Friday, March 1, 2013

It's Worse Than I Thought

I thought, at one time, that they were lazy, maybe stupid.  They didn't know what was in the reading because they didn't read.  They didn't know what was on the test because they didn't listen.  It was simple, almost moral: they failed because they didn't do the work.

Today, though, I had them read an essay.  In class.  Aloud to me.  After each paragraph, I stopped them and asked them to paraphrase.

Student:  "He's arguing that gerbils are hamsters."
Me:  "Where do you see that?"
Student:  "'Although some people are inclined to the foolish and idiotic opinion that gerbils are hamsters, we know from overwhelming evidence that this is not the case.'"
Me:  "Why does he call it foolish if he thinks that?"
Student:  "I don't know.  He just does."
Me:  "Okay, what's he assuming in this passage?"
Student:  "That black people can't raise gerbils effectively.  He's racist."
Me:  "Where does he say that?"
Student:  "'Of course, there is no correlation between race and effective rodent cultivation.'"
Me:  "That's kind of the opposite of what you just said he said."
Student:  "I feel that he's racist."
Me:  "I feel a headache.  Moving on . . . "

Here's the thing I realized.  They sound out words, sure, and read the sight-words with great ease.  But they don't know what they mean.  They don't know "rodentia," sure (and won't look it up, even if you stare at them and say "do you know what that word means?  No.  Look it up."  They still won't look it up), but they also don't know "but" or "so" or "therefore," and that means they.  cannot.  read.

My students aren't lazy.  They're illiterate.

Thank you, NCLB!


  1. My kids couldn't understand what they read either. Unfortunately for your 18+ year old students, my kids were six that happened.

  2. This is nothing new though... It started long before NCLB, although NCLB did sort of make it the status quo.

    We're doomed.


  3. I noticed this too, and I teach mathematics! Seriously....about 15 years ago or so, when I gave an applications problem, the students who couldn't read the problem couldn't do the math either.

    Now, even the students who can do the mathematical calculation cannot read well enough to understand the question.

  4. Let's have them all take the TOEFL. Think they would pass?

  5. They probably wouldn't pass, Peter. My husband teaches Senior English--he feels the same pains we do. Any time he has a foreign exchange student, that student is almost always his top English student.

    1. I hear that, Annie. I feel like I'm shielded from this misery precisely because I have classes full of non-native English speakers. It's a good incentive to hole up here for a while longer...

    2. I hate to say that I find the exact opposite. One of my classes has a large international student component, and English proficiency is a major problem for many of them. Despite the fact that they all passed the TOEFL, I've watched them literally. use. their. translation. dictionaries. to. word. by. word. translate. what. they. are. reading. back. into. their. native. language. in. order. to. read. the. text. book.

      I have limited faith in the TOEFL.

      This is on top of having the same problem Chiltepin described, with (some of) my English language students.


    3. It seems to depend on where they come from. I've had a few Scandinavian exchange students (at home and in my classes), and their command of English was basically at native-speaker level. (In math, they could run circles around their local peers.) With other countries, it's a mixed bag.

      What prompted the comment was: here we are requiring our foreign students to pass the TOEFL (which includes a reading comprehension component), when it is not entirely clear our local undergraduates can read and understand TOEFL-level passages. I think the ability to read and understand a college-level text should be an admission requirement for all students. (And I believe the SAT/ACT do test for that in some form, but maybe not rigorously enough.)

    4. Even if it is rigorous enough, Peter, there is no continuity in their furry little brains. They view each class and each exam as a stand-alone, and rare is the student who transfers learning or requirements from one situation to another.

    5. Annie, you're absolutely right, and this is a serious problem for math, which has a tight structure that makes moving forward impossible if you haven't mastered (in the sense of "internalizing") the contents of prerequisite courses. This is incompatible with regarding each course as an independent unit (to be forgotten shortly after the final), and it also doesn't help that, for one reason or another, often critical material in a prerequisite course "wasn't covered" (or so they tell me.)

      I think universities are also at fault here, in that we expect the kids to have "exposure" to subjects they have no interest in, by overburdening them with "distribution requirements". We should insist on writing and (maybe) basic quantitative skills, and for the rest let them concentrate on learning the basics of whatever profession they decide they want to be active in. You can't build "well-rounded citizens" by fiat; what happens instead is that we foster an attitude that regards all, or most courses as "just another requirement to get out of the way".

    6. Hi Peter, my point about TOEFL is simply that many people who pass it simply can't read English anyway, so it's probably not the best test. I completely agree with your point that we should expect native english speakers to pass the same level of proficiency as we expect of second language speakers.

      It'll probably never happen. We brought a proposal to our Dean a while back that we should give a writing test to incoming freshmen and steer them to the appropriate level writing class. The idea was a non-starter simply because the idea of an entrance test would kill attempts at student recruitment (cf Advice from Beaker Ben).

      And I love your idea that we can't build well rounded citizens by fiat. You can lead an ass to wisdom, but you can't make him think. Maybe if we could instill an ability to reason well in words and numbers, they might develop the desire to become better rounded..

      What? A man can dream, can't he?

  6. Unwillingness to look up words one doesn't know is lazy, especially since one doesn't even need a dictionary for that anymore. One can use the smartphone that one won't turn off, since the shallow social interaction one can't stop using it for is so very, very important. But do I agree that we are sexually intercoursed, up the ass, with a cattle prod. Perhaps genetic engineering will come to the rescue? I can't say I much like the sound of that.

  7. I have international students who are fluent in English and others who are barely literate. I really can not generalize about them except to say that, not surprisingly, colloquialisms can confuse any non-native speaker.

    And I have to use a cattle prod to get any but the most dedicated student to read anything longer than one page.

    1. My concern is that NATIVE speakers are unable to recognize colloquialisms, idioms, and anything beyond informal slang speech.

      My foreign English Language Learners are usually better students (not necessarily better at English), but my ELLs from the US (Gen 1.5-ers, for example) are not. This means the foreign students often end up excelling because they have good study and learning habits, whereas the others don't.

  8. I realized a few years ago that my students have an almost magical ability to identify the correct sentence or phrase in the textbook to answer the question, but they have absolutely no clue what the sentence or phrase actually means. It's uncanny and they had me fooled for a while. I blame DBQs and multiple choice exams. It's no wonder they plagiarize so much and Don't even realize it's wrong. They Don't know how to have their own thoughts.

  9. One thing I've been doing as a warmup is to ask the class for a definition or theorem (say, continuity) that was the main point of the previous class. Not symbolically, just stating (verbally) precisely what it means. There are two or three levels of response:

    There are the people who have no clue, and start looking frantically in the text, or their notes. Then there are those who remember the general symbolic structure of the definition (or statement), and try to paraphrase it into words, often with "for all" and "there exists" in the wrong order, revealing they have no idea what it actually means; it's just Greek letters to them.

    The third group is interesting: they remember and understand the definition correctly, and would be able to write it down symbolically and use it. But when asked to turn it into words, they can never do it as a complete, grammatically correct English sentence; it is all by fits and starts (and I do give them a few minutes to think about it). You see it in their homework and tests, too: it is rare to see a proof written down as a structured series of complete sentences with good syntax; I have to settle for "okay, he/she seems to have the right idea". It is just too hard for them. Maybe, for some in the third group, at some point it "clicks", and they start writing normally. Maybe.

    1. In any case, it's horseshit of the highest grade that COLLEGE students stumblebum around math classes like that....I always wanted the NCLB creators in Siberia, cutting down birch trees in the secret camps full of North Koreans, making raw wood for IKEA (which was founded by a Swedish Nazi, Ingvar Kamprad, but I digress) and having all their pay given over to the North Korean government (North Korean camp workers are paid, but it is "taxed" by the DPRK.)

    2. Things are different indeed in Mother Russia. Let me give you a quote from Masha Gessen's Perfect Rigor , about the geometer Gregoriy Perelman:

      “At [math summer] camp following his first year [as a student at Leningrad University], [Grisha] Perelman served as an instructor to a remarkable group of mathematicians two years younger than he… Every morning Perelman gave them a set of twenty problems—roughly double the club’s usual semi-weekly dose. The problems were extremely difficult, and the level of difficulty was increased with little regard for the students’ actual abilities and achievements. The general concept was always that the carrot should be hanging just barely above the level to which the rabbit could jump. But Grisha believed that the rabbit should always be jumping higher and higher. A student who failed to solve at least half of the problems by midday was told he or she could not have lunch.”

  10. Often, in a lit class, I'll assign a reading that would take 20 minutes, tops. Instead, if there's a movie option, the students will spend 2 hours watching the movie rather than simply reading the story. Then they get it wrong anyway...

    1. That's because it doesn't take them 20 minutes to read a 20-minute story. It takes them 3 hours.

      My son, who is doing quite well in college, thank you, has allowed his reading skill to atrophy to the point where it's hard work for him to read college-level material. He gets it done anyhow, but I often wish I'd not permitted him to buy that x-box.

  11. Prof. Chiltepin nails it when he (?she?) notes that The Little Dears can't understand sentences that start with subordinate clauses or include contrasting ideas. That is a writing skill that can be taught, and when students are drilled in it, their reading comprehension zooms skyward. One example is from a high school on Staten Island, NY.

    "Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. . . . A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. . . . 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 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.' "


    The school adopted an old-fashioned, formulaic approach that taught parts of speech and required students to write complex sentences and paragraphs in every subject, including (for example) chemistry. As their writing improved, so did the students' reading comprehension and overall performance.

    I've been wondering whether it's too late or too little for me to incorporate some of that approach in my Intro to Hamsters class.

    1. I seem to have this argument over and over and over again: If they do not function at the sentence level, they are not going to write good paragraphs and papers. I don't care how fucking awesome their ideas are. If they cannot articulate them properly, they're no good to anyone.

      Thank you for the link, Proffie. I'm taking it to the next department meeting.

    2. Thank you, but "diagramming sentences is a waste of time," per the chairman of our English department.

  12. "The school adopted an old-fashioned, formulaic approach that taught parts of speech and required students to write complex sentences and paragraphs in every subject, including (for example) chemistry. As their writing improved, so did the students' reading comprehension and overall performance."

    There is the solution! Stop teaching "Language Arts", and stop calling the Library the "Media Center." Scrap No Child Left Behind, and teach them that in nature the slow and weak (in this case, mentally) are left behind to be eaten by the predators. Stop teaching them that they are the center of the universe, which I'm sure Froderick struggles with every semester. Stop teaching them that all they have to do is "try really hard."

    Yoda was right. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.

    1. What's particularly annoying is that whenever I tell them that the Universe has no center, they never get it.

      (The Universe has no center because of its expansion. It isn't an explosion of matter into space, but an expansion of space itself. To observers anywhere in the Universe, it will therefore look like they're in the center, since all the other galaxies are on the average moving away from them.)

      And at that point, Master Yoda draws his lightsaber and starts severing heads...

    2. Here is the easy way to make that point: tell them to imagine a 2 dimensional universe on a surface of a balloon and put some dots on the balloon. Let one of the dots represent our galaxy. Then blow the balloon up and ask them where the "center" of the 2 dimensional surface is.

    3. I show them the balloon demo in class, with an Edmund Scientific 6-foot weather balloon onto which I have drawn galaxies with a thick, red felt-tip marker. The balloon is fitted to the hose of a Shop-Vac, set on blow. In the background is a slide showing three stills of the abloom expanding, next to the famous photo of Einstein looking through the eyepiece of a telescope, with Edwin Hubble in back of with (and Walter Adams cropped out). They still don't get it.

    4. (facepalm). Too many are incapable of abstract thinking.

  13. Remember when you read Paradise Lost, or Moby Dick, or Calculus by Michael Spivak? Remember how it felt like a terrible struggle, line by line, with doubts in your mind about who would win, the book or you?

    Remember when you finished them, how it felt so good, like you'd climbed a tall mountain? That feeling is totally alien to a generation brought up on bland, canned readings written just for them, seldom more than a page long, followed by worksheets to test "comprehension." That any reading, or any learning or any thinking, under any circumstances, could be enjoyable or fulfilling or worthwhile except for immediately utilitarian purposes is incomprehensible to our students today.

    If NCLB's real purpose was to produce a generation of sheep, just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough not to be able to figure out how much they're being screwed over, it was a resounding success.

    1. I remember that with both Moby Dick and Paradise Lost. And then, struggling along, sometimes line by line, there'd be this breakthrough and suddenly it'd become perfectly clear. Not only clear, but sublime, in the original sense of the word. I remember being absolutely struck dumb by this passage, for instance:

      He spake; and, to confirm his words, outflew
      Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
      Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze
      Far round illumined Hell. Highly they raged
      Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arms
      Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,
      Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heaven.

      That's the thing that gets me. I really want them to experience that sensation, because it's literally awesome. And they can't. They're locked out of it.

      But it also occurs to me that I read both Milton and Moby Dick in graduate school, not in undergrad.

    2. I know the feeling well. My university is in a dry part of the country, where we get over 300 clear nights per year. We have some land in the mountains, about half an hour drive from campus, shielded by the foothills by the lights of the city. I take my students up there 2-3 times per semester.

      Unlike in the city, the Milky Way is easily visible. It stretches from horizon to horizon, and looks like the shore of a great ocean, because that's what it is.

      My students' senses have been so dulled by chronic overstimulation that I can be pointing right at it, and many of them just don't see it. I don't think it's so much that their eyes can't see it: it's that their minds simply can't comprehend it. Perhaps I'd get more of a rise out of them if I told them it really is milk from the breast of Hera...


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