In my current trends in literacy course for our MAT program, I have 7 students across several content areas. Our discussion yesterday confronted how too often teachers (notably ELA teachers) assign texts and reading that discourage students as readers.
One candidate in ELA shared a story of a teacher who declared that most of their students “can’t read Shakespeare” so that teacher has the class listen to an audio recording of the play Macbeth.
I noted that required reading lists often do more harm than good for students as readers and added if I had to choose between required texts that students don’t read or choice texts that students actually read, I always want the latter.
Further, this example triggered a pet peeve of mine about how we teach different forms and genres of writing.
I asked the class what type of text Macbeth is, and they all identified it as a play. I followed up with asking how plays/drama are intended to be experienced, and again, they all noted that plays are written to be viewed, preferably as live performances.
Next, I shared with them recurring experiences I have with my first-year writing students (high-achieving students—disproportionately white and affluent—admitted to a selective liberals arts college).
Often on the first day of class, I ask students what novels they read in high school English, and several students will say A Raisin in the Sun, Hamlet, and such. I then point out that these are plays, and not novels. But the students have mostly read these plays in bound books that look identical to the novels they were assigned.
Also in the first few days, I have students do a writing exercise where they write a mimic passage from a chapter in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, “A House of My Own.” Students are told to mimic the grammar and style of the chapter exactly while changing the content.
The assignment is designed as a first transition to reading like a writer  (as opposed to reading text for literary analysis) so that students develop the skills needed to compose and revise with attention to not just what they express but also how they express their messages.
Invariably, several students email me their piece and identify it as their “poem,” despite my noting in class that they are mimicking a prose chapter from a novel.
In other words, very bright and often “A” students demonstrate over and over that they have garbled and often inaccurate knowledge about genre and form—and they learn these flawed lessons in school, typically in English, because of careless approaches to text like the one above concerning Macbeth.
I want to focus here on two aspects, interconnected, about how we teach text to students, particularly in high school.
First, concerning having students listen to or read plays, I always see lessons involving text as essentially lessons in genre awareness, a concept endorsed by Ann Johns instead of genre acquisition (her discussion forefronts composition, but this applies to reading as well):
Russell [and] Fisher (in press) distinguish between two approaches to genre pedagogy, two basic goals for a course or tutorial. The first is GENRE ACQUISITION, a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way. The Five Paragraph Essay pedagogies, so common in North America, present a highly structured version of this genre acquisition approach. …
A quite different goal is GENRE AWARENESS, which is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts. …I have concluded that raising genre awareness and encouraging the abilities to research and negotiate texts in academic classrooms should be the principal goals for a novice literacy curriculum (Johns 1997).
This juxtaposition of two quite different goals, genre acquisition and genre awareness, is reminiscent of another pedagogical contrast mentioned by Henry Widdowson years ago (1984) and, later, by Flowerdew (1993): that pedagogies are designed to either TRAIN for specific tasks (i.e., text types) or EDUCATE, to cope with an almost unpredictable future. It is my argument here that education should, in the end, be our goal for novice academic literacy courses, for a genre awareness education will prepare students for the academic challengesJohns, A.M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An on-going quest. Language Teaching, 41(2), 237-252.
that lie ahead. (pp. 238-239)
Therefore, when I teach a genre or form, I typically invite students to ask questions and develop or refine their internalized rubric for what constitutes that genre or form (or medium): What makes a poem, a poem? What makes a comic book, a comic book? What makes a film, a film? What makes an essay, an essay? etc.
Reading and critical literacy require that the reader come to a text with some awareness of form and genre, and that awareness helps the reader navigate the text for meaning.
Sitting down to read Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” for example, often challenges people since I have seen it identified and heard students refer to the work as a poem, a story, and a non-fiction essay (it is a prose passage, fictional, in Nye’s Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose).
Finally, we must confront why Macbeth was taught to these students through an audio recording—the conclusion that high school students couldn’t read Shakespeare.
I am deeply skeptical of the rush to identify high school students as struggling readers for several reasons:
- Many high school students are non-readers and it is too easy to conflate non-readers with struggling readers.
- Often, even in ELA courses, lessons and assessments are designed in ways that allow students to pass or even excel in a course without having to read  (students can access information on novels and plays or simply depend on the teacher to cover everything to be assessed in class, which most teachers do).
- Students who are non-readers are not necessarily demonstrating they have decoding, vocabulary, or comprehension problems, but that they lack motivation to read texts assigned to them and to perform in ways that are not authentic. Many non-readers in the classroom go home and perform complex and advanced literacy that teachers do not see and traditional schooling does not acknowledge (video and board gaming, binge-watching TV, reading and collecting comic books, reading novels they choose such as YA lit or science fiction and fantasy).
- Students who “struggle” with assigned texts and performing in ways that are often required in school (narrow analysis and multiple choice testing) may be struggling due to those expectations as well as lacking adequate experience reading (since they have passed courses without reading). I think “struggling” is a misnomer for that phenomenon.
Lou LaBrant warned in 1949, “We should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276).
And LaBrant (1937) held that belief because “the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe” (p. 34).
We ask too little of students when we fail to honor the fidelity of genre, form, and medium, but we ultimately fail students when we assume their lack of reading lies in a fault with them (“struggling”) instead of interrogating what we require them to read (or not read) and our reductive approaches to text and literacy.
 I saw a former students several years after he was a marginal and combative AP Literature student of mine. He smiled and announced that he expected I would be surprised to know he earn a degree in English in college. Then, he added that he did so without ever reading a book assigned to him.
LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/807545
LaBrant, L. (1937, February 17). The content of a free reading program. Educational Research Bulletin, 16(2), 29–34. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1471836