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.

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