ILLA Blogs

Commentary and reviews by classical Lutheran education commentators.
Book Reviews

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Ross Betts, Joel A. Brondos, David Speers

Is Classical Literature "Readable"?

FahrenheitI once had a parent ask me why I had our 7th and 8th grade students reading literature which the local public high school students were reading in their sophomore year (with the implication that I was expecting too much from the students in my class). I responded by asking the parent why the high schools were using middle school texts to teach literature at the high school level.


I was not intending to be glib. The Huffington Post, for example, treated the same question in the article "American High School Students Are Reading Books at 5th-Grade-Appropriate Levels."

Can parents and teachers rely on anything more than "trial-and-error" when selecting literature which matches the reading ability of their children and students?

Some may turn to the reading lists of various classical schools and recommended curricula, but they might also ask how such lists were compiled.

Those who follow such lists may find that the literature ranges from too simplistic to too challenging only after having attempted them. If a book doesn't work out, one has to deal with wasted money and effort pursuing literature which did not satisfy. It would be nice if one could determine the readability of an appropriate text for a particular age level prior to buying the text and embarking on preparations to digest it.

Enter the world of readability metrics. In a world which approaches reading from the perspective of science rather than art -- and which imagines that statistics and data can improve everything -- it is no surprise that the act of reading has come under the digital scrutiny of measurable quantification as can be evidenced in the results of standardized testing.

If you wish to dabble in this area, you might check out this presentation given at an American Library Association (ALA) conference which explains various "online calculators" and databases for finding books. Detailed explanations of readability formulas may also be found online such as this one which describes the Flesch-Kincaid scale.

You might even consider report of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor's Association regarding Common Core's "New Research on Text Complexity."

Or if you would simply like to experiment with matching book levels to reading ability, you might try the Lexile Bookfinder or the Accelerated Reader Bookfinder. You can even find Lexile indicators on Amazon (see the left-hand column). See how Barnes and Noble has adopted and incorporated the Lexile framework.

If a child participates in such standardized tests as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) or the NWEA's Measure of Academic Progress (MAP), the teacher test coordinator can probably get the Lexile, AR, or Flesch-Kincaid reading level numbers for that child so that parents or teachers can use them.

In my own experience, the readability scales are not foolproof or entirely reliable. For example, my middle school students claim to have more difficulty reading Captains Courageous which has a Lexile score of 850L than The Trumpeter of Krakow which is rated at 1200L. (The reading levels in my current class range from 465L to 1355L which makes things interesting.)

I still make reference to such scales in an attempt to match books to readers, even though, after teaching literature over the past twenty years, I have a pretty good feel for the difficulty levels of various books for my students. The only problem is: I have not been able to quantify such feelings with statistical metrics.

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Early Lutheran Music Education

As part of a larger project, I have been reading a book by Harvard scholar Christopher Boyd Brown entitled Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).  An entire chapter is devoted to the intersection of Lutheran theology, education, and music in the Bohemian settlement of Joachimsthal, a place the book examines in various respects in its many chapters.  I hope this will provide a refreshing look at the shape of the curriculum at that time.

It is available for purchase at Amazon here:  Don't forget to use Amazon Smile to make your purchase and support your congregation.

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The Grammar of Our Civility

PearcyThe Grammar of Our Civility: Classical Education in America by Lee T. Pearcy

"Why do we have to learn this stuff?" Pearcy offers a much-needed apologetic for classical education. Teachers and administrators of classical  schools may find this book especially helpful in defending a liberal arts education whether it be to plaintive students, critical parents, or a skeptical  public.

While noting that the case against a liberal arts education has been heard for over a century (e.g. Charles Darwin, "Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind."), Pearcy also comes to grips with those who present a utilitarian argument and those who merely want to perpetuate tradition.

"The natives of university departments of Classics have failed to notice the disappearance of the language whose grammar was their practice. The culture of the governing class that classical education once served has disappeared. The fact of a governing class, of course, has not, but the executives, bureacrats, managers, and legislators of modern America share no single, coherent, humane culture," (p. 5).

Pearcy lays the blame not entirely on culture, but upon those who teach the Classics: "The professors have also forgotten why Classics was once important. In ignorance of their new circumstances, they have created a false grammar . . . In creating their false grammar, the professors have had to create false paradigms," which leads him to the work presented in this book: "Now let us rehearse the true paradigms. Then let us examine those quaint people, the professors of Classics, and the false paradigms they have created to make sense of their new world and their new masters." (pp. 5-7)

The true paradigms for Pearcy are a liberal arts education an Altertumwissenschaft which together formed the grammar of classical education: "One way of thinking emphasizes things, the objective, scholarly study of what survives from classical antiquity. For that mode of thinking about classical education I shall use a German term Altertumwissenschaft. . . . The second way of thinking about classical education emphasizes not things but processes. It is concerned less with the remains of antiquity in themselves than with their effect on those in the present who are exposed to them. This second way of thinking about classical education had, from its origins, a familiar name: liberal arts education." (pp. 6-7)

From a secular perspective, Pearcy's contribution will be valued by those desiring a stong footing and clear perspective when commending classical education to others. To this, confessional Lutherans will bring the ultimate motive and energy for serving one's neighbor in love in the Gospel which the Lord graciously gives as we look to Him in faith.

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