What Should Students Read

The idea that the literary cannon of primary and secondary schools needs updating is nothing new.  But in ‘What Should Students Read ‘, Steven Wolk goes a step further and argues both that the literary canon of today is depressingly similar to the canon of fifty years ago, and that what students read should be determined by why they read.  Wolk’s contention is that by sticking to the same list of classics from fifty years earlier, schools are actually diminishing a student’s love of reading.  Students often find many of the classics simply irrelevant to their lives, and, in turn, reading becomes something of a chore:

Schools also are still stuck in the classics.  I spoke with three high school boys who attended the school from which I graduated 31 years ago.  I asked what they read for school, and the boys answered: Of Mice and Men, The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.   When I mentioned that all of these books were written by white authors, one of the boys said, “I never really thought about that.”  The most recent book they read was To Kill a Mockingbird , which was published in 1960.

My old high school apparently can’t find a book from the last 50 years worthy of required reading…

It need not be this way.  Many students develop a love of reading at an early age.  As Wolk writes, “Walk into a 1st-grade classroom, and you’re surrounded by voracious readers.  Walk into a 6th-grade classroom, and you’re surrounded by children who desperately avoid books, especially the boys.  What do schools do – and not do – to turn reading and books into such drudgery?”  Wolk’s contention is that students actually love to read and that there is a wealth of material available to them:

They read e-mails, text messages, and endless web sites. They read manga, vampire novels, graphic novels, romance novels, comic books, “Harry Potter”, and dystopian fiction.  They read fantasy, sci-fi, steam punk, and sports stories.  They read informational texts they’re interested in, from skateboarding to animals.

Why are none of these texts assigned in school?  Schools should challege students to read outside their comfort zones and more complex texts, but we can teach literacy skills from books and other texts that students are interested in reading . (emphasis added)

Wolk’s assertion that students can have it both ways, that students can be challenged to grow as readers while still reading in an area of interest is backed up by research on the effect of targeted reading within areas of interest.  Our own Lexile Find a Book site was, in fact, built around this idea – that students should be challenged by complex texts, but still be allowed to self-select based on their own interests.  As an aside, it’s worth noting that many of the contemporary texts that Wolk recommends for students – including Dairy Queen, Hunger Games, Black and White, and American Born Chinese – can be found within the Lexile Find a Book database.

Though not without controversy, Wolk’s argument is certainly thought-provoking and well worth reading.

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