Hearts & Minds: How We Teach Reading

By Caroline Novak
President, A+ Education Partnership

If non-fiction speaks to the mind, literature speaks to the heart, as a teacher’s story published recently in the New York Times so well demonstrates. Some of her observations are important for Alabama, as we take new steps to accelerate real learning in our classrooms, bring more balance to assessment and accountability, and increase our educators’ capacity to lead students to higher levels of thinking and understanding.

Claire Hollander engages high-needs youngsters at her Manhattan middle school in a reading enrichment program that introduces them to great literature — to fiction written in complex language, telling stories that can help us explore what it means to be human. In doing so, Hollander says she is helping her students — some of whom “are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods” — build “cultural capital” that can give them the resilience they need to complete high school, to pursue college and careers, and to mature into thinking adults, effective workers and committed parents.

As Hollander suggests, a decade of well-meant but sometimes counterproductive accountability testing has pushed the study of literature and storytelling far down on the curriculum priority list. Most items that test reading comprehension today, she says, include “passages from watered-down news articles or biographies…memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.”

We are trying to teach students to read increasingly complex texts, but they are complex only on the sentence level — not because the ideas they present are complex, not because they are symbolic, allusive or ambiguous. These are literary qualities, and they are more or less absent from testing materials.    

Students, and especially students with challenging home lives, are not likely to engage with exceptional literature outside of school, Hollander believes. Many low-income students “who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary…will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort.”

In her experience, those are the same students “who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep.” And the same can be said for many students in Alabama’s high-needs schools, where educators (as we might expect) are shaping their curriculum and instruction to maximize student performance on test items that emphasize informational text. Hollander writes:

Of course no teacher disputes the necessity of being able to read for information. But if literature has no place in these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then the reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools. I don’t have any illusions that adding literary passages to multiple-choice tests would instill a love of reading among students by itself. But it would keep those books on the syllabus, in the classrooms and in the hands of young readers — which is what really matters.

As Alabama schools implement new learning standards that will require higher orders of thinking from our students and higher orders of teaching from our educators, we believe it would be a terrible mistake to ignore Claire Hollander’s core message:

We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts…. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.

The A+ Education Partnership is all about “both/and” solutions. We believe that our schools can teach students how to analyze informational text and apply what they learn in the real world. We also believe that, at the same time, our teachers can guide our students as they grapple with the complex words and emotional events found in great fictional stories.

We affirm the power and value of literature to reach our hearts, and A+’s support for promoting real literature as part of curriculum for all students, whether they live in book-rich environments or depend on our public schools to help them become eager and able readers of every kind of text.