May 3, 2002
Professor warns focus on testing may turn teens
The overemphasis on test scores and
standards - to the exclusion of everything else - may be turning
teenagers off reading, warns a California State University,
Renee Golanty-Koel, a teacher education professor and former
high school English teacher, says the literature used in English
classes can affect student motivation to read. She presented
her findings at the European Conference on Reading over the
"English teachers don't always select material that resonates
with adolescents. So students can become disengaged with literature,"
she says. "It's especially difficult in California because
literature standards require students to read 'historically
and culturally significant works' - the classics that are
often taught to the exclusion of everything else.
"I believe English should be taught very differently
in high school than it is in college. We need to examine literature
with students beyond the conventions usually taught in the
classroom such as theme and symbolism," she says. "Trying
to make them literature critics has a paradoxical effect of
turning them off. We need to find a way of engaging adolescents."
Golanty-Koel cites studies by psychologists that show teens
go through several phases that affect their sense of identity
at a time when they're asking themselves, "Who am I?"
and "Who will I become?" When students can identify
with literature, the teacher can encourage better verbal and
written response, opening their imaginations, allowing rediscovery
and stimulating emotions.
She cites the book Fire which tells the story of a
failing marriage through the eyes of the 16-year-old son.
Because many students are going through similar experiences,
reading the story and sensitively discussing it would be a
way to get students engaged.
"I'm not negating the necessity for adolescents to write
in a coherent manner, to increase their vocabulary, to give
good oral explications. Those skills are, of course, necessary.
But because of the pressure of standards - not standards themselves
- and the pressure of test scores, what is quite human and
life-supporting in being an adolescent gets lost in other
things," she says.
She adds that while teaching to the standards may not turn
off college-bound students, the same may not be true for the
majority of adolescents. Students are more readily able to
grasp such concepts as metaphor, ambiguity, historical time
and multiple interpretations if teachers allow them to examine
literature in the context of their own life concerns.
"Plus," she adds, "It's possible to combine
a classical piece like Romeo and Juliet with something
more contemporary such as Joyce Carol Oates' Foxfire."
Not surprisingly, studies show the best choices for literature
to motivate adolescents are those with characters who are
like themselves. They also are motivated by the realism of
the story and what kinds of possibilities the story allows.
Each work should provide vicarious choices, for better or
Golanty-Koel and a graduate student have complied a list of
several contemporary books designed for an adolescent audience,
with plots that deal with identity, family relationships,
gender identity, peer relationships, school and career.
More information is available by calling the CSUS public affairs
office at (916) 278-4282.
For further information, send an e-mail
public affairs at (916) 278-6156. For ticketed events, call
the CSUS Ticket Office at (916) 278-4323.
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