Getting a Read on How to Improve Reading

Are classics the key to improving high-school students’ literary knowledge?

(photo: Unsplash)

Megan Caughron teaches English to Catholic high-school students in the Midwest. Day in and day out, she sees what so many teachers across the country are seeing: Teens are less capable of reading difficult literature than their predecessors a mere 20 years ago.

“I see a lot of kids addicted to digital entertainment, while craving meaning. This creates a strange tension. They don’t have the ability to work through Shakespeare, but when they do get a glimpse of what Shakespeare is saying about life and human nature, their hearts respond powerfully,” she said.

Studies show that reading levels among high-school students have been declining for years. According to a 2015 study by Renaissance Learning, a learning analytics company, the average U.S. high-school student does not meet any college or career-readiness reading standards. The average high-school senior reads books that are considered to be at a seventh-grade reading level.

One of the reasons why high-school students are not reading the great works of American and British literature is because they are not often required to. The problem with this, according to Renaissance Learning, is that modern novels tend to present less formal vocabulary than works from the past. So the brain doesn’t have to work as hard.

“I’m who and where I am today in considerable part because I had a gifted teacher in high school who assigned us the very best literature — Homer to Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky to T.S. Eliot,” said professor James Stephens, professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College in Michigan. “It seems to me that works like these aren’t assigned very often in high school these days.”

Another reason why reading levels may have dropped is the increased use of cellphones and laptops among teenagers, with technology’s obvious distractions. What is lost is the amount of time immersed in great literature and the effect that this literature could have had on the reader. According to the Renaissance Learning study, it only takes 15 minutes a day of sustained reading for a high-school student to be reading at the high-school level.

“On one hand, we have to use technology with greater intention. For example, when I read I may need to put my cellphone in another room. But we have to cultivate a love of reading as something which is more than just instant gratification,” said Christopher Sebastian, public relations and marketing coordinator for Mother of Divine Grace School in Ojai, California.


Why Great Stories Matter

Educators want to hone in on the reason why reading great literature is so important. The answer is complicated.

“We are experiential beings, so we can walk along with a character and experience the good, the true, the beautiful and gain eternal truths from this,” said Sebastian. “In a way, you have to apply the same effort to reading as you do in friendships. If you want to take it to the next level, you have to give it more time. When you read, you can literally develop friendships in a book and go on a journey with the characters.”

Stephens believes that human beings are hardwired to learn about themselves and the world through stories.

“It’s no coincidence that all or most of the truly ‘great’ literature consists of narratives — stories. Narrative understanding seems to be the form of understanding most basic to us as human beings: We understand things better when they’re put in the form of stories, and we remember them better,” he said. “Narrative understanding seems also to be the way in which we best understand ourselves. To tell you who I am is, in effect, to tell you the story of my life.”

Good stories teach truths to the reader about the human condition.

“We have a visceral sense while we read a book, even if it is fiction, that we know what we are reading is true, without even thinking about it,” said Joe Bissex, a high-school literature teacher at The Heights in Washington, D.C. “Books can change your mind, heart and soul in the same way that a person can, if you connect with the book.”


An Avenue of Grace

Catholic educators also see great literature as a vehicle through which God can speak to people.

“Flannery O’Connor said that in all great literature you can see the hand of grace waiting to be accepted or rejected,” said Sebastian.

Many of the greatest works of literature have to do with a particular kind of story that is a natural genre for teens to love, if only they are given the chance to read them: the quest.

“Odysseus trying to find his way home, the quests of King Arthur’s knights, the heroes of Dickens’ novels, Huck Finn: These stories seem to engage readers the most. The reason I think this is important is because of the sort of story a quest is,” said Stephens.

Examples of “quest stories” include The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These stories bring up many profound questions for the reader to think about, the professor explained.

“How does or should one decide on the goal of the quest? Why is it more important than simply vegetating at home? What ought one be ready to sacrifice for it? What might actually be worth dying for? What sorts of virtues must I have if I’m to take the quest as more than just a game? If the quest is for the good of others, how must I think of my fellow human beings? How did their good become so important to me that I’m willing to sacrifice myself for it?” asked Stephens.


The Place to Start Thinking

High school is the natural place for human beings to start thinking about these issues. But when teens aren’t reading challenging books, that opportunity is often lost. 

“High school is one of the most important places where one becomes what one’s going to be. It is a place where one needs to confront these thoughts and values. But one is not going to confront these things, still less, think about them, if all one’s given to read in high school are superficial, easy-to-digest, ‘fun’ stories. Great literature’s a lot of good things, but it isn’t fun — not in the way that comic books are,” explained Stephens.

The reason why the increased use of technology can be so harmful is because it conditions the brain to seek and receive instant gratification. But the gift of what great literature has to offer cannot come through instantly. It takes time.

“Thinking about the ‘great issues’ isn’t something one does in 15-second sound bites. It’s not something one does casually. It’s something one does in order to become the kind of person one wants to be — except that learning what sort of person one wants to be is in itself a project. Someone who has never tried to confront the ‘permanent things’ isn’t likely to become much more than a consumer of what’s trendy, as so many of our students are these days,” said Stephens. “A school that doesn’t try to help its students confront these things is failing at what schools should do, or at least what I think schools should do.”


Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from New York.