Why Don’t They Love English: Part III-Familiarity Breeds ______?

January 8, 2012 — 4 Comments

One statement in Grant Wiggins’s review of the survey he gave to 7300 students from middle and high school students nationally was particularly infuriating to me. He had posed the question, “What was the most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?” In reviewing the student responses, (73 of which were posted on the blog), Wiggins casually noted that  “..almost nothing from English or Math was highlighted.”

How can this be?

English and math classes did not offer interesting tasks or projects? Really? I cannot speak for math, but as an English teacher,  I feel bit defensive. English teachers of the students in this study could not find “interesting” ways to teach grammar or literature or writing skills?

Wiggins does state that the “results do not reflect a ‘normal’ national sample” since the schools that participated were either directly involved with his Understanding by Design workshops or requested to be involved in the survey. Sadly, the evidence from the students posted on the blog does seem to support this point; a class project, a series of responses dedicated to Lord of the Flies, was one of only several English/Language Arts assessments that made the list of the ” most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?”

Familiarity breeds contempt? Do students enjoy disciplines other than English because these disciplines are more active?

I wonder if this a problem of familiarity. Students are programmed what to expect in English/Language Arts classes, and according to this study, so are the teachers.

Consider that every one of the students responding has had to take an English/Language Arts class for each year he or she is in school. The focus of curriculum in these classes, regardless of grade level, is the improvement of student skills in reading, writing, and speaking. That’s it. Year after year of  reading, writing, and speaking. Yes, the work becomes more complex, but the work in English is fairly routine. Students read. Students write. Students speak.

There are other disciplines that are sequential, a series of prescribed steps that build on knowledge. For example,  a student must understand addition before moving onto multiplication.  The acquisition of reading, writing, and speaking skills, however, is measured differently. A student will encounter the comma long before he or she understands its function in a sentence. A student will decode a metaphor well before he or she knows what the literary term means. A student will decipher the meaning of a word in context in reading without the aid of a dictionary.

English is not really sequential set of knowledge steps but a weave-a continuous layering of warp and woof. Students are initiated in improving the skills of  reading, writing, and speaking in pre-school and continue to develop these skills at each grade level.

Could students simply be tired of the “same old same old”? Do they not appreciate the importance of the skills they learned in the English/Language Arts classroom?

The standards in the Language Arts Common Core follow a sequence of growing complexity, but ultimately is the Kindergarten Standard (K.RL.1) “With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text” that much different from the Grade 12 Standard (12.RL.1) ” Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain”?

These standards require that during a student’s 13 years in education, there must be multiple opportunities to cite, analyze, respond, write, and speak. English/Language Arts teachers must develop assessments that move students to meeting these standards. Other disciplines may assess a student’s ability to build, demonstrate, create, or illustrate with a “hands on” approach. Certainly, English/Langauge Arts can have students build (a character), demonstrate (a vocabulary word’s meaning), create (a film), illustrate (a chapter), but ultimately the student skill assessed is aligned with standards that measure continued improvement on the skills of reading, writing, and speaking. Ultimately the conundrum English /Language Arts teachers face is the skill used is the skill being tested; including a 3rd dimension- engaging in the physicality of English/Language Arts- is not required by Common Core standards. One could simply meet each standard with pen and paper, with “words, words, words”…

Take for example, some of the student responses to the survey’s prompt “what was the most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?”:

  • Building a house. This was interesting because I had to make something new everyday and the project always had soemthing[sic] to work on and i never got bored.
  • We are currently dissecting a fetal pig in Biology.  It is interesting because dissections are a very good chance to see how an organism works firsthand.
  • A mock trial in my Business and Personal Law course was the most interesting work I’ve had to do.
  • Made a rocket car for Metal
  • The lemonade game in economics. We got to run a sim of a lemonade company.
  • testing the PH levels of water of the pond at our school.
In reading the responses to the survey, students exude an obvious enjoyment that comes from engaging in assessments in which they worked “hands-on”; many times their engagement was physical and interactive. Of course, the lessons learned in English/Language Arts classrooms, the skills of reading, writing, and speaking, contribute directly to success in all other disciplines. But, students do not consider these important skills when rating “interesting work”.
So what can English/Language Arts teachers do to move up on the scale of the most “interesting work” in high school? Obviously, we need to think about making our assessments meaningful beyond the (hand?) printed word. We need to consider how our students will write, read, and speak after high school, and in this relatively new century, digital mediums offer up a myriad of possibilities. Communication can extend beyond the classroom walls, work can be more collaborative, and speech is not limited to reading from index cards at a podium in class. Reading is now done in the “real world” on multiple platforms and support with diverse technologies (text-to-speech, definitions in context, etc) can level the reading in a classroom. Film and audio resources are plentiful for both viewing, but more importantly, for student production. Research can be accomplished without the limitations (24/7 access to material) that have stymied past generations. Simply put, English/Language Arts teachers have the resources to increase student engagement in new ways and to use the digital platforms that are increasingly used for education and business in the real world. If not, the pen is still mightier than the (_____)-you fill in the blank.
Studies in psychology show that on the vast majority of occasions, the less familiar we are with someone or something, the more we are inclined to like them. The “new” is almost always more exciting than the “routine”. So, students may become biased with “familiarity” against English/Language Arts class because they are continuously acquainted with the objectives of improving reading, writing, and speaking skills. Perhaps it is this familiarity that keeps English off the “most interesting work” list as students jettison literature studies, grammar games, and speeches for new experiences in less familiar disciplines.
Regardless, English teachers everywhere can take some small comfort knowing that  there would not be a list at all if it was not for the English/Language Arts classroom…after all, students had to use “word, words, words” to write their responses. If only the students would spell correctly!

4 responses to Why Don’t They Love English: Part III-Familiarity Breeds ______?


    Great post. I think it IS true that same old, same old is the problem more than something bad is happening. The kids repeatedly say that class is the same from day to day and assignments are similar. The boys especially complain about both the content of the reading and the pain of the writing (no matter how much we value both and believe that they should and eventually will, too).

    I think the real wake-up call is that too many English teachers are naive about reading: just because they love it, others do or soon will, too. I also believe strongly that too many novels are read from 5th grade on, losing an inordinate number of learners. The irony here is that good novelists employ suspense and drama. When was the last time there was suspense and drama in your classroom?


      Thank you for your response. I have been sharing the results of your study with members of my faculty (small rural school in CT) in the English Department and in other disciplines as well. For the past three years, our English Department teachers have been eliminating many of the traditional texts in favorite of student choice (grades 9-12). Our school is undergoing several “C” changes-a move to block scheduling, inclusion of grade 6 at the middle school, and a 1:1 digital device initiative. Anecdotally, we know that we are headed in the right direction, however, we have yet to see the data that proves our current course is effective….the state standardized test (CAPT) is still the litmus test for every discipline. Fortunately, that state test is currently under revision.
      As to your comment about suspense and drama, I wish to assure you that one 45 minute period with my current sophomore class provides far more suspense (will Emily actually complete the day’s assignment?)and drama (Brandon is placed in the comfy chair for a time-out…again) than one needs. And all of that happens before the seniors arrive with their brand of suspense and drama! For me, everyday is a screenplay.
      Thank you again for your comments.


    I wish we could build standards that reflect process rather product.

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