Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be posting some excerpts from Reading Reconsidered here on Field Notes. This is the beginning of Chapter 1, which discusses Text Selection and Text Complexity.
Chapter 1: Text Selection
One of the most important topics in teaching reading is text selection, the process by which teachers choose what their students will read. Yet the importance of this topic remains partially invisible to many educators. This might seem at first to be a strange statement. Naturally, every teacher is aware of the text he or she is teaching. Of course, every teacher selects texts (or oversees students selecting them) carefully, right?
The reality, however, is that in teaching reading, many educators have come to believe that the goal is to teach students a set of skills—“how to read”—that are applicable to any text. Teach a book, almost any book, the “right way”—by fostering rich discussion, say, and drawing students’ awareness to depth of characterization and the role of figurative language—and students will learn to read any text well.
The million-dollar question is, of course, “What is the right way?” Once that is settled, for many teachers, text selection can boil down to choosing something relatively engaging for kids to read. If there’s buy-in and students like a book, there’s a viable platform for practicing the skills of reading in whatever manner a teacher defines them. Assuming there’s reasonable diversity in genres and authors, that’s probably enough. But in fact, what students read shapes how and how well they learn to read in far more ways than what might at first seem obvious.
A closer look at this famous scene from Oliver Twist suggests a few of the reasons why.
Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cookshop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered to each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.
“Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”
Imagine a typical student, a ninth-grader perhaps, reading this passage and struggling. Let’s say the student failed to realize that young Oliver was goaded into his actions—that they were not characteristic of his true gentleness of character. Let’s say that our high school student failed to hear Dickens’s sardonic, narrative voice exaggerating the cruelty of Oliver’s wards.
Let’s also consider just as plausibly that our student might struggle to follow the basic action—that “child as he was” means “because he was a child,” that a “copper” is a pot, the “commons” was their meal, that “lots were cast” means they decided by drawing straws, that “it fell to Oliver” means he lost, and that when the master “gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel,” Dickens means he was looking at Oliver. Maybe our student would simply have run out of steam and given up somewhere in the maze of Dickens’s thirty-seven-word first sentence!
The cause of the debacle is unlikely to be that our student lacks practice in common reading skills, such as making inferences or assessing character motivation. It’s far more likely that our student can’t execute those skills—or even achieve basic comprehension—with a complex text, specifically one full of lengthy, multiclausal sentences written in nineteenth-century syntax and relying on knowledge of nineteenth-century society.
Quite plausibly, prior to Oliver Twist, our student might have been almost exclusively exposed to benignly appealing youth fiction written after 1980, chosen specifically because of its easy accessibility. Of course many high school students struggle to read Dickens. A huge number have never read anything older or more disorienting than Tuck Everlasting. And although we tend to assume that a basic skill like assessing character motivation is fungible across books, it is not necessarily true that assessing Winnie’s motivation in fifteen scenes from Tuck Everlasting will set a student on a course to understand Oliver Twist’s.
The “skills” of reading, in other words, may not be so universally applicable. They are applied in a setting, and the details of the setting—what we read—matter immensely. Almost anyone can make accurate character inferences about Curious George. Making them in a George Elliott novel is tougher. A systematic exposure to certain types of text experiences is at least as necessary in determining a student’s ability to read widely and successfully as a systematic exposure to certain kinds of skill-based questions.
Choosing harder texts, as we will discuss, is one element necessary to preparing students for success in college. But more than that, students need to wrestle with specific types of challenges posed by a rich array of challenging texts, systematically introduced starting in elementary school.
In this chapter, we will reflect on factors teachers can consider in deciding what students read—what, for example, they can be reading in fifth grade to help ensure later success with Oliver Twist. The goal is to make choices as rigorous as possible—in a balanced way that still allows for Tuck Everlasting—and to think about how the texts students read now can contribute to their success in and love for reading later on.
Module 1.1 The Decline of the Canon
In many schools, reading has come to be tacitly defined as “the act of asking and answering questions about a text.” Depending on what philosophy of reading you choose, it consists, at its core, of asking students to demonstrate a specific vision of skills inherent in readership. There are different visions of what constitutes these skills, and their adherents disagree, often vociferously, on which is best. Even so, almost all of them agree that there are indeed universal and fungible skills, applicable and applied to almost any text in a consistent way, and that they are the core of the discipline of reading. This is a big assumption, however; and, as Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and others have suggested, even if reading relies on “skills,” it also depends heavily on knowledge. Choosing what we read is one of the most important ways we build that knowledge for students.
“The Best That Has Been Thought and Said”
Seen historically, the prioritization of how we read over what we read may be more divergence than norm. For much of its history, the profession of teaching has been at least as concerned with what books students read as how they read them. More specifically, it has been concerned with making sure they read the important books and were familiar with their arguments. The purpose of reading Paradise Lost as a student in the nineteenth century was probably at least as much that of being familiar with the story and being able to refer to it on the right occasion as it was to develop a unique and trenchant interpretation of it.1 The job was in understanding Milton’s purpose of “justify[ing] the ways of God to men” more than it was in critiquing it.
More broadly, much of the point of schooling was to have read a corpus of great books and to be able to participate in a conversation about them. To a degree that was certainly more than trivial, the ability to do so marked your status as “well educated” in a way that revealed a different purpose than ours today. That is, the purpose of education was—in some places, still is—more to preserve class distinctions than to erode them.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, arguments for more universal access to education began to abound. Social critics like Matthew Arnold, a former school inspector, argued in favor of more students reading “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Reading the best texts—and having all “educated” citizens read them—had the benefit, he argued in Culture and Anarchy (1869), of “turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically.”2 If we all read the important books, the argument went, we could all talk about them.
Arnold’s argument and others like it framed the way reading was taught for much of the ensuing century. The idea that being educated was about reading and discussing a relatively finite corpus of “best” texts was an old one. Arnold’s argument that the benefit of reading “the best that has been thought and said” should be made available to more than just the elite was new. We could democratize society by allowing more people to participate in discussions previously reserved for the elite—discussions concerned with critiquing or reinforcing our core intellectual premises.
Reading in Readers
The growing American republic was more democratic yet. Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her peripatetic childhood there, in fictionalized form, in the volumes of the Little House on the Prairie series. The books feature Laura moving from town to town and school to school in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri. At each school, the core of the curriculum is a “reader.” It’s the one consistency to her schooling on the American frontier. New place, new teacher, new classmates, but predictable schooling and consistent texts.
The ubiquity of “readers” probably wasn’t fictionalized much. As access to education became democratized through more universal public schooling, students often did the lion’s share of their reading from these relatively standardized collections of readings intended to introduce reading, as well as a certain set of moral and cultural influences.According to some histories, the McGuffey Reader, the most common of the genre, sold over 120 million copies in the United States. To put that number in perspective, it exceeds that of nearly every other book, ever, save the Bible and the dictionary.
How students read texts in their readers was likely different from how we would read them today. There was probably less emphasis on asking, “What words characterize the blacksmith’s motivation in Longfellow’s poem?” than there was “Recite the first ten lines of The Blacksmith, please, John.” The idea was that the texts showed students how to be successful citizens, gave them practice reading, and let them participate in civil discourse. The task was to understand; interpretation was probably more optional. Besides, you often got only enough to accomplish the most basic reading. In the McGuffey Reader, students didn’t get Hamlet in five acts, they got “Hamlet” as a five-page excerpt with a brief introduction that observed, “Shakespeare’s works consisted chiefly of plays and sonnets. They show a wonderful knowledge of human nature, expressed in language remarkable for its point and beauty.” And that was that.
By the twentieth century, American society was changing even more rapidly in structure and demography—and, by the second half of the century, even in its perception of itself. Citizens became increasingly less inclined to accept authorities because they were authorities. An approach to reading that was based on a straightforward gloss of a text chosen by a wise but invisible hand was by this time unsustainable.
Before we continue, we would like to emphasize, lest our comments be misinterpreted, that in describing historical changes in education and reading, we are not arguing in favor of the systems and beliefs of the past. Our goal is to consider how past perspectives can help us understand decision making within the framework of our current—and rightly very different—beliefs about reading and learning today.
Flattening the Textual Hierarchy
The word canon, many readers will know, refers to an authoritative group of “best” books that are deemed central to a culture’s tradition—or at least are the most important to read within it. In Post-War British Women Novelists and the Canon, Nick Turner writes that the birth of the term in its present meaning can be traced back to the 1980s.3 It emerged both to describe and dismantle the notion—now incommensurate with a complex, polyglot society drawing on multiple traditions—that there was a single, finite list of what needed to be read to participate in society. The word made explicit that such a thing existed at exactly the time it fell out of sync with society.
Knowing that there was such a thing as a canon—and that it was implicit in so many decisions about what we valued and read—inexorably led to all sorts of thorny questions. Was the authority implicit in canon selection wise or sinister? On what grounds could one evaluate quality objectively? Were the books in it “best” in quality, or merely reflective of the values of those in power? And why were a supermajority of the authors from the Western European tradition? Were the implicit decisions about who was a “classic” author inherently racist? Classist? Sexist? Elitist? The now mildly ironic phrase “dead white males,” used to impugn things that are old, out-of-date, or indicative of past values that are just as well passed, derives from the debate about the canon. It was not ironic then.
In short, the word canon described an idea that was, to many people, past its use-by date. Though some still advocated in favor of its traditional and established books, teachers were evidently among the skeptics. Walden, The Scarlet Letter, and the like went from bulwarks to museum pieces, replaced by a hundred examples of more contemporary writing, including, especially, a great deal more youth fiction.
Without a default list of “right” books from which to choose, teachers increasingly fell back on more personal choices: what inspired them, what was new, what they liked to teach, what their students liked to read. In many schools, the idea of a shared book disappeared. Each student read his or her own book and wrote or reflected on it more or less independently.
There are clear positives implicit in the decline of the canon. One is that, having been allowed as a profession to choose which texts to study, teachers have unlocked the insight and power in hundreds of books they hadn’t previously considered teaching. It turns out that “worth reading” is a term for which there are lots of contenders; considering them expands our definition of worth. Teachers almost assuredly also ended up teaching texts that showed us a more accurate and diverse version of our society as a result—one that valued more perspectives and voices, one that noticed how a perspective can exclude others to our collective detriment. Among other benefits, this has probably made for better and more observant readers—readers who better understand perspective and its subjectivities.
At the same time, there are negatives, too, stemming from the decline of the canon, though, fortunately, much of the loss can be recouped within a more contemporary and flexible approach to deciding what to read. One lost benefit is the Arnoldian notion of shared discourse—the idea that part of the value of reading is to be able to read and talk about important books that almost everyone else has read. When a student makes reference to a similarity between a scene her class has just read and a scene in another book, the power of that moment is magnified a hundredfold if everyone has also read that other book. Intertextuality—discussing the ways that different texts treat similar problems or tell similar stories—works only when students have read some texts in common. Schools now embrace a world with a much more fractured reading base. To find a single shared text outside of your own class’s reading is often all but impossible—what text could you or a student refer to as an example of plot or theme or character and know that the great majority of the class would be familiar with it?
Another loss is the erosion of the democratizing influence of “cultural capital.” Members of the upper and upper-middle classes often take for granted knowledge that marks them as educated and sophisticated. They can hear a reference to Hamlet or Dickens or Zora Neale Hurston (in a classroom, a coffee shop, or a book) and join the conversation. They know at least that Dickens is English and wrote about a time that was, well, Dickensian—when children labored in factories and Scrooges refused to share the wealth. They know these things—and things about Marx and Monet and many more—without really knowing how they know them or what it is like not to know them. This knowledge of common cultural touchstones lets them—and others who have it—feel as though they belong. Indeed it helps them belong. Knowledge of the books that educated society takes its familiarity with for granted is a powerful tool, though perhaps only not having it would help you realize that. A culture of reading that doesn’t consider this cultural importance has a disparate impact on those who are less likely to acquire cultural knowledge by other means. It is their best chance to be included in the secret conversations of opportunity.
Finally, there are the aspirational effects of reading texts that are “great.” If we are all supposed to read a book because it is uniquely great, then the fact that it is also difficult becomes a hurdle to be overcome by good teaching, not an argument against reading it. It is commonplace in schools to hear that students should never read a book that is “too hard.” When the criterion is solely accessibility and not greatness, the result is that students who start out as weak readers almost never study the same rigorous texts that imply our highest expectations, are almost never offered the opportunity to read and master what’s truly considered great, and are rarely asked to push themselves and find that they are indeed capable of bringing great insight to even the most challenging situations.
Fortunately, as we’ll discuss later on, schools and teachers can take specific actions to address these challenges and also retain the benefits of our postcanonical world. Schools can, for example, establish an “internal canon”—a common base of books all students read for shared reference, and these books can be far more diverse and representative than was the canon of yore. Schools can set out to determine locally what books are “great” without being tied to the traditional canon, and thereby read with aspiration and ambition. They can make the planning and balancing of books a more explicit part of the conversation within the instructional staff so that reading what students or their teacher like is balanced with at least some cultural capital. We further discuss these ideas later in this chapter.
Module 1.2 Text Attributes and Leveling Systems
One of the first factors many teachers consider in choosing what to read is the text’s attributes—its sentence length and complexity, for example, or the difficulty of its vocabulary. These and other measures are often used to determine whether a text will be beneficial and accessible to students. They are usually applied via one of two systems, the Lexile framework or Fountas and Pinnell’s Guided Reading Levels.
Now firmly ensconced within the lingua franca of teachers, these systems are almost assured to increase in influence as the designers of the Common Core emphasize the importance of students’ reading harder texts, measured explicitly via Lexiles. Generally, the emphasis on harder texts is beneficial and the need for a simple, quantifiable tool understandable, but there’s a lot more to determining how difficult a text is than leveling.
The Giver: More Than the Sum of Its Lexiles
Consider Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Andrew Clements’s The School Story. Both score 760 according to the Lexile framework, so some teachers might view them as interchangeable. In fact, some would argue to let their students choose which to read—then they would read more happily and with greater engagement, right? But ask us—and many of the top teachers we’ve observed—and we would instantly choose The Giver. A brief digression into our reasoning may illustrate some of the reasons why text attributes alone are insufficient for making strong text choices.
The Giver is a dystopian novel, and reading it would give our students context when, later on, they read other examples of this important genre (Animal Farm, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange). Further, the true dystopian nature of the book’s society is only gradually revealed over the course of the book—things look pretty nice in “the Community” at first. This strategic manipulation of the reader’s knowledge makes it not only a great read but a useful read, providing students with tools for looking at how books and narration work—tools that they can apply time and again. In the future, they will know to ask, “Is this narrator holding back information from me? Is my perception being manipulated?” A book like The Giver brings that sort of issue to the fore.
In literature, conventions are the powerful but unstated ways that we come to expect stories to unfold. The Giver is important because it both challenges conventions and, in so doing, reveals them in a way that the more predictable School Story does not. For example, a convention in storytelling—not only in novels but also in memoir, movies, and so on—is that “problems” raised in the course of the narrative are resolved; at the end, a measure of “order” is restored; good is rewarded; bad is punished, defeated, or at least understood. Justice is served. The Giver‘s ending, however, is unresolved. What is it that Jonas sees in the distance in the final lines of the novel: the faint lights of a civilization that might represent salvation, or his last hunger-ravaged hallucinations before death? An ending that does not tidily restore order is rare, especially in children’s literature. Not only is it intellectually challenging, but it also allows students to begin discussing the nature of resolution in other texts. The Giver thus allows students to participate in discussions about storytelling—how it works and its relationship to society—more than other books.
Text selection, then, means looking at more than just the quantitative aspects of language—the attributes of a text distilled into a number. It means taking account of the importance of a text in other ways as it informs a student’s interactions with literature. Another way of thinking about this is that a book like The Giver builds students’ knowledge base about books and storytelling in a way that will be useful to them in understanding how texts work, throughout a lifetime of reading. That sort of knowledge is worth looking for explicitly, especially because there are only so many books students will read in school. Choices matter.
Lessons in Text Leveling
We should state that we didn’t start out skeptical of text attributes.
In fact, we were excited when the designers of the Common Core announced that they would use Lexile scores to assess the difficulty of text. To us this meant a drive toward both a higher standard and a clearer measure of what students should read. Our interest was more than theoretical: if we could infer what the expectation looked like at each grade level, we could make sure that students across Uncommon Schools were reading sufficiently demanding texts. We set out to generate useful data to help us shape decision making.
For starters, we took exemplar texts that Common Core recommended, and assessed their Lexile levels. This would tell us more about what the target Lexile level was for each grade. We could chart this and see the overall trend, then adjust the texts we read accordingly, choosing texts within the target range, dropping those that were too easy, and maybe even shooting to get above the target range as our students grew. When we graphed the result, we got a pretty clear “target range” (Figure 1.1). Now we could make sure we were asking our students to read texts that overall were sufficiently challenging.
We decided to go a step further and superimpose some of our core texts from across Uncommon Schools on the graph to see how we were measuring up. We chose books that our teachers most often read and valued highly. The findings were surprising (Figure 1.2).
It wasn’t just that so many of the books we thought of as rigorous did not appear to match the implied targets. We were prepared for that; we were comfortable saying that a certain book didn’t reach the targeted Lexile level but was still something students should read. What we struggled with was the perversity of some of the scores. The places where books fell when we graphed them didn’t seem in accord with our sense of what students really found difficult. This is best shown in the nearly equivalent Lexile scores given to Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders. They are, according to the graph, all but interchangeable. In terms of our students’ experiences reading them, however, they couldn’t be more different. One was among the most challenging books our seventh graders read, while the other was among the easiest. If you’re a middle school teacher, we almost assuredly don’t have to tell you which was which. (If you’re not, Lord of the Flies is several times more challenging than The Outsiders.)
Our next thought was to consult Fountas and Pinnell’s Guided Reading Levels (often referred to as F&P Levels); perhaps it would provide a rationalizing data point. It didn’t. F&P rates The Outsiders at Guided Reading level Z—the same as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Animal Farm, an argument that we, and our teachers, found even more far-fetched than equating it with Lord of the Flies.
Accountants, the old joke goes, would rather be precisely wrong than generally right. Leveling tools like Lexiles and F&P Levels would do them proud. Although they include useful information, their apparent precision belies the often more significant differences in difficulty that they don’t contemplate. Here are some examples of books that the two methods score as being roughly equivalent in difficulty.
|Books at or about Lexile 760||Books at or about F&P Guided Reading Level R|
|Title||Lexile||F&P Level||Title||F&P Level||Lexile|
|The People of Sparks||760||U||Circle of Gold||R||610|
|Tuck Everlasting||770||V||Pocahontas and the Strangers||R||370|
|Walk Two Moons||770||W||Sarah, Plain and Tall||R||560|
|Indian in the Cupboard||780||R||Brian’s Winter||R||1140|
Beyond discrepancies between leveling tools, these scales often contain discrepancies within themselves. We call these Perverse Pairings—instances where books are scored closely together when their difficulties are disparate, or when objectively difficult books are scored as easier than their actually easier counterparts. Here are some examples.
|Lexile Perverse Pairings||F&P Perverse Pairings|
|The Giver (760)||A Bear Called Paddington (750)||The Wind in the Willows (Q)||The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Q)|
|Where the Wild Things Are (740)||Tuck Everlasting (720)||Number the Stars (U)||A Christmas Carol (U)|
|Esperanza Rising (750)||Grapes of Wrath (680)||To Kill a Mockingbird (Z)||The Outsiders (Z)|
So if the two texts were so hugely different in difficulty, as our teachers knew, what were the features that made Lord of the Flies so much more difficult than The Outsiders? Could we, through reading specific text segments and analyzing why students struggled with them, identify what made a page from Lord of the Flies harder for students to read, and use that to better assess what made text complex?
We used analyses like these to try to discern what the real barriers to student understanding were—not just to state emphatically that a system that equated The Outsiders with Huck Finn or Lord of the Flies was missing something but to identify what those characteristics might be so that teachers could choose texts (and adapt their teaching) to address them. Our intention is that these additional measures of text complexity be used alongside existing quantitative measures like Lexiles and guided reading levels. And because we like a bit of august and epic-sounding prose, we decided to call these qualitative measures “plagues.” In the next module, we’ll tackle the Five Plagues of the Developing Reader, one by one.
Module 1.3 The Five Plagues of the Developing Reader
We describe here five unique challenges (the term plague being tongue-in-cheek) of complex texts. To paraphrase George Orwell, though, while all plagues are equal, some plagues are more equal than others. In other words, although developing readers should be prepared for each of the challenges, not all of those challenges require the same amount of time or attention or number of selections. Whereas some probably require specific book choices, others might be addressed by teaching books differently (highlighting archaic or nonlinear sections, for example) or choosing ancillary texts (short additional readings) to augment a main text.
Plague 1: Archaic Text
Authors wrote differently fifty, one hundred, and two hundred years ago. People spoke differently too. They used different words, in different sequences, within different syntactical structures.
Consider, for example, this text, written in 1859:
This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements; and I must trust to the reader reposing some confidence in my accuracy. No doubt errors will have crept in though I hope I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone. I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice. No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this.
You probably noticed that the author of the passage uses syntax and vocabulary that have passed out of common use. Table 1.1 lists some examples and some plausible modern equivalents that match the tone of the original.
Table 1.1 Modern Equivalents of Archaic Language
|The Language Used in the 1859 Text…||…Would Probably Be Something Like This Today|
|This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect.||The essay I am publishing is of course imperfect.|
|I must trust to the reader reposing some confidence in my accuracy.||I hope readers will have confidence in my accuracy.|
|I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone.||I have always been cautious in assuming the accuracy of any one source.|
|No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references.||I fully understand the importance of publishing all of the data as soon as possible.|
With each passing year, this text and dozens like it become a little less familiar to, a little more distant from, readers who have never experienced such dated forms of discourse. And no steady diet of twenty-first-century youth fiction will bring them any closer.
Why does that even matter? you might ask. There’s plenty to read that’s more recent and, frankly, more lively. Perhaps the source of this passage will help explain the importance. Did you recognize it? It’s from the introduction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and this is no trivial fact. It is one of the three or four most foundational texts in shaping ideas and discourse in contemporary society. It is a constant part of conversations about and conceptions of the world today.
The question, then, is: Who should be able to read it? Does it matter whether students graduate from our schools able to read Darwin comfortably, fluently, and not overwhelmed just figuring out what is being said at the most basic level? Similarly, does it matter who can read other aging but still foundational texts of our society: The Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of a Slave, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the works of Shakespeare? Do we wish for a future when only antiquarian specialists (perhaps the elite of the elite) read these texts and pass along their interpretations to the rest of society, as if from on high? These issues are critical in ensuring that schools prepare students for university and, more broadly, for their roles in society. How do you sustain democracy in a culture where the majority of its citizens can’t read its founding documents?
Reading archaic text, in short, is necessary to a full education, but it is unrealistic to think that students will do so without having practiced reading older texts in a steady, intentional, and, especially, incremental way. Fortunately, the goal of strategically exposing students to archaic text need not imply a third-grade reading of John Donne.
Recall our earlier reflection on the plight of a high school student who struggled to read Oliver Twist. One thing that might have helped that student succeed with Dickens would have been steady and incremental reading in texts that included simpler versions of some of the challenges of Dickens’s writing, a diet rich in books like C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, say. This engaging text, written to appeal to the imaginations of young readers, is more than sixty years old and uses formal and slightly dated diction and syntax in sentences—sentences that aren’t quite Dickensian, but are longer and more dated than those in most comparable books. The Magician’s Nephew is, in short, a starter kit for students who aspire to one day read Dickens.
Consider these lines, an exchange between Jadis, the White Witch, and Digory, the child protagonist of The Magician’s Nephew.
“You are no magician. The mark of it is not on you. You must be only the servant of a magician. It is on another’s Magic that you have travelled here.”
“It was my Uncle Andrew,” said Digory.
At the moment, not in the room itself but from somewhere very close, there came, first a rumbling, then a creaking, and then a roar of falling masonry, and the floor shook.
Like the lines from Darwin’s introduction, these lines contain archaic structures. We would write them differently today, even if, as Lewis was, we were trying to capture the tone of royalty in the queen’s voice.
Or consider this passage, about Polly, also a protagonist, in the same book:
Then she was given dinner with all the nice parts left out and sent to bed for two solid hours. It was a thing that happened to one quite often in those days.
The line uses the pronoun “one” instead of “you” or the noun “children.” This linguistic structure remains fairly common today in academic discourse. If one has seen it with some frequency before, one hardly notices it and leaps right over it in engaging a text. However, if the construction is foreign to a reader—and if it is embedded in a larger framework of linguistic structures, such as, say, the sort of complex sentence structure common to Victorian prose—a device like the impersonal pronoun one can disrupt one’s entire conception of a sentence, be it Lewis’s or the sentences in this very paragraph.
There may be a temptation, at first, to think of these differences as merely quaint. Some might even see them as a negative—will it keep students from enjoying the text if it sounds “funny”? In fact, this is how students are introduced to the language of the past. First, in reading The Magician’s Nephew they are alerted to the fact that people spoke differently then. Over time they begin to pick up some of its rhythm and quirks, but at an accessible scale and wrapped in a story that is engaging—it has endured in the hearts, minds, and bookcases of families for sixty or so years for a reason. Perhaps later they read something written fifty years before that. And so it goes. It is the first step in a process that gives students access over the long run to the texts of the past.
In this way, The Magician’s Nephew serves a useful function to reading teachers. It’s what we call a pre-complex text, a text that provides readers with practical experience with a simpler version of the ultimate challenges posed by complex texts. This prepares them to someday tackle books by the likes of Darwin and Dickens. In this case, our example addresses the issue of archaic language specifically, but as you will see, pre-complex texts can help prepare readers to be more familiar and comfortable with a variety of forms of complexity.