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March 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 6

Worthy Texts: Who Decides?

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Imagine that you walk into a large chain bookstore to pick out a good read. You ignore the enticements of the coffee bar and the CD section; you're here for a book. You glance at the rows of new fiction and nonfiction, the staff favorites, and the alluring genre sections: fantasy, mystery, young adult. You notice sections devoted to history, travel, religion, and philosophy. Since we're imagining, let's assume that you plan to take all the time you need to make your selection.
Now imagine that as you're standing there, a clerk comes over and tells you that you're only allowed to purchase from one section—a corner of the store marked "classics." You walk over and see many famous and probably wonderful titles, books you've been meaning to read like Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights. You're not against reading these books, but as you stand there looking back at the suddenly unavailable variety of options in the store, you start to feel resentful. To make matters worse, the clerk tells you that you actually don't get to choose at all. She pulls down a Shakespeare play and tells you that it's all you're allowed to buy.
The first part of this imaginary scene reflects the reading life of most adults; the second part is a good approximation of the reading life of most teens. For teens, there's little variety and even less choice in the reading assigned at school.
It's different in Ginger Reese's 8th grade classroom. The discussion in Ginger's room doesn't sound, on the surface, terribly different from that in other classrooms. Students cluster around the room, poring over pages.
"Mrs. Reese," one boy asks, "is this line where he says he's slowing down a metaphor, or does he really mean it?" A girl on the other side of the room raises her hand with a question about syntax. Ginger points out an example in which the verb comes before the noun, and then asks the girl to identify another example herself.
Teaching students terms like metaphor, syntax, or diction is part of Ginger's goal. But instead of reading from a textbook or examining Oliver Twist, these students are analyzing the lyrics to songs by the likes of Blues Traveler and Eminem— lyrics they've selected. Ginger calls the assignment "Rockin' with the Poets." It ends with each student using videos, wikis, or websites to present to the class a detailed analysis of a song lyric.
Ginger's students study the basics of poetic elements as they read Shakespearean sonnets and classic dramas like Julius Caesar. But, Ginger says,with Rockin' with the Poets, enthusiasm increases dynamically. Throughout the past 15 years, different students have told me that this is the one activity they remember. They never listen to a song the same way again—and they become judges of good poetry.
Ginger's wording raises a host of questions: What is good poetry, or for that matter, good literature? And who decides?

Reading Habits Today

Teenagers who read for pleasure read a variety of texts— except in class. The classics dominate high school reading lists. Even newer texts that gain moderate acceptance—think of the popularity of teaching The Joy Luck Club in the '90s— tend to be delivered to students with the implicit message, "Read this, it's good for you." The joy unleashed when students discover such a text on their own is often quashed by the mandate to read it.
Worse, the implicit dictum that these works embody a list of "acceptable" texts—texts worthy of being taught—robs students of both the richest rewards of reading and the most important cognitive work they can do in school. When we tell students exactly what to read, when to read, and how to read, we sometimes forget the most important question: Why do we want them to read at all?
For many educators, the answer to that question is encapsulated in the phrase "to produce lifelong readers." Others base their rationale on functionality; reading leads to success on mandated tests or in the workplace. Research confirms that voluntary reading strongly correlates with academic achievement (National Endowment for the Arts, 2007). And no educator would argue with the value of reading.
But how we define that value often depends on how we define reading itself. A study from the University of California, San Diego, revealed that Americans' reading of traditional print sources—newspapers, books, and magazines— continues to decline, from accounting for 26 percent of the information people received each day in 1960 to 9 percent in 2008. Online print now constitutes 27 percent of the daily information adults in U.S. households read (Bohn & Short, 2010). In fact, our society continues to produce lifelong readers; reading in all forms has actually increased since 1960, even if reading in conventional formats is down, and the quality and value of people's reading remains undetermined (Bohn & Short, 2010).
  • Nearly half of all 18–24-year-olds read no books for pleasure.
  • Less than one-third of 13-year-olds read daily.
  • Teens and young adults spend 60 percent less time on voluntary reading than the average adult does.
Many educators blame the supposed demise of reading on a host of demons: television, the Internet, students' laziness, or curricular responses to high-stakes testing, for instance. These educators may be partially correct. Yet schools and teachers play an enormous role in developing attitudes toward reading. And if we feel any concern about the reading habits of our students, it's worthwhile to examine how we reinforce or develop those habits. If schools don't validate student reading of many kinds, then students won't read at all, won't respect the act of reading, and worst of all, won't develop the capacity for critical reading. Many schools and classrooms fall short of this validation for two reasons: They adhere strictly to the canon of Western literature, and they fail to motivate students through choice.

A Portrait of School Reading

I recently undertook a wholly unscientific but revealing experiment. I scoured the web for required school reading lists from high schools around the United States. After examining 50 such lists, I saw two patterns. First, most of the book lists looked remarkably the same, each dominated by white, male, European, or American authors. Second—and more interesting—not one reading list indicated anywhere that students were allowed to choose the material they would read during the school year (although a few schools offered limited choice in summer reading selections).
I considered my reading habits—the way I browse for books; the stack of books I keep at home, unsure of which I'll feel like reading next; and the way I sometimes give up on a book that doesn't speak to me. I thought of the debates I have with my family over the books we like or dislike and the process of shared discovery of new books that my friends who participate in book clubs encounter. If students are experiencing reading in that manner, I realized, it's only happening outside of school.
The question of what students should read is hardly new. What's interesting is that the answer most schools accept to that question hasn't changed over the years. In a study reported in the English Journal in 1928, librarians around the United States were surveyed to determine the literary merit of various works on a 100-point scale. They ranked Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter highest at 86.7, just above the work of Mark Twain (Graves, 1928). Now consider the results of similar surveys over the past century. A 1963 Educational Testing Service study of most-taught works in 691 secondary schools listed Shakespeare at the top, with Hawthorne and Twain following closely (Anderson, 1964). In 1992, Arthur N. Applebee repeated that survey with a resulting list that included—you guessed it—Shakespeare, Twain, and Hawthorne (by this time, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird edged out Hawthorne slightly). And recently, Steven Wolk asked students from the high school he attended what they had read for school, and the same authors—Harper Lee included—topped the list (Wolk, 2010).
This adherence to a strict canon is less true of elementary and middle school classrooms. Yet after asking many teachers about their choices, I've realized that by the time students reach high school, teachers often create their reading lists drawing on the same titles found in the 1928 study.

Experiments in Broader Choice

One exception to this canonical adherence is Martin Luther King Magnet School, a Nashville, Tennessee, school in an urban neighborhood where I have guest-taught several classes. Students receive a steady diet of classic literature throughout high school and into the senior year, when they read Hamlet and Crime and Punishment. At the same time, however, the school's English teachers assign a senior literary thesis that pairs students and faculty mentors to work together on books of interest that students select. Students read novels by, for example, Arundhati Roy, Dave Eggers, and Barbara Kingsolver, then work with their mentors to discuss the works and outline a major thematic paper.
Geography teacher Catherine Kelley explains how the project broadens students' understanding of literature:The conferring process gives them an opportunity to see how classic themes of, for example, redemption, man's inhumanity to man, or various arenas of inequality are revisited throughout the ages and are not the exclusive domain of what traditionally is considered classic literature. Moreover, as they apply critical thinking and writing skills to literature outside the canon, they start evaluating what kind of writing will stand the test of time.
Jake Moore wrote his senior thesis on dystopian literature. Jake read, among other books, George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Children of Men by P. D. James. "Children of Men was harder to work into my paper with the others," Jake told me. "In my research, I kept coming across the book We [by Yevgeny Zamyatin]. Looking back, I wish I'd started the project with that book."
I was struck by Jake's ability to evaluate the merits of many kinds of books, including two literary but rarely taught texts, and to consider how he might synthesize what he gained from each text according to the needs of his own project and his own thinking. I've often encountered teachers who make deliberate choices about the books they teach, but rarely have I heard a student recount a similar evaluative process.
Another example of offering broader choice comes from the Hutchison School, where I teach and where my daughter Katy is a 3rd grader. We were both new to Hutchison this fall, and before I had a chance to visit the elementary classrooms, a visit to a bookstore with Katy piqued my curiosity about the way the school's elementary teachers encouraged reading.
I told Katy that if she'd choose a book—any book—I'd read it to her. She walked around the store a bit, then asked me for help. I was showing her a few books I remembered from my own childhood, when Katy's eyes lit on a book I'd never heard of, Ingrid Law's Savvy.
"We have to get this book!" Katy exclaimed. "All my friends say it's great. And it's on my Want to Read list."
Needless to say, I bought the book, and the next day, I visited the elementary wing to learn more. Sure enough, every 3rd and 4th grader had posted a list in the hallway; each contained book titles under headings such as What I Recommend and What I Want to Read. Teachers had posted their own lists with the same headings. Classrooms were rich in reading choice, with prominent classroom libraries.
Elementary students at Hutchison do read four novels each year as a class. I watched a class discuss one of these novels, Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with their core teacher before moving on to a science class in which they studied the concept of gears and cogs that was raised in the book. Besides reading these works jointly, however, students select texts on their own during most of the reading time.
But, I wondered, what about teaching reading skills? Can students learn effectively if they're choosing books that are too easy for them? Hutchison 3rd grade teacher Catherine Groves told me that the students rarely make too-easy choices and that giving reading choice helps her tailor reading instruction to her students' individual needs:I teach strategies to the class as a whole, and students are given the opportunity to use these strategies in their independent reading. While the class is silently engrossed in their books, I pull students and work with them on their individual needs.
Not every teacher agrees with this approach. One 30-year veteran of the classroom responded to my question about teaching more modern works in her 10th grade class by telling me,Works of literary merit, the works that embody the most important ideas and the best writing, can only emerge over time. I only have time to teach a few books each year; why would I waste it letting students read books they can as easily conquer on their own?
This teacher's phrase "literary merit" is often used to justify prescribing student reading: It appears in the language arts standards of New York, Vermont, North Dakota, Florida, and Minnesota. But standards have a blind spot if they deemphasize the student's role in the learning process, because students also need to master a task spelled out in the 8th grade standards for Wisconsin: to "develop criteria to evaluate literary merit and explain critical opinions about a text" (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2006).

Where to Begin

Some educators who hope to expand student choice have proposed choosing assigned titles from lists of young adult titles that connect popular books and genres to traditional secondary school content (see Wolk, 2010). For example, teachers might connect the graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman or Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld to a unit on World War II. Yet such catalogs of the variety of reading available may leave practicing teachers and administrators puzzled. Where, to begin with, does such a list leave room for any of the canon, much of which is still valuable? Moreover, if a teacher assigns an entire class a nontraditional book, doesn't the book take on the aura of the canon and become, to most students, just another forced text? Even more important, who's going to pay for providing so many different books?
In addition, units in which students are reading different texts and carrying out multiple book-related creative projects force teachers to juggle multiple needs and schedules, to create diverse types of assessment, to provide classroom time for students to read and work together, and to read widely themselves. It may require teachers to make room in already crowded syllabi for reading assignments that are not directly related to high-stakes tests.
If they're going to help students read in this way, teachers need support. Administrators must help language arts departments find the time to discuss and learn about books and to coordinate across the curriculum. Teachers must have rationales ready for parents and others who may not understand alternative reading choices. And teachers must consider carefully how to make departing regularly from the canon work (see "Making Choice in Reading Work," p. 49).
Only through reading what is great, what's partially great, and what some people think is great (whereas others do not) can young readers develop the ability to evaluate, compare, and think critically about what they read. As we discuss diverse works with students, showing respect for what they have to say and how they think, teachers can help them claim that crucial ability. To get them there, we can't rely solely on the same canonical reading lists we've used for more than 100 years.

Anderson, S. B. (1964). Between the Grimms and ’The group.’ Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Applebee, A. N. (1992). Stability and change in the high school canon. English Journal, 81, 27–32.

Bohn, R. E., & Short, J. E. (2010). How much information? 2009 report on American consumers. San Diego: University of California, San Diego. Retrieved from

Graves, C. E. (1928). Measuring literary merit. English Journal, 17(4), 328–331.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2007). To read or not to read. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2006). English Language Arts Standards. Madison, WI: Author. Retrieved from

Wolk, S. (2010, April). What should students read? Kappan, 91, 8–16.

End Notes

1 The website of the National Council of Teachers of English ( offers rationales for teaching numerous nontraditional books.

Barry Gilmore is the head of upper school at Hutchison School in Memphis, Tennessee, and the author of several books on literacy instruction, including Academic Moves for College and Career Readiness (Corwin, 2015).

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