause. The most common reasons are: (a) lack of time due to the volume of content that must be studied, (b) the lengthy re-teaching of concepts that were not fully mastered in the prior course, (c) the frequent preparation for standardized testing, and (d) the numerous standardized testing dates. Add in some useless days before a break when everyone has cabin fever and other school functions (including several snow days in the cold states), there really is not much time to whittle away at the content in outdated books.

Intrigued by the author’s conclusion, I skimmed the ASCD article to figure out by what measure the author, Mark Bauerlein, used to establish “dumbness” for complex texts. One example that really jumped out at me was that of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, since I recently taught an excerpt from Walden shortly before the holiday break.

Bauerlein stated that students do not take enough time to thoroughly read texts, to digest them, and ponder sentences. In fact, he believes, “readers may need to sit down with them for several hours of concentration.”

Really? Hours of picking apart sentences…for what purpose?

While I do agree that his often-quoted lines should be examined, after all, that is why we still read Walden, I question Bauerlein’s conclusion of hours. What value is there in reading the entirety of a near stream-of-consciousness text written in the mid-1800s by a recluse who may have needed a little bit more human interaction?

Is there a better way to teach the meaning in classics without forcing students to sit and read through pages of old grammar structures, out-dated vocabulary, and fluff to find the 5 minute nugget of information that is still valuable?

Do we read Walden because we “should”? Because it has been deemed a “classic”? Or do we read it because it is applicable to students’ lives and will help them become productive members of society? After all, that is the end goal of public education…to invest in all youth so that every person has the ability to become a positive member of society.

There are too many students who are failing their English classes because they cannot recall facts or apply concepts from Pride & Prejudice to their current life, let alone their future. Students who legitimately want to be a productive member of society, but find that school is teaching them that if you can’t memorize the names of the major characters along with three facts about each one of them, well then, why bother with learning at all? You might as well be in a gang.

Why are students having so much difficulty comprehending difficult texts? Is it because they are “too dumb for complex texts”? Is it the fault of embracing technology? Or, as one commenter in the ASCD article pointed out, the fault of short passages in high-stakes testing? Bauerlein cites technology and skimming text to find essential meaning (just the bullet points) as the cause of “screenagers” being too dumb understand complex texts. However, I think it is not the method of transmission that is the problem, rather the problem is the content itself no longer has a value and purpose in the classroom.

I mean really, how often do you use the knowledge from studying classic literature in your everyday life (professors aside)? In other words, how well did reading complex, classic fiction (and a little non-fiction prose) prepare you to read and digest complex business contracts like lease agreements?

I bet your answer was “very little” or “not at all”.

“We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly”

On October 10, 2012, Slate ran an article about the writing portion of the SAT standardized test and its effects on high school and first-year college level writing.  While many facts and ideas mentioned are not new, it is the combination of them and the message of the article that is very striking.

The article, “We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly” by is available to read on Slate’s website.  Additionally, I have copy and pasted the article below.  Links within article are original to the article.

 

This past Saturday, several hundred thousand prospective college students filed into schools across the United States and more than 170 other countries to take the SAT—$51 registration fees paid, No. 2 pencils sharpened, acceptable calculators at the ready. And as part of the three-hour-and-45–minute ritual, each person taking the 87-year-old test spent 25 minutes drafting a prompt-based essay for the exam’s writing section.

This essay, which was added to the SAT in 2005, counts for approximately 30 percent of a test-taker’s score on the writing section, or nearly one-ninth of one’s total score. That may not seem like much, but with competition for spots at top colleges and universities more fierce than ever, performance on a portion of the test worth around 11 percent of the total could be the difference between Stanford and the second tier. So it’s not surprising that students seek strategies and tips that will help them succeed on the writing exercise. Les Perelman, the recently retired former director of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, has got a doozy.

To do well on the essay, he says, the best approach is to just make stuff up.

“It doesn’t matter if [what you write] is true or not,” says Perelman, who helped create MIT’s writing placement test and has consulted at other top universities on the subject of writing assessments. “In fact, trying to be true will hold you back.” So, for instance, in relaying personal experiences, students who take time attempting to recall an appropriately relatable circumstance from their lives are at a disadvantage, he says. “The best advice is, don’t try to spend time remembering an event,” Perelman adds, “Just make one up. And I’ve heard about students making up all sorts of events, including deaths of parents who really didn’t die.”

This approach works, and is advisable, he suggests, because of how the SAT essay is structured and graded. Here’s a typical essay prompt taken from the College Board website. It follows a short, three-sentence passage noting that people hold different views on the subject to be discussed:

Assignment: Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

After spending a few moments reading a prompt similar to that one, test takers have 25 minutes in which to draft a submission that will be scored on a 1-to-6 scale. (No scratch paper is provided for outlining or essay planning.) Most students choose to write what is referred to as “the standard five-paragraph essay”: introductory and concluding paragraphs bookending three paragraphs of support in between. Each essay is later independently graded by two readers in a manner that harkens to the famous I Love Lucy scene wherein Lucy and Ethel attempt to wrap chocolate candies traveling on an unrelenting conveyer belt.

Anne Ruggles Gere, a professor at the University of Michigan, serves as director of the Sweetland Center for Writing, which oversees first-year writing at the university. She speaks with SAT essay-graders often. “What they tell me is that they go through a very regimented scoring process, and the goal of that process is to produce so many units of work in a very short period of time,” she says. “So if they take more than about three minutes to read and score these essays, they are eliminated from the job of scoring.” According to Perelman, especially speedy graders are rewarded for their efforts. “They expect readers to read a minimum of 20 essays an hour,” he says. “But readers get a bonus if they read 30 essays an hour, which is two minutes per essay.”

Gere and Perelman aren’t the only ones who know about the demands placed upon SAT essay graders. Many students do, too. Those with a firm grasp of what time-pressured essay-readers care about—and, to be sure, what things they don’t care about—can increase their chances at a high score by resorting to all sorts of approaches that are, shall we say, less than ideal. For starters, facts don’t just take a back seat when it comes to describing personal experiences on the SAT essay; they don’t matter in general.

“There’s really no concern about factual accuracy,” says Gere. “In fact, the makers of the SAT have indicated that in scoring it really doesn’t matter if you say that the War of 1812 occurred in 1817. The complete lack of attention to any kind of accuracy of information conveys a very strange notion of what good writing might be.”

That’s one way of putting it. Perelman, who has trained SAT takers on approaches for achieving the highest possible essay score, has another.

“What they are actually testing,” he says, “is the ability to bullshit on demand. There is no other writing situation in the world where people have to write on a topic that they’ve never thought about, on demand, in 25 minutes. Lots of times we have to write on demand very quickly, but it’s about things we’ve thought about. What they are really measuring is the ability to spew forth as many words as possible in as short a time as possible. It seems like it is training students to become politicians.”

Graders don’t have time to look up facts, or to check if an especially uncommon word actually exists, or perhaps even to do anything more than skim an essay before making a grading determination. Score-savvy essay writers can figure out what might catch the eye of a skimmer.

“I tell students to always use quotations, because the exam readers love quotations,” Perelman says. “One of the other parts of the formula is use big words. Never use many, always use myriad or plethora. Never say bad, always use egregious.”

Of course, according the College Board website that millions of students have used to prepare for the exam, “there are no shortcuts to success on the SAT essay.” And the country’s largest test prep company, Kaplan, does not teach such approaches. (Disclosure: Kaplan is owned by the soon-to-be-renamed Washington Post Company, which also owns Slate.)

Kaplan’s director of SAT and ACT programs, Colin Gruenwald, tutors students, helps write the company’s curriculum, and trains Kaplan teachers. He says throwing around “big words” in an attempt to influence essay readers is an unnecessarily risky endeavor. He insists that the scoring model is a holistic one that focuses on the overall impression of one’s writing skills. “The point is to demonstrate that you have command of the language, that you are able, in a pressure environment, to sit down and formulate coherent and persuasive thoughts,” he says. Students need to include certain components, he notes. “But that’s not a trick. That’s not a gimmick. That’s just good education.”

Whether verifiably true facts, or an argument that supports a position one actually believes in, are among those necessary components is unclear. What if, for instance, a student comes across an essay prompt that she has a strong opinion about, but can think of better arguments for the opposing position? “The positive side to writing what you believe is that you are more likely to be enthusiastic and passionate,” Gruenwald says. “The ideas may come more smoothly. You may be able to make a very compelling argument. But if you find that there is the side you agree with, but then there is the side that you can come up with a list of really good points for, take the side that you can come up with the list of really good points for. That’s just good demonstration. Because what you are trying to do is demonstrate that you have the writing competency to succeed at the college level. That’s not really dependent upon your opinion of the subject.” And, he admits, “It’s not even related to your grasp of the facts, necessarily.”

For university educators like Perelman and Gere, such realities become part of a trickle-down-type problem. Because of the great importance students, parents, and college admissions officers place on the SAT—as well as the large sums of money that many families spend on outside test prep—high school writing instructors are placed in a bind. “Teachers are under a huge amount of pressure from parents to teach to the test and to get their kids high scores,” Perelman says. They sometimes have to make a choice, he adds, between teaching writing methods that are rewarded by SAT essay-readers—thereby sending worse writers out into the world—or training pupils to write well generally, at the risk of parent complaints about their kids not being sufficiently prepared for the SAT. “And sometimes when they get that pushback, that means they don’t get a promotion, or get a lower raise. So it actually costs them to be principled. You’re putting in negative incentives to be good teachers.”

Gere says the end result of that dynamic shows up when students arrive at college. “I think it’s a very large problem, one that I’m concerned about, and one that we deal with a lot here,” she adds. “What happens is in first-year writing, the typical pattern is that students come in pretty well equipped to write the five-paragraph essay, and much of first-year writing is a process of undoing that.”

College professors, according to Gere, expect their students to be able to demonstrate evidence-based argument in their writing. This involves reading and synthesizing materials that offer multiple perspectives, and writing something that shows students are able to navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument. For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging. “The SAT does [students] no favors,” Gere says, “because it gives them a diminished view of what writing is by treating it as something that can be done once, quickly, and that it doesn’t require any basis in fact.”

The result: lots of B.S.

“In our placement tests, you see this all the time, where people continue the B.S., because they just assume that’s what works,” says Perelman. “I think [the SAT essay] creates damage, that it’s harmful.”

College Board President David Coleman just might agree. In September, Coleman seemed to concede that something is amiss with the essay. He raised the possibility of an essay revamp as part of a 2015 SAT overhaul that would focus the writing exercise more on students’ ability to critically analyze a piece of text and craft an essay that draws on the information provided.

That sort of change may seem like a good place to start. (Would it be too much to ask for some scratch paper, too?) But Gere says we should watch what we wish for with respect to changes to the essay format. She notes that as rushed and crazy-seeming as the SAT essay-scoring process is, the fact that real-live humans are reading and grading the essays is a positive. Computerized scoring is now used to grade writing submitted as part of the GMAT and TOEFL exams, among others. And that method of essay-scoring has come under fire from the National Council of Teachers of English and others for an array of alleged deficiencies—including an overemphasis on word lengths and other measurables, inaccurate error recognition, and a failure to reward creativity.

An SAT essay based on a longer passage with more detail and a constrained set of acceptable response options would likely result in written works that are much more amenable to machine scoring than the current essays. The forthcoming attempt to “fix” the SAT essay may be less about using a model that better lends itself to more valid assessments of students’ writing skills, or turning out better writers, and more about saving money and time by eventually replacing human essay graders with machines.

“It seems to me pretty clear that’s where the SAT is headed,” Gere says. “So it goes from bad to worse, actually.”

And although other standardized tests—such as the LSAT and certain Advanced Placement exams—include essay components that differ from the SAT in terms of what skills are being tested and how writing submissions are scored, those alternative methods are not without their critics. So there would appear to be no standardized-test-essay panacea.

Kaplan’s Gruenwald notes that there have been rumblings about making the SAT essay optional. And some, he says, have suggested doing away with it altogether. Perelman would have no problem with that option. He notes that there’s one thing he tells every student working to achieve a high score on the SAT essay. “Use this [approach] on the exam,” he says, “but never write like this again.”

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Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

Summer Reading

Summer reading was never a difficult task for me.  In fact, I looked forward to summer vacation because it meant I finally had time to read the books I liked at my own pace.  However, I know not everyone is like me and it may be a struggle to get students to read during “vacation”.  But summer reading really isn’t optional.

Research shows that summer vacation often has a significant negative effect on student learning. Providing opportunities for students to read regularly during the summer can prevent documented reading achievement losses. The bottom line is that students who read during the summer do better in the fall. (ReadWriteThink.org)

The best way to encourage students to read over the summer is to make them want to read by making reading fun. Summer vacation is the perfect time to explore interests without the confines of a curriculum.  During the school year, education is regimented and, essentially, forced upon students.  Many students rebel and say they “hate” school, learning, and/or reading because they just do not like to be told what to do.  By framing summer reading in a context that feels student-chosen rather than force-upon, many struggles will dissipate.

Firstly, we need to answer the question: what is reading?  Is it only a book?  Summer reading can encompass magazines, blogs, comic books, manuals/directions, or anything with words.

Second, we need to establish sources of reading.  Students can read paper copies or digital copies on computers or mobile devices.  Students can borrow materials or purchase them.

Third, we need to consider content.  Summer reading should have no content restrictions, unless it is not age-appropriate.  Students should be allowed to read about cars, princesses, singing, sports, medicine, dancing, grilling, or whatever activity students find fun.  It is also a good time to disregard reading-level and let students read books below (and above) their reading level if they want.  (Remember: the goal is to encourage the student to want to read and to read!)

In English class, students have mostly read “literature”—books that are not popular fiction and rarely connect with students.  Students read for an academic purpose during the school year.  For summer reading, students should read for an enjoyment purpose.  Parents should not give their students quizzes or ask the student to write a paper after reading.  Instead, informal, old-fashioned conversation will yield the same outcome and increase confidence.  A good example of discussion is this: Ask why the student thought the main character was “stupid” instead of telling the student not to use that word.  Most likely, the student has a great explanation, but is just not using academic language.

So how can teachers and parents find the best summer reading for students?

Popular Recommendations—There are hundreds of summer reading lists available through Google searches.  The local librarian, an employee at the local bookstore, or the Top Books in for iBooks/Kindle/Nook will yield an even larger selection.  A popular TV show or movie “based on” or “inspired by” a book?  Pick up one of the books!  I found I loved reading Kathy Reichs’ books because my favorite TV show is Bones, which is inspired by her books.

Student/Friend Recommendations—Prior to the end school, students can write down what their favorite reading selections are.  The teacher can then compile the information into a list.  Students may be more apt to read a book a classmate thought was really good.

Form a Book Club—Perhaps reading a book as a group is best  because some students need the encouragement of others for the initial push into summer reading.  Friends from school, neighborhood kids, or a group at the library will work out well.  Groups can be of varying ages and give perspectives that students may not see otherwise.

Model Reading—Don’t just tell students to read this summer, show them!  Teachers should show students the reading that they have done for enjoyment.  Parents should read as well during the summer.  It might be worthwhile for a parent and student to read the same thing so they can discuss it together.  (Side Note—My mom did this with my brother and I when the first Harry Potter book was published.  It was so much more fun to be able to talk about the book with my mom and my brother.)

Reading Goals/Rewards—Some students need a little…motivation.  While the Six Flags® Read to Succeed Program® is closed for this summer, the idea remains the same.  Parents or teachers can create a set list of criteria that the reader must accomplish in order to obtain the goal.  Each level should be even more desirous than the previous.  The student can either “cash in” at a specific goal level and start over, or keep building until the ultimate prize.  For the Six Flags® program, it’s free tickets to ride the coasters for a day.  You could use gift cards, concert tickets, or whatever that “it” thing is that the reader wants at the moment.  For the Scholastic Summer Challenge 2013, it’s contributing the “World Record” of minutes read to try to reach the Moon.

Do Something—Don’t just read the book, do something with it.  Create something from the book, see a play, watch the movie (afterwards!), visit a museum with artifacts mentioned in the book, encourage someone else to read the book, etc.  The list is endless.

No matter how you approach summer reading, remember to keep track of the reading progress.  You can find printable summer reading logs through a Google search or by using a site like goodreads.com.

For more information and ideas for summer reading programs, books, and project ideas, see 5 Ways to Promote Summer Reading by TeachHub, Celebrate the first day of summer with summer reading by ReadWriteThink, and Summer Reading and Learning by National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).