Friday, May 11, 2012

Is Explicit Instruction Valuable? (or: What Is English Class Even For?)

Last week I wrote that some our students perceive reading to be a negligible distraction from the real "work" of English class.  This week I meant to write about how our weakest, most vulnerable students, those who most need to improve their literacy skills, may manage to get through the schoolyear without reading even a single book.  But just now that seems too depressing and repetitive; so I'll save that interesting topic for another week.  Instead, I want to tell a story about one of the best readers and writers I've ever taught.

A few years ago, one of my best students was a a senior I'll call Sarah.  Sarah had never before gone to school; her mother had homeschooled her from the very beginning.  When her mother died of cancer, her father enrolled Sarah and her younger brother in Leafstrewn High.  Sarah was a remarkable student and an excellent writer.  For her senior project, she read Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and she wrote a wonderful paper about Tolstoy's prose style.  For me, Sarah's success called into question the value of much of our English curriculum, and highlighted the significant differences between English and, say, math.

I was interested in homeschooling (my wife and I were eventually to homeschool our son for a year), and I asked Sarah about what her homeschooling had been like.  She said the biggest difference was how amazingly inefficient regular school was.  There was SO much class time, and so little of the class time felt useful to any individual person.  At home, she had been able to go at her own pace, and because she could accomplish in a few hours what took all day at school, there was a lot of time to sit around drinking tea and reading books.

When I asked her more specifically about her "curriculum", I was interested to learn that what she had done in the way of English was mainly just that: sitting around drinking tea and reading books.  There was very little writing of papers, and, as she told it, virtually no "explicit instruction" in reading skills and strategies, in vocabulary, or in paragraphing, structuring an argument, creating a thesis or handling textual evidence.  Her mother would read the books with her, and they would talk about them, and every once in a while her mother would have them write something about the books, but there was, again, little to no formal instruction.

This is interesting to me, seeming to call into question many of my daily practices.  That Sarah could be one of my two best students that year, that she could mark up a text, make intelligent inferences, create a thesis, structure an argument, and use sophisticated vocabulary, all without ever having been explicitly taught these things, makes me wonder whether my own English classes are using their time as effectively as they could, and makes me wonder, in particular, whether explicit instruction in English is valuable at all.  Sometimes I even wonder if, with our higher-skilled students especially, we English teachers are making more withdrawals than deposits from our students' cultural capital.  Most of my honors-level students say they read more over the summer than during the year.

Another thing Sarah's story points up is the difference between English and other disciplines. Sarah's experience in math and science was distinctly different from her experience in English class.  In math and science, she was in the top classes, but she was not one of the best students in the school.  Also, her homeschooling experience in math and science had been different.  It's hard to imagine what  would be analogous, for math, to just, for English, sitting around drinking tea and reading books. She certainly had not just sat around drinking tea and reading math textbooks, or drinking tea and counting things, or drinking tea and playing with a calculator.

Math and Science are distinctly different from English.  I daresay math cannot be learned without explicit instruction, while in English, as Sarah's success showed, explicit instruction can be unnecessary.  This is perhaps why, at Leafstrewn High as at other schools, the English curriculum is far less clearly structured, far less clearly sequential from one year to the next, and in some ways perhaps less necessary.  My own elementary school kids are being taught many of the same skills that I am trying to teach my high school students.  The common core standards in English are often pretty similar from one year to the next.  If a student misses a year of English, she can move right into the next year without much trouble.

What particular elements of our English curriculum, cannot potentially be learned from pleasure reading alone, or from reading, friendly discussion, and a modicum of writing?  What needs to be taught, or at least consciously learned?  I can think of at least four things, none of which make up the bulk of my instructional time:

1. Grammar (Sarah might have had no idea what a preposition was.  On the other hand, as Wittgenstein wrote somewhere: --Do they understand the game?  --Well, they play it.)
2. The historical progression of, say, American Literature
3. Schools of critical thought
4. Literary and poetic terms

But these parts of our curriculum are not what we spend most of our time on.  Instead, we spend time teaching students vocabulary, or teaching them to "weave in" quotations or sandwich them in buns of introduction and explanation.  We teach arguable theses, topic sentences, logical arguments.  And almost all of it is regarding books that we, not the students, have chosen.

Much of what we do is useful, and certainly much better than having the kids watch TV or hang out on the street.  But I wonder whether, as MisterFischer suggested last week, we might get just as much if not more mileage out of just having fun with reading and writing--giving them time to read, letting them read what they want, and having them write what interests them, not us.

Some might say that the picture I've offered of Sarah's homeschooling leaves out certain key elements--most importantly, other people, whether her mother or her fellow homeschoolers, with whom she may have had some interaction.  But my point is that Sarah spent most of her time reading, and the rest of the time discussing (with perhaps a very little bit of writing), and virtually no time on what we all spend explicit instruction on nearly every day.  It wasn't just Sarah; my son was in a homeschooling reading group, and all they did was read the book aloud together--actually, the teacher, a mom, read it to them--and then, for about ten percent of the time, discuss it.  His reading grew more that year than other years, just as it has always developed more over the summers than over the schoolyear.

What do we gain from teaching the way we do?  Would our students develop just as quickly, if not more so, if we just read, discussed, and wrote?  Is explicit instruction valuable?  What do you think?


  1. Suppose the benefits of English Class are mainly collateral learning--how to discuss things civilly, how to construct arguments, how to find shortcuts to assigned work, some grammar and some literary jargon--while reading is something one does or doesn't get enthusiastic about independently. What's wrong with that?

    1. That's what I ended with, more or less: "Would our students develop just as quickly, if not more so, if we just read, discussed, and wrote?" I mean, forget the "teaching" piece of the whole enterprise and just create a civilized space for reading, discussing and writing. But you seem to be going further and suggesting that making reading optional, which is more or less what we do now without admitting it, is OK. I'm not sure we have to give up on trying to have more kids doing more reading. As it is now, the kids whose reading and writing skills are worst are the kids who are choosing not to read. I think even in ninth grade we have a shot at making kids more literate.

      Another way to respond to your comment would be to wonder if English class as usually constituted is the best way to learn even the things you are suggesting--since, again, my homeschooled student was better at discussing civilly, and better at constructing arguments, than any of my other students--and she was just as good at getting her assigned work done. She was an argument for making the class as much as possible about sitting around drinking tea and reading, with a little discussion and writing to round things out. Because it would be more pleasant for everyone (not that my classes now are unpleasant), less onerous, and just as (if not more) effective.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment.

  2. Another interesting, thought-provoking post.

    If a student moved to the US after living most of her life in Spain, it wouldn't make sense to require her to take Spanish. Sometimes I wonder if, in 9th grade, we get kids from two different countries: the country of books and reading and the country of non-reading. English class is easy for the person from the land of reading. The degree to which they participate in our reading/writing activities may vary, but we don't have a lot to teach them. Most of our energy is spent on the kids who come to us from the land of the non-readers, and--as world language teachers have discovered--emersion is probably the best pedagogy. Kids who learn a language in HS often complain that while they know a lot of grammar and vocab, they can't converse with actual speakers of that language worth a dime. Send a kid to Spain for a summer and all of this changes.

    Kids who have only dwelt in the land of the non-readers can learn to play the games and make the moves--memorize vocab, fill out the essay outlines, answer our exam questions--but I wonder if they will ever learn to speaking reading fluently. (I also wonder if they can really even learn what we teach them--beyond going through the motions--until they've had the emersion [conversion?] experience.)

    I also wonder how many kids who now live in the country without books once--3rd grade? 5th grade? 7th grade?--did spend time in the realm of reading...but were ripped away too soon. Can we take them back there--in 9th grade--to finish what was started: the emersion experience that's a pre-requisite for pleasureful, adult reading?

    "Sarah" clearly spent enough time in the land of reading for it to stick. It might be interesting to think about how this happens; what's the Gladwellian tipping point?

    1. Or is there a tipping point? Maybe it's a continuum!

      I am interested in your parenthesis in the third paragraph from the bottom, in which you wonder "if they can really even learn what we teach them--beyond going through the motions." What do we teach them? Empirically, I see kids who are great readers who pay little attention to what I'm doing in class, and just rely on their superior skills to get them through what's required, and I also see kids from the land of nod (no-read) who seem to try to make up for their semi-literacy by using their other intelligences--they are hyper-engaged in class, they are diligent and organized in all of their paperwork, etc. And who knows, that might be enough. Those kids no doubt have a good shot at happy, successful lives...

      Then there are the kids who read a lot but can't write a grammatical sentence to save their lives. Those kids make me wonder how valuable reading really is--and then I again wonder: what, and how, am I supposed to be teaching?

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!