Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

Category Archives: Reading


An older version of Grand Theft Auto

In the previous post, I asked you to reply in the comments with your favorite words and phrases. This post will be a bit more negative, because we are considering the language that we hate—examples of logomisia, if you will. Like linguaphilia, logomisia is created from two roots: logos, Greek for “word,” and misia, Greek for “hatred” or “disgust for.” After reading Orwell, Nunberg, and Wallace, you should have a sense of the way language mutates, shifts, and sometimes declines; now it’s your turn to chime in, although the chime might be more of a clarion (or perhaps the bell that this guy is ringing). After the jump, a few ways to situate yourself before replying.

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Love of language…

Congratulations. You made it.

Of course, our work doesn’t end after the exam. It’s time for a different kind of study of language to take center stage. (Or as the first of Orwell’s rules might have me rewrite that, it’s time for language to enter the scene and chew a little scenery.) We start with linguaphilia, a word formed from the Latin lingua,”tongue” or “language,” and phila, “dear” or “beloved.”  It means a love of language, of words and phrases, of how we strings together letters and sounds to make meaning—and it is the subject of your next unit of study. Our essential questions:

  • Is the English language truly in decline?
  • Do semantic debates matter?
  • How do Internet-driven shifts in communication, such as texting and LOLspeak, affect us?

Let’s get into the background reading. I’ve already given you in this post the first (and arguably most influential) modern treatment of it: George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Spend a little time with this, and it will inevitably shape how you scavenge the texts around you for words and phrases. You’ve also read Geoffrey Nunberg’s “The Decline of Grammar,” a lengthier argument from 1983 that explores the same issues—it was one of the passages on the 2001 multiple-choice practice exam. After the jump, you’ll find a regular plethora (as opposed to an irregular plethora? I just like the assonance of the phrase) of links to more perspectives, plus your assignment.

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How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading

The following essay is by an educator named John Holt. Learn more about him here. As a continuation of our discussion of reading in general, study this argument, and then share your reactions in the comments section. If you would like to see what my tenth graders had to say about this article, you can look here.

How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading | John Holt

When I was teaching English at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, I used to ask my students the kinds of questions that English teachers usually ask about reading assignments—questions designed to bring out the points that I had decided they should know. They, on their part, would try to get me to give them hints and clues as to what I wanted. It was a game of wits. I never gave my students an opportunity to say what they really thought about a book.

I gave vocabulary drills and quizzes too. I told my students that every time they came upon a word in their book they did not understand, they were to look it up in the dictionary. I even devised special kinds of vocabulary tests, allowing them to use their books to see how the words were used. But looking back, I realize that these tests, along with many of my methods, were foolish.

My sister was the first person who made me question my conventional ideas about teaching English. She had a son in the seventh grade in a fairly good public school. His teacher had asked the class to read Cooper’s The Deerslayer. The choice was bad enough in itself; whether looking at man or nature, Cooper was superficial, inaccurate and sentimental, and his writing is ponderous and ornate. But to make matters worse, this teacher had decided to give the book the microscope and x-ray treatment. He made the students look up and memorize not only the definitions but the derivations of every big word that came along—and there were plenty. Every chapter was followed by close questioning and testing to make sure the students “understood” everything.

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Your Reading Life

When we talk about reading in an English classroom, we’re usually talking about one subset of one mode of discourse: fictional narratives in novel form. This is a limited view of reading—important, of course, but also limited. You read far more in your daily life than novels like 1984 or Of Mice and Men. You read Facebook feeds, Twitter feeds, emails, newspapers, magazines, textbooks, text messages, advertisements, and handouts, to name only part of the total list. So we ought to start the discussion with a broad question:

What does your reading life look like?

Answer this in your compendium or Google Drive, and then, as we discuss your thoughts in class, transfer the conversation into the comments section of this post. To begin, it might help to have a sort of metaphor—in this case, that your reading habits are a kind of diet. There are as many types of texts out there as there are types of food, and as many approaches to reading as to eating. Some people believe you need a balance to be healthy; others promote one particular focus over others. This isn’t to suggest that the novels you’re assigned in English class are healthy, while Twitter and text messages are junk food, however. It’s simply to point out that you are consuming text constantly and in many, many different forms, and that there as many fads in reading instruction as there are in dieting. basic definition of reading is the act of processing letters and words to construct meaning. You can read more about the process here, and I’d pay careful attention to the following concept (paraphrased from that article):

Rates of reading include reading for memorization (fewer than 100 words per minute [wpm]); reading for learning (100–200 wpm); reading for comprehension (200–400 wpm); and skimming (400–700 wpm). Reading for comprehension is the essence of the daily reading of most people. Skimming is for superficially processing large quantities of text at a low level of comprehension (below 50%).  The average wpm at age 14-15 when reading for learning is 150 wpm.

The spectrum between skimming (e.g., when you read Wikipedia for two hours, then forget everything you read) and reading to memorize (e.g., when you study for a test in a history class) is important to this discussion. You need a sense of how quickly you consume information, what you do with that information, and how long it stays with you. It might help to know that 150 words look like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Sed vitae libero a felis condimentum bibendum id aliquet tortor. Donec vitae tortor a massa scelerisque ornare quis in nibh. Aliquam ornare lacinia cursus. Sed id enim sit amet tellus faucibus commodo ac nec augue. Aenean eget nulla nisi, ac suscipit leo. Nulla a vestibulum ligula. In sit amet nibh dui, vitae elementum dolor. Duis varius dapibus mauris vel dictum. Donec lobortis velit a lectus convallis quis blandit felis aliquet. Sed mollis placerat semper. Nunc ut massa eu dui iaculis eleifend pellentesque non ipsum. Fusce tellus urna, tincidunt nec mollis ac, blandit pretium ante. Ut imperdiet tellus sed lacus convallis et adipiscing urna porta. Etiam sagittis varius sapien, sed pharetra nibh pulvinar nec. Curabitur ornare ornare quam eu auctor. Vivamus quis ante vel dolor suscipit blandit. Ut gravida tempor porttitor. Nunc nec velit magna, in auctor orci. Curabitur ultrices, ipsum eget dignissim.

That’s longer than most text messages and Facebook updates, and it would take seven tweets to post it. How does it compare to the average email you read? The average article on a website? The average textbook chapter? You read all of those things regularly—websites, textbooks, text messages—and it’s time to start thinking about how much you’re reading, what that means to your life as a reader, and the extent to which it affects your thinking and writing.

Note in your initial writing (and again in the conversation in class and online) whether you are skimming, reading for comprehension, reading for learning, or memorizing the texts you consume; note also how your reading diet changes over the weekend, on breaks, or over the summer. Focus your attention, however, on your average school day, and describe your reading life in terms that make sense to you.

Final question: Can you discuss your reading life without also discussing your writing life? When you write, you also read; when you edit or revisit your writing, you read again. How does that realization change your answer about your reading habits?