How Important is the Study of Literature in High School?

I have a confession to make. I can only remember reading two pieces of literature during my high school years: The Scarlet Letter, and War and Peace. My fellow students and I did not read Shakespeare or Keats. We did not study Tennessee Williams or F. Scott Fitzgerald. We did not debate the ethical implications of Lord of the Flies. No, in my high school English program we learned to write – well.

As an English teacher, I’m all for the study of literature; it contributes to a well-rounded education. My concern is that the emphasis on literature instruction is seriously encroaching upon consistent writing instruction in today’s schools. The outcome of this shift in emphasis is that many secondary students are not learning how to write well.

I saw this trend while studying for my master’s degree in secondary education. I spent more than one hundred hours observing in classrooms and interviewing teachers from various schools and districts, both public and private. Every school in I visited was using a literature-based Language Arts curriculum. Teachers I interviewed admitted that they spent very little, if any, time on such mundane subjects as grammar, word economy or sentence structure.

This failure to emphasize the writing process in secondary schools seems counter-productive. In the public school system, teachers continually talk about “teaching to the test.” They are referring to the state-mandated basic skills test students must pass order to graduate from high school.

These tests ask students to demonstrate knowledge of writing mechanics, grammar, form and punctuation. Many also request demonstration of a student’s ability to write a five-paragraph essay. These tests, however, do not require demonstration of the knowledge of literature.

I began to ask students what knowledge they had to demonstrate on other tests they took, such as the SAT, ACT, AP, Compass and so forth. Only the Literature AP test asks literature questions, and a very small handful of students take it.

This begs a question. If schools are compelled to teach to the test, and if the tests do not require knowledge of classic literature, why are schools making literature the centerpiece of the language arts curriculum?

If preparing students for standardized tests were the only objective in teaching, the literature conundrum would not be terribly dire. But, a curriculum heavily weighted with literature does not prepare our students for success in a career, either.

Recently my husband was engaged in the job search process. I sometimes reviewed job posting with him. The vast majority of job listings listed excellent writing skills as a requirement for employment. It would border on facetiousness to point out that no job descriptions listed knowledge of literature as a prerequisite to getting hired.

It is true that many schools have adopted a writing program that teaches the structure of a five-paragraph essay. The upside of these writing programs is that they tackle the arch-nemesis of the writing process: organization of material. Teaching students how to create a thesis statement and three main points is indispensable training.

The down side of these programs is that they do not teach students to write multi-page essays, letters, commentaries, dialog and all the writing forms that will be required of them in college and in the work place. Nor do these programs teach the basics of grammar, spelling, writing mechanics, sentence structure, style and form – the basics that will be on every standardized test.

Writing is a complex, multi-step operation. Few people can learn the process unless they receive intentional instruction in every facet. That instruction must begin in kindergarten and continue through high school. We owe it to our children to bring the emphasis back to the art of writing. The literature can wait.