Role of Reading in English Class

As a teacher I was part of a school district that established a very strong distinction between reading and literature–so much so that I taught two officially different classes: Reading and English Language Arts. I admit that I often had difficulty articulating to my students the differences between the two classes, especially since most of them were double-enrolled and had me as their teacher for both. I agree with Appleman that this attitude creates a “false opposition between teaching  reading and teaching literature” (p. 2)

In addition to offering numerous strategies to foster strong reading behaviors and identities, she makes a claim to English teachers that

We need to focus our students’ attention to more than the manifestations and sanctioned representations of language. We need to acknowledge for ourselves and make clear to our students that language is dynamic. (p. 34)

While I personally agree with this statement, I would question her assumption that all ELA teachers inherently believe in the plasticity of language and the fact that it is bounded and supported by constantly shifting rules of practice that differ greatly across communities and time periods. I think this quote belies the multitude of structures and traditions in English (let alone in other languages!) and does not address the real difficulty in teaching students about underlying structures and innovations in language.

Something I felt was missing along these lines is a more nuanced description of what “multicultural literacy” looks like as a framework for structuring curriculum and classes, since this is very much a part of the NCTE briefing on Adolescent Literacy in the preface. Appleman references Lee’s cultural modeling approach, but I still feel mystified about how a “holistic way of being” manifests itself in classrooms to achieve multicultural perspectives. Her treatment of multiple perspectives and voice seems to get close to this, but did not satisfy my questions.

Appleman’s gloss of gendered perspectives on reading was fascinating–including the idea that boys’ and girls’ perceptions of reading as a passive or active practice lead me to question my reactions to former students’ reading attitudes, but overall I found it troubling that most of the research cited merely reinforced traditional gender stereotypes about books and reading (I’m thinking particularly about findings from the Smith and Wilhelm study on p. 63). As a member of an all-girls science fiction book club, I wonder how useful a study like this is for classroom teachers if it just perpetuates our assumptions. Appleman rightly notes it is the role of the teacher to “interrupt rather than perpetuate gendered patterns of meaning” (p. 63) in highlighting examples of non-traditional gender roles in both our own modeling practices as teachers and in the texts we select for classes.

On an unrelated note (or perhaps not), I am accumulating more quotes about why literature and reading are awesome:

Literary texts are both windows and mirrors, in which we can acknowledge the complexity, commonality, and difference of the social world in which we reside.


2 thoughts on “Role of Reading in English Class

  1. Yay for accumulating more quotes about literature 🙂

    I had the same thoughts about the chapter on gender–I thought it was very interesting but seemed to address (reinforce?) traditional gender stereotypes more than anything. Interesting…

  2. I liked that last quote on your blog as well! I found the chapter on gender differences troubling too for much the same reason as you did. I know plenty of boys and men who enjoy being still with a book and plenty or girls and women who do not enjoy sitting still “in conversation” with a book. While Appleman said that teachers need to interrupt gender stereotypes, she did not give ways in which we can do this aside from using the gender lens that she describes in Critical Encounters. I also found that some of her suggestions (such as Jeff’s class on page 59) that might create a responsive environments for boys but in which girls may feel “left out.” Sometimes when teachers try to appeal to a certain gender, the other gender feels excluded (I had a physics teacher who used sports analogies to engage the boys in the class).

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