|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,
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
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
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
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
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)