Push to ‘decenter’ reading and writing as focus of English language arts is misguided

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has decided it is time to “decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education,” as reported by Benjamin Hanson De Pretis in Salvo magazine.

The NCTE stated the shift is necessary given the “broadening of the communication landscape.”

We no longer live in a print-dominant, text-only world. We experience this reality daily in the GIFs and selfies we share with one another, the memes and videos we circulate through our social media feeds, the news broadcasts we watch on demand, the podcasts we binge, and the films, TV series, and live events we stream through the ever-growing list of digital platforms. Yet all these modalities involve some element of written language.

Expanding the curriculum isn’t the problem

NCTE’s analysis “isn’t wrong,” according to Hanson De Pretis. “The [NCTE] statement signifies a pragmatic pedagogical shift — if students are to be properly equipped for life in contemporary society, they will need to know how to navigate the complex mediated environment we’ve created.” This includes expanding curriculum to respond to an evolving media landscape.

The problem, though, lies with NCTE’s view of education, explains Hanson De Pretis.

“They believe the shift away from books will increase student engagement and make English language arts (ELA) more relevant to the world the students inhabit beyond school walls. This is a rationalistic, utilitarian line of thought, one that has been slowly eschewing the liberal arts in favor of the STEM fields.”

The power of reading literature

Sure, watching videos of the latest TikTok trends is engaging, but “[i]n a world of immediate outrage, high-decibel moralizing, and intolerance for opposing viewpoints,” now is not the time to “decenter” a medium that teaches students empathy, how to listen, and how to engage in legitimate civil discourse, continues Hanson De Pretis.

Students “need to learn how to listen to and understand opposing viewpoints and to express their own in a thoughtful, respectful manner. … How are we supposed to appropriately engage with an opposing viewpoint if we don’t even have the attention-span to allow it to be fully explained to us?”

When we read a winding narrative on a printed page, it requires sustained focus. Books are long and slow. Even a “quick read” requires more of a commitment than most films. If we’re to draw a message from it, we need to wade fully into it. Shortcuts only serve to cheapen the message. The only voice is the author’s, perhaps expressed through different characters and often through dialogue within the story, but the author will not be shouted down or banned from the book we’re already holding in our hands. We’re allowed to disagree with the author – we can even put the book down if we like – but if we’re to engage with it, the medium itself requires us to listen. Reading without being able to give instantaneous feedback is a form of listening, which forces us to consider arguments we may otherwise tune out. By learning how to listen before responding, we develop an empathetic mindset, creating a bridge of communication that allows for legitimately civil discourse.

More productive, but angrier and more depressed

The effects of technology are a mixed bag. On the one hand, “society is more productive,” writes Hanson De Pretis. But on the other, “it’s also angrier, more depressed, and less willing to engage in civil discourse than it was even fifteen years ago.”

So, while English language arts curriculum can and should include broader media education, we must not shift focus away from a needed “alternative to the constant noise and distraction of the digital age if we are to learn how to understand and empathize with each other,” concludes Hanson De Pretis.