It Is Time To Update Our High School Reading Lists

Posted on December 30, 2010
by FeliciaOctocog

Have you ever tried to read a book in a language other than your native language?  In college, after 6 years of middle and high school French and having spent a summer in France, I decided I would take a 20th century French Literature course — in French, of course. We read such easy page-turners as Madame Bovary (Flaubert), Man’s Fate (Camus), No Exit (Sartre) – you get the picture. It was painful.  Armed with a French-English dictionary, it took me forever to navigate one page of text and at the end I had no idea what I read.  These books represent the best of the best in French Literature, required reading for students in France. However, for a foreign language student in the U.S. this experience killed any desire I had to read anything more in French. This was a college elective, so it was my fault for taking it in the first place but I only mention it to elucidate the point that reading in a foreign language is daunting and reading literature with so much advanced vocabulary and abstract thought, makes reading an almost impossible chore.  So let’s take a look at 9th grade English through the eyes of an English Language Learner (ELL).

Many of Salem CyberSpace’s students in ESL 2 and 3 classes are placed into mainstream English (same course as native English speakers) in addition to their ESL class giving them a needed double dose of English.  Being in a class with native English speakers is a great idea and I believe it advances the students understanding of English by forcing them to participate in a higher level discourse in this new language. However, I am sure it would not surprise you that most of my students failed or received a “D” in this course because of the content material used in the course.  For the month leading up to winter break, our students were plowing through the Odyssey. Needless to say, this was a difficult task given that it is (1) a poem, (2) uses difficult vocabulary and (3) has so many mythical and historical references that our ELL students have never studied. I have to ask myself – should students with only 2 or 3 years of English be reading the Odyssey?  The Massachusetts Education Frameworks require that 9th or 10th grade students “analyze the characters, structure, and themes of classical Greek drama and epic poetry”. Arguably the Odyssey is the most interesting and approachable Greek epic poem.  I have also been impressed with the help the teachers have provided the ELL students, as well as the use of the movie to help explain what is going on.  However, I would argue that the frameworks need to change in order to encourage more of our students to become lifelong readers in the English Language.  Couldn’t they be given something a bit easier, relevant, interesting to read?

Reading is by far the best way to build vocabulary, language proficiency and abstract thinking skills and we got to get our ELL students reading and discussing in English.  External and individual reading assignments are not great for ESL students as students cannot benefit from in-class discussions of the books, language, literary elements and themes.

Some suggestions might be Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Barbara Kingsolver (Bean Trees), and others.

I would encourage the schools to consider a contemporary English course for 9th grade and wait until 10th grade to meet the Greek Epic Poetry and Shakespeare requirements. I believe this would help both ELL and native English speakers learn to enjoy reading. Massachusetts will be moving to a Common Core Curriculum Frameworks which was agreed to as part of the Race To The Top grant. After a cursory reading of the Language Arts framework, I do not see the requirement to read a Greek epic poem so let’s hope English departments will take an opportunity to review its reading lists that will have a better chance of developing a new generation of lifelong readers.

Common Core Curriculum Frameworks can be found at