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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.


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 findings.


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 book titles.


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 response."

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 literature.

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?


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.



Turner, Darwin. "Commission on Literature." In TRENDS AND ISSUES IN ENGLISH INSTRUCTION, 1986--SEVEN SUMMARIES. 1986. ED 267 413.


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