Preparing Boys for Life


Below you will find answers to frequently asked questions regarding Haverford's English curriculum. If you'd like to learn more, please contact English Department Chair Tom Stambaugh.

When I take a look at my son's writing, I see many spelling and punctuation errors. How can Haverford help my son write more effectively?

Anyone who texts or reads internet comments knows that careless writing inundates the world in which our students live. Added to the constant barrage of sloppy, imprecise prose are the developmental stages that most boys experience, ones which preclude their noticing such details as the book under their desk that should go in their backpack, the soda can they have left on the table, or the apostrophe missing from a contraction.

Haverford English teachers meet the boys where they are, encouraging them to pay attention to the world around them and to the words they choose to express what they see and think. The practice of writing well is a discipline that the English Department emphasizes every school day. Whether by parsing sentences excerpted from literary texts, editing student prose, grappling with the contradictory rules of English grammar, or setting down ideas on paper, English classes encourage students to write fluently and to revise with increasing rigor. Through variety in subject and form, assignments provide opportunity for a young writer to find and empower his own voice; through exercises in revision, they sharpen the eye of a discerning editor.

What kinds of writing does Haverford emphasize?

An art form and an essential skill, writing is the heart of the English Department’s curriculum. Our major assignments invite boys to compose across genres, including the thesis-driven analytical essay, personal narrative, and fictional work. Through journal entries, memoirs, self reflections, arts reviews, and other frequent in-class writing exercises, we teach boys to craft language with clarity, power, and passion. Our writing instruction reflects the fact that writing is a rigorous, iterative process. For most pieces, boys revise, peer-edit, conference, and workshop from first to final draft. Pieces written for English class occasionally find publication in Pegasus or The Index, Haverford’s award-winning literary magazine and student newspaper. 97% of graduates in our most recent five-year-out survey reported the Haverford equipped them to feel “very well prepared” or “exceptionally well prepared” for collegiate writing.

Why doesn't my son read as much as he used to in Lower and Middle School? Should I worry about the amount he reads outside of school?

It is a common refrain to hear from parents of both lower and middle school boys that they are alarmed at how little their boys read outside of school. There are several reasons why reading for fun has declined among adolescents. They include, but are not limited to: the increasing number of extracurricular activities in which kids participate after the school day is over, the greater amount of time that is required to complete their everyday homework, and the appeal of digital devices during their free time. As there is no sign that any of these factors will abate anytime soon, there are some things parents can do to combat these challenges.

First, children at any age benefit from being read to and seeing their parents read for pleasure. If you create a culture of literary curiosity, your children will often follow suit. Secondly, engage your sons in conversation about topics or books they have covered in class that they have enjoyed. Follow up by acquiring books on similar topics or are part of a series by that same author. If they are fascinated by an invention or theory they learn about in science class, find a biography about that scientist for them to explore. Thirdly, do not assume that the only kind of valuable free reading is when your boys read novels. Find other ways to engage them in reading. Encourage your son to read a newspaper, a magazine, or an academic study. Recently, many of the boys in Form II have taken an interest in reading books about achieving success and brain research. Lastly, engage your son’s teacher for reading recommendations.

Reading for enjoyment has tangible benefits for adolescents in all of their academic endeavors, providing them with a richer vocabulary and greater fluency in their writing in all of their disciplines.

Read this New York Times article for tips for encouraging the adolescent reader. (Hint: It requires finesse.)

How does the English Department choose the books my son reads for class?

We select the varied texts because of their collective focus on the human experience. We’ve chosen every short story, poem, novel, or work of nonfiction a boy encounters to promote a better understanding of what it means to be an active and thoughtful citizen of the world. The faculty of the English department looks for texts that help to develop literacy, while also making sure the selected works are unfamiliar and unsettling, because only in those moments of slight discomfort can true learning happen. When a boy graduates from Haverford, we expect him to be able to engage comfortably with a complex and changing world and understand his place within it. Ultimately, through thoughtful engagement with texts that not only force a student to ask questions of himself and the world, the books, poems, etc. also encourage a lifelong curiosity and love of reading.

Why can't my son take an Honors English class until 12th grade? Other disciplines like Math and Language "track" much earlier.

There are a few areas of English where “tracking” might make some sense, such as grammar or some elements of writing instruction, but we believe firmly that literary discussion is at its richest when a wide variety of perspectives weigh in. Students with diverse life experiences offer the most astute understanding of human psychology, family dynamics, or socioeconomic complexities. Our most valuable writing instruction occurs in digital or hand-written comments, in peer-editing sessions, and in one-on-one conferences. For these reasons, the English Department prizes heterogeneous groupings of students above tracked classes. With our most challenging readings in the fall semester of Sixth Form (12th grade), we do allow our most ambitious writers and thinkers to specialize in an Honors class.

Does the Upper School English program help prepare my son for the SAT or ACT tests or the AP English exams?

If “preparation” is defined as how to guess efficiently, recognizing question patterns, teaching how to write a stock five-paragraph essay, and discussing strategies for timed test management, then the answer is no. On the other hand, if “preparation” is understood as addressing the foundational skills in reading and written instruction that standardized tests supposedly measure, then yes, the Haverford English department prepares boys to become literary men.

The ACT and SAT value critical reading and a narrow set of grammatical rules. As critical readers, our students are taught to identify rhetorical strategies, recognize literary devices, and comprehend varied approaches to complex written expression. In terms of grammar, recognition of the written skills aligns with our writing instruction. Students emerge from our program with an understanding of mechanics: subject-verb agreement, verb tense, pronoun case and agreement, parallelism, prepositions, faulty comparisons, comparatives vs. superlatives, double negatives/double positives, noun agreement, relative pronouns, coordinating conjunctions, diction, and redundancy. The mastery over these skills comes through the use of direct grammatical instruction and personal and analytical essays.