After four years, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA) have produced a volume called Standards for the English Language Arts. The 132-page document has been hailed by the professionals as representing "the best thinking and experience of thousands of English language-arts teachers across the country," but it apparently has pleased almost no one.

With a title like 'Standards for the English Language Arts,' one would expect to find, well, standards. At the outset, the authors glowingly report that their work produced 12 content standards, defined as "statements that define what students should know and be able to do in the English language arts."

However, the standards turn out to be only a set of vague recommendations. In the introduction, Miles Myers of the NCTE and Alan E. Farstrup of the IRA state that "a guiding belief has been that the process of defining standards must be an open, inclusive one."

The NCTE and the IRA, which together represent 200,000 language-arts educators, solicited input from diverse contributors with "different voices, interests, and concerns" and assert that "no single publication, no single set of standards, can satisfy all interests and concerns."

According to the New York Times, the authors "quickly vanished into a fog of euphemism and evasion," using phrases such as "writing process elements," "a variety of literacy communities," and "word identification strategies."

Unlike the standards set in other subjects, this language-arts document fails to define what students ought to know at various grade levels. Each of the 12 standards conspicuously lacks prescriptive words such as "expected," "ought," or "should." The NCTE and the IRA both view language arts as process rather than content, so they believe benchmarks are superfluous. "It would be presumptuous in the least to tell any one group what they should be working at," says NCTE Vice President Sheridan Blau.

None of the 12 standards directs educators to teach phonics, spelling, grammar, or punctuation, or provides any suggestions for reading lists. The International Reading Association has been known as an anti-phonics force.

Despite shortcomings, the writers "fervently hope that this work captures the essential goals of the English language arts instruction at the turn of the century in the United States of America." According to NCTE President Beverly Ann Chin, "Recognizing the widespread use of computers, film and video in modem society, the standards also require students to be active, critical users of technology." The assumption seems to be that, as long as schoolchildren know how to cruise the Internet and send e-mail, who needs to diagram sentences?

The impetus for the standards set in 13 disciplines, including the arts, mathematics, and science, was the 1989 governor's summit in Charlottesville, VA. Despite an enormous commitment of time and federal money, the standards have so far had no discernable impact upon student learning.

The ambiguity of the English language arts standards drew fire from the Department of Education, which initially gave the project $1 million. It stopped further funding in March 1994, citing the document's vagueness as the reason. "Unfortunately, they are very vague," said Michael Cohen, senior advisor to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "They don't communicate clearly to the teachers or provide any suggestion to parents about what students ought to learn." He stated that the new "standards" are not "what people are looking for when they're looking for standards."

The NCTE and IRA continued the project, using $1 million of their own funds.

Definitions Chart New Course

The authors take care to define the terms used in Standards. "Text" includes printed texts, spoken language, graphics, and technological communications. "Language" includes visual communication, as well as spoken and written expression. "Reading" encompasses listening and viewing in addition to decoding printed words.

Terms with generally agreed-upon meaning are not safe in this document. "Standard English" is redefined as "the language of wider communication" that "is spoken and written by those groups with social, economic and political power in the United States."

The authors add a new twist to the traditional definition of literacy: "Being literate in contemporary society means being active, critical, and creative users not only of print and spoken language but also of the visual language of film and television, commercial and political advertising, photography, and more. Teaching students how to interpret and create visual texts such as illustrations, charts, graphs, electronic displays, photographs, film, and video is another essential component of the English language arts curriculum." One gets the impression that knowing how to read is only a minor part of literacy.

Full Speed Ahead for Diversity

Standards reveals a philosophy that supports non-conventional spelling, bilingual education, non-traditional English use, and multiculturalism. Goal 9 addresses "diversity in language use" and, in so doing, reveals a tired concentration on differences among students. Students should "explore the linguistic diversity among their peers [to] discover that language use, dialect, and accent are cues for other kinds of differences."

The experts assure us that, although English is "the language of wider communication," "this does not imply that other varieties of English are somehow incorrect or invalid; rather it means that all students need to have standard English in their repertoire of language forms, and to know when they should use it."

In the same vein, the authors stress the "need to honor that which is distinctive in the many groups that make up our nation," i.e., multiculturalism. "Students who have difficulty relating to peers from different cultures may find it easier to understand their classmates' unfamiliar backgrounds and experiences and may discover unexpected similarities when they read and discuss stories and other texts that dramatize cultural frameworks and relationships."

Standards also makes a pitch for more bilingual education programs. The experts declare, "Students whose first language is not English are more likely to achieve academic success in English in settings where their primary language is nurtured.... The development of competency in English is most effective when students are in programs that build on their first language. . . . Whenever possible, then, students whose first language is not English should learn and study content in their first language while learning English as a second language."

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts

1. Read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world.

2. Read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.

3. Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.

4. Adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

5. Employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

6. Apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions, media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

7. Conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions and by posing problems.

8. Use a variety of technological and informational resources to gather and synthesize information to create and communicate knowledge.

9. Develop an understanding and respect for diversity and language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

10. For students whose first language is not English, make use of their first language to develop competency in English language-arts and develop understanding across curriculum.

11. Participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

12. Use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and exchange of information).

Copies of Standards for the English Language Arts are available from the International Reading Association, (800) 336-7323.

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