by Lisa Hudson
Recent research shows the average 12th grader reads at a 7th grade level. This finding isn’t terribly surprising. According to Renaissance Learning, developer of the popular Accelerated Reader, in 2015-16, the most frequently tested fiction book for grades three through seven was Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Categorizing the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series as fiction requires a certain elasticity in the definition — along the lines of categorizing the Sunday comics as literature.
Nonetheless, this is problematic considering first year college textbooks have complexity levels of 13.8 (one year and eight months post-secondary), and the same research found that less than 20 percent of high school seniors read texts at a 9th grade level or higher.
To set the stage, in 2009 the authors of the Common Core made what could be called radical changes to ELA requirements at all grade levels by increasing the required reading of informational text at the expense of fiction. The standards mandate equal parts fiction to non-fiction in grades K-5, increasing to 55 percent informational text in grades 6-8, and 70 percent informational text in grades 9-12. According to ivory tower elitists, the changes were geared toward improving student reading levels and, with any luck, would turn Diary of a Wimpy Kid readers into college and career-ready scholars.
Whatever college-and-career-ready means, it’s safe to say 12th graders reading at a 7th grade level isn’t it. Arguably, anything is better than the pablum served up by Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but increased reading of informational text has proven to be just another education reform gimmick.
Renaissance Learning research aside, recent ACT/SAT results indicate the experiment is failing. Furthermore, there is no empirical research to indicate the experiment would do anything other than fail. When words like “peevish,” “penetralium,” “soliloquized,” and “actuate” turn up on the SAT, it’s no small wonder that kids who have been reading dialogue in the thought bubbles of a cartoon character need remedial courses in college.
Fiction, especially literature, is simply better for students in a multitude of ways — ways in which informational text can not compare. Informational text being foisted on students under the guise of education has no literary value and is strongly biased toward progressivism and social justice: workers’ rights, LGBT rights, Muslim persecution, man-made climate change, and anti-capitalism, among others. One resource used by schools has a selection of articles solely dedicated to “far right extremism.”
Not only does reading of fiction make students better readers and writers, it makes them better humans.
First, the most obvious benefit: Research shows reading fiction is as important as reading in general with respect to vocabulary acquisition. In the study, people who described themselves as avid readers and specifically avid readers of fiction outscore those who read “a lot” but fiction only “somewhat” or “not much” by about 8,000 words. This is because the breadth of vocabulary typically used in fiction is far more expansive than in non-fiction writing.
Less obvious is that fiction, and in particular classic literature, has been shown on MRI to engage not only different parts of the brain, but portions of the brain that improve empathy and are used to process other people’s intentions. E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, described it when he said: “If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story.”
In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottshall said, “When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.”
A study performed at Stanford University explored the relationship between reading, attention, and distraction of subjects while reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Researchers found critical reading of humanities-oriented texts fostered analytical thought. As one of the researchers noted, “…literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.”
Scientists have also found that reading passages of literary fiction, in comparison to non-fiction or popular fiction, does indeed enhance the reader’s performance on “Theory of Mind” tasks, which are defined as the capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that may differ from one’s own. Study participants who read literary fiction scored higher on affective and cognitive tasks than subjects who read nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. Unlike popular fiction, in which characters and their experiences are consistent and predictable, literary fiction portrays characters more vaguely, requiring the reader to be more introspective when making inferences about a character’s motivations and intentions.
Research substantiates that literary fiction shapes us and has the ability to knit us together as a community. Gottshall wrote, “By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values.”
In the simplest of terms, classic literature is the common experience. It promotes a conversation that interests history, cultures, religion, and politics. As Dr. David Whalen, Provost and Professor of English at Hillsdale College, said in a speech given at the college, “(Literature) equips the imagination to recognize the moral, or consequential, or human, or perhaps divine significance of our lives and the events therein.” Classic literature is, by its nature, not a set of ideas or instructions, but an experience — even when vicariously lived.
Education reformers lament 12th graders reading at a 7th grade level and that an extraordinarily high number of students entering post-secondary schooling require remediation in English. Their response to fallen and stagnant SAT and ACT scores is more intrusive, agenda-driven education policy. However, education reform that facilitates the reading of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and social justice propaganda has done more to cultivate illiterate protesters who have been taught what to think than well-read students who have been taught how to think.
So here we are treading water, if not losing ground. The reduction of fiction, in particular classic literature, and its intrinsic value — vocabulary growth, increased empathy, the shared human experience, a reduction in social friction, and improved analytical thinking, has done nothing to improve student literacy. As a fellow lawyer recently commented about young law school grads, “They know the law, but they can’t write a sentence or tell a story.”
Unless, by chance, it fits perfectly into a thought bubble.
Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0