More Negative News about Our Knowledge Levels . . . Do You Yearn?

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horses

Drink up

I suppose if one lives here in the US, one could consider these recent Inside Higher Ed stories to be gloom-and-doom: first, “ACT Scores Slip,” pointing out that this year’s results are the lowest in five years and that reading and English scores are particularly down; and second, “Troubling Stats on Adult Literacy,” pointing out that American adults’ literacy and numeracy levels fall below average.

Naturally, these quick pieces don’t tell the entire story (for instance, the ACT story notes “more students are taking the exam — some of whom are required by schools to do so but have no collegiate aspirations”), and any kind of rankings amongst large groups of people, as well as any kind of measure of skills and intellect, are bound to be sticky as they deal with human beings in different circumstances, cultures, etc. That said, basic knowledge can be tested, and standardized tests for all their controversy do measure something.

So what’s a student of any age to do? Well, first get the right attitude; recall this exchange from the TV show Seinfeld:
Kramer: Do you ever yearn?
George: Yearn? Do I yearn?
Kramer: I yearn.
George: You yearn?
Kramer: Oh, yes. Yes, I yearn. Often, I sit and yearn. Have you yearned?

Ah: but can one be taught to yearn for learning?

Consider this: within “ACT Scores” kinds of stories, it’s generally observed that students who take a more rigorous college-prep curriculum do better on these tests, which suggests students who challenge themselves learn more. Indeed! Of course, students must first desire to learn: it’s very telling, I think, that during my years in higher ed I’ve heard this particular cliché more than any other: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Teach for awhile and you realize the yearning for learning comes entirely from the student: it must.

As for the article on US adults lacking in literacy and numeracy levels, we could consider the schools of course, and we should; but I firmly believe any and all of us can take, to a large degree, our educations into our own hands. A common-sense action for anyone who struggles with reading would be to read, read, read some more. Too many of my students who struggled with both reading and, not surprisingly, writing, told me they didn’t like to read, so they avoided it. Well, they will stay in that less-than-optimally-literate place unless they take initiative to start reading more and, again, start challenging themselves. I could do my part by assigning readings in class and guiding them, but if they dropped out (which happens frequently in a community college), they then lack formal guidance and must themselves yearn to learn in order to come back around.

What do you think – how might we raise literacy and numeracy levels?

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Summertime to Read

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beach reading

The beauty and reward of reading

When I’ve asked my community college students what they like to read for fun, I sometimes hear that they don’t have time to read beyond the required “school stuff” textbooks, that they haven’t actually read much for years, or even that they don’t enjoy reading. I sadly realize these students seem to be in good company: a rather bleak study several years ago from the National Endowment for the Arts indicates Americans’ time spent pleasure reading, and reading comprehension in general, are on the decline (1).

Professors can feel that decline chilling the classroom: we witness students’ limited patience with the written word coupled with increased confusion over less sophisticated writing. Though these traits tend to apply most often to students on the developmental-education end of the skills spectrum, evidence of declining reading is clear enough that it’s discouraging (and dev-ed students did, after all, graduate from high school).

But summertime also invites optimism: first, it’s a season in which students who need to read more have time to do so. Further, plenty of students DO enjoy reading already, and many others, I think, simply don’t realize the sheer pleasure reading can bring. Even if they aren’t currently engaged in a book, I believe most students understand, in the abstract, the importance of reading for general intellectual and cultural development. So then the question for students becomes “What to read?”

They may start with what catches their fancy. Here is a recent Inside Higher Ed piece from an instructor at Oberlin College who wisely encourages her students to read widely — excerpt:

“I’ve been encouraging students to consider all types of pleasure reading, anything that might improve their reading fluency and stamina: books, magazines, websites, graphic novels, movie and book connections, and audio books.”

Students also may choose to tackle book lists. Last year, I posted a couple summertime book lists links, and I also suggest doing a broad web search for “college prep summer reading lists.” This search will harvest scoresof possibilities recommended by schools far and wide.

In any case, I send my internet wish for young students to read happily and often, making it a lifelong habit; and may they find in their books a positive and nurturing sustenance.

Do you know of a great book list? Some good titles for students’ summer reading? Feel free to comment!

(1)  A relevant article is “Patterson, Proust, and the power of pleasure reading” (February 2008). From Reading Today, 25(4), 18. The NEA study “To Read or Not To Read” is found here.

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