Nuggets of wisdom are often found in unexpected places. I’ve found wisdom—not in columns of the Acropolis, in the stones of Sinai, or in the lecture halls of the Sorbonne. No, instead it’s hidden in the recesses of the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).
The age-old debate about what kids should be reading attracted my attention this week. As my colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee observed last week, two camps seem to have emerged in the “what kids should read” debate: those who want more literary fiction in the classroom and those who want more informational non-fiction.
But should what kids read supersede the question of why kids read? ODE’s English language arts’ 11th and 12thgrade model curricula elegantly answers this question:
“They [students] must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, challenging texts and develop the skill, concentration and stamina [emphasis in original] to read these texts independently and proficiently.”
Notice that ODE doesn’t prescribe book lists or even specific genres to read—there’s no specification of what kids read—so long as the texts are of “high-quality.” Even more importantly, notice the statement’s purpose clause: “to develop the skill, concentration, and stamina” of the student.
The purpose clause in ODE’s statement on reading has significance for why we teach reading, and secondarily, has implications for how we teach reading.
Let me illustrate with an anecdote. I was recently surprised to learn that the med school entrance exam is primarily a reading comprehension exam. When a friend asked how I would study, I suggested reading academic literature from many topics. This advice was rooted in my own experience reading journals, which for me—and I assume others—are intellectually-taxing material. Comprehending an article requires not only skill (ability to read), but as importantly, full concentration (focused attention) and stamina (grit to push through the tedium). Background TV or radio need not apply.
My argument isn’t that middle- and high-school students should read academic journals. Rather, in agreement with the Ohio Department of Education, I suggest that true reading happens when the student has to (1) be fully focused and (2) demonstrate willpower to comprehend the material—regardless of the material matter. Indeed, this is precisely why reading needs to be taught: to produce people with the focus and willpower to accomplish a task.
So in a way, both sides of the “what should be read” debate get it wrong. We teach reading neither to produce a high-brow society nor to blandly barrage kids with information. Rather, we teach reading in order to sharpen the concentration and stamina of a student. Requiring quiet and sometimes solitude, reading is indeed the antithesis of our noisy, post-modern zeitgeist. And precisely because of its opposition to the spirit of our times, reading has its value. It forces us to concentrate and to comprehend for ourselves, rather than being force-fed thoughts through an HDTV. Thus our kids benefit not mostly from the content of the text—who really remembers much of the plot of Hamlet anyways, despite reading and re-reading it—but from the intellectual discipline that reading demands.
The writer/philosopher at the Ohio Department of Education therefore gets it right: the central purpose of reading is “to develop skill, concentration, and stamina,” the text-type be damned. For practitioners, the purpose of reading should inform how reading is taught. For teachers—and not just English teachers only—this means judiciously selecting texts, across multiple topics, genres, and sources, that stretch and challenge students. And secondly, the purpose clause requires re-thinking classroom design and management; perhaps schools need more quiet, “concentration time” for students to independently focus on the text.
The Olympics have a three-word credo: citius, altius, fortius, Latin for “Swifter, Higher, Stronger.” Perhaps it’s time we adorn the Common Core English language arts standards with a credo too: “Skill, Concentration, Stamina.”
 “Skill, concentration, and stamina” is found in every one of Ohio’s English language arts model curricula from fifth grade to eleventh and twelfth grade.
 Several model lessons cite specific texts or genres, but they appear to have illustrative rather than prescriptive purposes.