Reading Period

When I was a student at Cambridge University, I was told that term time was for attending lectures and socializing, at Oxford and Cambridge, and vacation time was for reading lots of books (a reading period). When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, (this is my 50th reunion year), we were given a formal Reading Period before exams, to help us catch up on semester reading assignments and prepare for finals.
If we would like to expect high school teachers of English and History to work with their students on the sort of serious research paper from which they will learn a lot on their own, and which will prepare them for college term papers, we have to give teachers a Reading Period, too, but we don’t, so many don’t assign such papers, and the majority of our public high school students now go on to college unprepared for college writing and panicked when their first assignments come down.
Laura Arandes, when she was a Freshman at Harvard, was shocked at the newacademic writing expectations, because at her public high school in Southern California she had never been asked to write more than a five-paragraph essay. She wrote me that:

I thought a required freshman writing course was meant to introduce us to college paper-writing. To ease us into the more rigorous scholastic environment we had so recently entered. In reality, the course was a refresher for most of the other students in the class. At a high-level academic institution, too many of the students come from private schools that have realized that it would be an academic failure on their parts to send their students to college without experience with longer papers, research environments, exposure to non-fiction literature, and knowledge of bibliographic techniques. And they’re right. It is a failure, one being perpetrated by too many public high schools across the nation.
It took me two years to gain a working knowledge of paper-writing, to get to a point where I was constructing arguments and using evidence to support them. I read pamphlets and books on the mechanics of writing college papers, but the reality is simple: you only learn how to write papers by WRITING them. So here I am, about to graduate, with a GPA much lower than it should be and no real way to explain to graduate schools and recruiting companies that I spent my first semesters just scraping by. And the amount of determination, energy and devotion it took to scrape by isn’t easily quantified and demonstrable.

A survey of college professors done a couple of years ago by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that 90% of them thought the students they were seeing were not very well prepared in reading, doing research, and writing.
The Diploma to Nowhere report from 2008 found that more than one million of our high school graduates, with diploma and college acceptances in hand, are put into remedial courses when they arrive at college. The California State College people reported at a conference in Philadelphia last fall that 47% of their Freshman were in remedial writing courses. I asked the Director of Composition at Stanford if they had any remedial writing courses, and she told me that, no, all Freshman had to take a composition course.
So, what is the matter with all those public high school English and History teachers, that they are not preparing our graduates for college writing tasks? Many public high school teachers have five classes of thirty students each. With 150 students, if the teacher assigns a 20-page paper, she/he will have 3,000 pages of student research and writing to read, consider and correct when they come in. If she/he takes an hour on each paper, that would require 150 hours, or 30 days at five hours a day.
Even teachers who do a lot of their preparation and correcting after regular school hours, at night and on the weekends, do not have 150 hours to go over research papers. As a result, they do not assign them, students do not learn how to do the reading and writing required, and colleges (and students) complain when students arrive unprepared.
A sensible solution, it seems to me, would be to provide a Reading Period of perhaps eight school days for History and English teachers to do the necessary work to prepare their students for serious academic papers. This will seem excessive and unmanageable to administrators, but not, perhaps, if they consider the extra time already allotted in our public high schools for other things, like band practice, layup drills for basketball, yearbook, concerts, football and baseball practice, and on and on and on, when it comes to non-academic purposes.
If we do give the necessary time for teachers of English and History to work with their students on research papers, and to evaluate their work, I believe our students will learn how to read complete nonfiction books and to write serious term papers, but if we continue to expect the impossible of our teachers, they will continue to ask less academically of their students than they can do, and students will continue to suffer the consequences.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
Consortium for Varsity Academics® [2007]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

2 thoughts on “Reading Period”

  1. In order to become a good writer one must:
    1) read a lot;
    2) write a lot;
    3) get regular feedback from good writers.
    When BOE member Ed Hughes surveyed MMSD graduates about their experiences in our high schools, the West alumni who responded gave their very highest ratings to the preparation they had received in writing papers. They spoke glowingly of specific writing-intensive English courses and praised specific English teachers for helping them become good writers. As a result of the instruction and feedback they received on papers they wrote while at West, these students reported, they were more than capable of meeting the writing demands of college.
    Until it was dismantled by the school administration in 2008, the West Writing Lab was at the heart of the West English Department and its rigorous writing program. For almost 30 years (the Writing Lab was started in 1979), West students could take any piece of writing they were working on — for any course and for any purpose — to the Writing Lab for help. Log books show that Writing Lab staff handled 700 to 900 writing consultations each year, and from a wide range of West students.
    Importantly, the West Writing Lab was staffed by members of the English faculty, typically the ones who were teaching the writing-intensive courses. They used “down” time in the Lab for grading student papers. This arrangement was both thoughtful and deliberate in its acknowledgment of the fact that it takes a lot of time for a teacher to read and provide genuinely helpful written feedback to students on their English papers. Everyone understood that it was in this interaction between student and teacher that the real learning about good writing happened.
    The West Writing Lab is no longer staffed by current West English teachers. This means that the teachers of West’s writing-intensive courses — the ones with all those papers they’d like to grade with thoroughness and thought — no longer have time built into their job for doing the work that has meant so much to West students over the years. I fully imagine that fewer papers are now being assigned and fewer rewrites are being allowed. That means there are fewer opportunities for students to receive and incorporate teacher feedback. And that means there is less practice and less learning about good writing going on.
    It will be interesting to see what future West alumni say about their writing preparation for college.

  2. The question Will’s post raises in my mind is this: if public school teachers don’t have the time to give challenging writing assignments, provide thoughtful feedback, and require polished final versions, how do teachers in private schools manage it? Many private school teachers handle similar numbers of students to those taught by public school teachers. I’m just say’n …

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