ERIC Identifier: ED270783
Publication Date: 1986-00-00
Author: O'Donnell, Holly
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL.
Issues Affecting High School Literature Programs. ERIC Digest.
Although many of the recent reports on school reform assert the value
of learning to read and write, they fail to mention literature as important to
achieving quality education. Discussing trends and issues in the profession, the
NCTE Commission on Literature (Suhor and Spooner, 1985) notes that reform
proposals, in addition, call for little emphasis on preparation for teaching
literature. This fact, along with an emphasis on teaching reading comprehension
rather than on responses to literature, suggests a general belief that
literature is relatively inconsequential or that no problems are involved in its
teaching. The following is a brief account of issues surrounding the teaching of
literature in high schools today.
HIGH SCHOOL READING INTERESTS TODAY--WHAT ARE THEY?
Although it is impossible to generalize from the results of limited surveys
of reading interests, survey results do provide interesting information. McLeod
and Oehler's (1983) study of student preferences among selected traditional and
young adult novels reveals that adolescents consistently choose junior or more
contemporary novels over traditional novels. Grimme's (1983) survey of the
reading interests of 1,650 senior high school students in Nebraska indicates
that students show a strong interest in recent popular horror fiction, such as
THE SHINING, FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, and JAWS. These works often have film
corollaries. But other choices include works often considered standard: ANIMAL
FARM, LORD OF THE FLIES, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and TO KILL A
MOCKINGBIRD. Added to this list of standards are those noted by McLeod (1983) as
paperback "classics" that are perennial best-sellers--such works as THE LITTLE
PRINCE, 1984, EAST OF EDEN, THE GREAT GATSBY, A SEPARATE PEACE, GONE WITH THE
WIND, WALDEN, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
Thomason (1983) surveyed 236 high school sophomores and found that (1) young
adults do read for pleasure but find other pastimes more enjoyable; (2) students
find reading more appealing if they can choose their own material; (3) high
school students do not enjoy being read to by teachers; (4) required reading
does not turn teenagers against reading; and (5) sophomore boys like to read
science fiction, adventure, mystery, sports, and short stories, while sophomore
girls like to read romances, mystery, and adventure. Among the issues educators
should consider is whether a literature curriculum can be based upon such
WHAT LITERATURE IS CURRENTLY BEING TAUGHT?
Unfortunately, since extensive survey data are lacking, there is no consensus
about what to include in literature programs. The question of what to teach in
the classroom is fraught with conflicting images and assumptions, according to
Harriet Bernstein (1984). Based on her interviews with curriculum directors,
English specialists, media specialists, teachers, authors, publishers, and
others, Bernstein concludes that "a coherent national, or even local, vision of
literature in schools is not likely to emerge in the near future." Contributing
to the problem is the decline of elective English programs, many of which were
literature-oriented, and the return of single, large anthologies for classroom
instruction. William J. Bennett (cited in Squire, 1985), U.S. Secretary of
Education, asserts that there is a collapse of consensus about what is worth
knowing and suggests the need for a standardized canon of literary study based
partly on a national assessment of student knowledge about one hundred selected
WHAT CONCERNS ARE PROFESSIONALS RAISING?
James R. Squire (1985) feels that while the country is waiting for literature
to be redefined, English teachers must consider the ramifications of four basic
issues in literary education. One issue is teachers' greater preoccupation with
the interaction between book and reader than with response to works that
communicate literary experience. A second issue is that programs in literature
must provide young people with selected major literary experiences if there is
to be a common culture. Squire observes that "we talk much about our common
heritage and our responsibility for teaching it, but the common heritage is
significantly uncommon if children and young people do not share some literary
experiences in common." A third issue is that the knowledge and experience
readers bring to the reading of a literary work will affect their understanding
and appreciation of that work. The fourth issue is that teachers need to
"reexamine the vast body of literature, established and contemporary, to
identify those works of the past and present most likely to elicit rich literary
More recently, Darwin Turner (1986) has expressed alarm over (1) an increase
in censorship groups, (2) the small number of new books of black literature
being published, (3) teachers' and students' lack of critical skills for reading
literature, (4) teachers' lack of discrimination in the selection of
works--especially literature for adolescents--chosen for concentrated literary
study, (5) the rapidly expanding effect that budgetary restraints impose on the
teaching of literature, (6) the omission of literature from current definitions
of "basics," and (7) the trend toward national testing of competency in
The debate about what to include in the literature curriculum continues. One
side argues that books students choose to read and enjoy with little help from
teachers are of little value in the literature program of the school. The other
side argues that such books have a vital transitional function in preparing
students for more mature literary experiences. The debate has involved
literature instruction in a battle over such issues as: What criteria should be
brought to bear on decisions about what to teach? and, once that is decided, How
should literature be taught?
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bernstein, Harriet. "What Literature Should Adolescents Be Reading?" ASCD
CURRICULUM UPDATE (April 1984): 1-9. ED 245 228.
Grimme, Duane. "Reading Interests in the Panhandle of Nebraska." THE ALAN
REVIEW 10 (Spring 1983): 30-34. ED 228 655.
McLeod, Alan M. BOOKS STILL WORTH READING. l983. ED 228 656.
McLeod, Alan M., and John S. Oehler. "Preferences among Selected Traditional
and Adolescent Novels." VIRGINIA ENGLISH BULLETIN 33 (Spring 1983): 42-46.
Squire, James R. "The Current Crisis in Literary Education." Paper presented
at the Annual Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 1985. ED 265 572.
Suhor, Charles, and Michael Spooner, comps. SECOND ANNUAL TRENDS AND ISSUES
STATEMENTS--NCTE COMMISSIONS AND STANDING COMMITTEES. 1985. ED 252 881.
Thomason, Nevada. SURVEY REVEALS TRUTHS ABOUT YOUNG ADULT READERS. 1983. ED
Turner, Darwin. "Commission on Literature." In TRENDS AND ISSUES IN ENGLISH
INSTRUCTION, 1986--SEVEN SUMMARIES. 1986. ED 267 413.