Hamartia and the Modern Reader

An article written in 2008 by Lionel Shriver entitled “Missing the Mark” still rings true today.  Even though the article is largely about the dissappearance of quotation marks in dialogue, Shriver points out that the reason that the creation of new literary works are on the decline in the United States is simply because the audience is not interested.

In recent experience my students are not interested in reading texts that would be considered literary.  Lately, I had to explain to an honors student that the “Maze Runner” trilogy by James Dashner, even if it is an engaging story, is not really considered “literature”.  While it is the “The Hunger Games” but geared to a more male audience, it is still intended for consumption by middle school readers. 

The fact is that many young people and even adults are not reading literature, choosing reading that is either at their reading level or below.  This probably comes from a lifetime of education that propogated this practice when they were young.  This practice in education can be traced to Emmett Betts, who in 1946 put forth the Theory of Instructional Level. This theory apparently based on “extensive researth” determined that learning was optimized if students were placed in text with appropriate difficulty levels.  Unfortunately the “research” that Betts did has never been seen or recorded.  Since Betts’s “research” has been used to fuel an entire pedagogy, it has utterly crippled the reading tastes of most people across the United States.  There is evidence of this everywhere from the gaff on Chelsea Lately by Noel Fielding about being “schooled in England” to the massive success of Fifty Shades of Gray and other such novels. 

When was the last time one turned to the New York Times bestseller list and found anything literary?  Has language changed so much that we only crave that which is written at an 8th grade level?  I blame Betts for this and the majority of the education system that practiced a theory that was not founded in research.  Literary fiction is not “high brow” or “snooty”, but wonderfully written and speaks to the human condition in this modern life. 

Common Core Standards, if practiced properly, will change things for the better.  Most of the reading practices are based on the solid, reproducable research of William Powell, found in this paper by Nile Van Stanley which stated that the only way to challenge student reading ability is to have them read material that is at least two reading levels above their current level.  If educators will only practice this theory in their classrooms across the curriculum, stop writing textbooks on such low reading levels, and challenge students to read at higher levels, we may help people become more informed and challenge seeking readers.

We are currently missing the mark with our students, but if we raise the bar with them throughout their formative years we will have more success in helping them challenge themselves as readers in the future, and possibly raise the quality of the writing seen on the best seller list.

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