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May 3, 2002

Professor warns focus on testing may turn teens off reading

The overemphasis on test scores and standards - to the exclusion of everything else - may be turning teenagers off reading, warns a California State University, Sacramento professor.

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 summer.

"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 worse.

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.


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