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Fighting the High School Rule of 55

Adrienne Mack, a language arts and journalism teacher at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, is the author of "A+ Parents: Help Your Child Learn and Succeed in School" (McBooks Press, 1997). E-mail: amack@ica.com

Puzzled over the dramatic drop in high school reading scores on the Stanford 9 tests?

You needn’t be. Spend one day at any local high school and you’ll understand why reading scores drop in grades nine and 10. Every 55 minutes, students, responding to preset bell schedules, leave their classrooms and move to the next subject on their schedule. That’s 55 minutes for physical education, 55 minutes for photography, 55 minutes for math or history and 55 minutes for language arts.

Even as employers’ demand for higher literacy skills climbs, language arts remains tucked into a 55-minute period. Fifty-five minutes to teach literature, reading and writing. Add English language instruction to those same 55 minutes and you have a formula for plummeting test scores. With the passage and imminent implementation of Proposition 227, pushing more limited-English students into regular language arts classes, we can expect the scores to fall even lower.

High school language arts teachers are specialists, as much so as math or science teachers. They teach high school English because they love literature. They are avid consumers of books and, for most, it is books they want to teach. Some teach nothing else. Just as the math teacher expects students to read the assignments and spends no time teaching how to read a math text book, and the history teacher assigns a report without first instructing his students on the art of writing an essay, many language arts teachers dig into the literature without first making certain that all of their students can read. Many can’t.

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We expect students to be able to read when they enter high school. Sure, they can decode. They know enough phonics to sound out the words, can often read aloud with few hitches. But ask what they’re reading about and many youngsters struggle. At a time when students are faced with more challenging texts, reading instruction is nonexistent.

How did the nonreaders get to high school? Social promotion is one culprit, another is that youngsters are quite clever at hiding what they don’t know. Their egos, how they look in front of their peers, is of prime concern. So students fake reading. They can demonstrate word mastery at grade level, but can’t summarize or pull the main idea, predict what will come next, question what’s happening in the text. Reading is about making meaning, not just about decoding the words. Secondary teachers don’t get reading instruction as part of their teacher training and have little experience distinguishing between a skilled decoder and a genuine reader.

Higher reading scores are as close as rearranging our priorities. Two periods of language arts in ninth grade would allow time for the study of literature and other texts and also leave time for reading and writing instruction. Vocabulary naturally increases 2,000 to 4,000 words per year when students read 20 minutes a day. We could fit 20 minutes into our school day every day if we allowed two periods for language arts.

English classes shouldn’t be the only place where youngsters learn reading and writing; such instruction should extend throughout the curriculum. Math teachers need to explain how to write out, in standard English prose, a math problem and solution. Science teachers need to walk their students through the textbook examining pictures, explaining the function of figures and captions, bold headings and italics. History teachers can provide instruction on reading charts and graphs, using the index to find specific information. All of these are skills that appeared on the Stanford 9 tests.

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Reading for enjoyment differs from reading for information or instruction. Some texts are meant to be scanned and other texts to be savored slowly. Each content area, each assignment, should include a discussion of how to read the material. English teachers can’t do it alone--and certainly can’t provide adequate reading and writing instruction in 55 minutes a day.

Efforts to involve all teachers in reading and writing instruction have met with small success. Attention is typically focused on the content, not the students. With information said to be doubling every five years, it’s more important to teach how to access information and communicate ideas than to teach facts that may not even be accurate five years from now. The focus should be on teaching students, not curriculum.

If we want to ensure the same dismal reading scores next year and beyond, let’s leave our high school schedules as they are. If we want to raise the scores and produce students who can read and write, we need to give language skills the priority they require.


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