Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.
The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:
“Although George …”
She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.
Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”
A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”
Some teachers wanted to know how this could happen. “We spent a lot of time wondering how our students had been taught,” said English teacher Stevie D’Arbanville. “How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?”
On reading this, I wondered, "What are these students hearing at home, and have they ever encountered this kind of language from people other than teachers (if even from them)?"
Over dinner, I tried the "although" experiment with my three older ones, using prompts from our current read-aloud, Little Women.
Eleanor, 10: Although Amy loved to draw, she didn't know how to sculpt.
Julia, 9: Although Jo liked Teddy, she didn't want to marry him. Although Meg loved her children, her children were sometimes bad.
Isabel, 6, in a silly mood: Although Beth was a baby, she never cried in her life.
Bonus, from Jack, 4: Although Teddy didn't want to marry Beth, he kissed her on the lips.
It seems to me that regardless of what is being taught in school, young children will absorb the language they hear at home. Darwin and I do tend to speak in grammatically accurate and complex sentences, but we also have a natural human tendency to simplify our speech for everyday use. That is why reading aloud has pride of place in our homeschooling paradigm: besides being a fine method of packing lots of literature into little heads, it's a wonderful format for presenting more formal structures of speech and complex arrangements of ideas in an enjoyable and memorable way. I've also found that having the children recount the plots of novels we've read over extended periods aids in retention and comprehension. Reading aloud also introduces children to a richer world of thought than their limited reading comprehension allows them to access on their own, as well as preparing them to read these books one day.
No small part of successful reading aloud, however, is having a good reader to interpret the works, to use inflection and emphasis to set off grammatical clauses, and to make clear what can be obscure on the page. Most people are capable of reading aloud at the level of speaking what is written, but anyone who has listened to a trained and experienced reader knows the wealth of nuance and detail they can bring to a work, whereas anyone who's ever had to listen to poor reading knows that even the finest words can be made tedious by someone who either doesn't understand what they're reading or is unable to present those words well.
Reading aloud is something particularly dear to my heart, not only because I like reading in general and because it's essential to our homeschooling, but because it is how I use, every day, my liberal arts studies and my degree.
I've followed the recent chat about the economic value of a college education, and of studying the liberal arts, with mild curiosity but little desire to engage in the discussion. This is in part because it's not a topic on which I have much angst. My degree, as long-term readers will know, in in theater -- English with a drama concentration, to be precise, since Drama did not become a major proper until after my time at Steubenville. Never at any time, in my short theatrical career, did I make more than minimum wage on any show I teched. Speaking at a personal financial level, my life choices make it unlike that I will ever make enough money using the skills I gained through my drama studies to recoup my investment. However, by the most utilitarian calculations, studying the liberal arts at college was an economic boost for me because it placed me in Darwin's path and helped make me attractive to him, and he makes more than twice what I would likely make on my own, even had I been working these past ten years. Yes, I incurred debt -- I had some aid, but my parents could afford to pay scarcely any of my tuition or expenses -- but we've always been able to make the payments, and we're on track to pay it off next year. So, college was a path to my own economic success, even though I'm outside the workforce.
Some people have objected that really, education is wasted on 18- and 19-year-olds because they simply don't have the commitment to study or the drive to better themselves that comes with age. I don't agree. I was no great shakes at acting when I was in college, despite studying it rather intensively. Although I could easily pick up the history of theater and the theory and structure of directing, I didn't have at that time the physical confidence to be comfortable on stage, and I spent a lot of time wondering what on earth my professor meant when he enthused about "changing the other" or "vulnerability". But I've had eleven years since graduating to internalize what I learned and to apply each realization ("Oh, now I get it!") to honing my own craft, which happens to be educating my children through reading aloud.
And with years of practice, I am a good reader. I love acting out different roles, coming up with unique voices for the characters, and using tactics and intentions to convey motivation and subtext (and how much easier is reading a book, which often lets you on what the characters are thinking and doing, than a script in which you have to interpret everything for yourself!). I love interpreting the grammatical structure of convoluted sentences. I love the technical challenge of making narration flow, of following the cadence of the author's voice, of reading clearly, smoothly, and distinctly without being ponderous or treacly. I love using my education to pick up on historical, cultural, religious, philosophic, and scientific references in what I'm reading, and then explaining those to the children. And what a wealth there is to be discovered in Dickens, Alcott, Augustine, Homer, St. Therese, and Shakespeare even before one is old enough to read them to oneself!
I love listening to other people's reading, analyzing what is good in their style to apply to my own, and taking their flaws as reminders of what I still need to work on in my own reading. I love watching my children absorbed in a story and to know that they enjoy and understand what they hear. I love to hear them recount, sometimes word for word, what I've read. Most of all, I love to hear them reading aloud clearly and comfortably because they're following my model.
And that's what I'm doing with my economically impractical, financially unfeasible college education: reading aloud to my children.