ENGLISH STANDARDS PROVOKE CRITICISM
After four years, the National Council of Teachers ofEnglish (NCTE) and the International ReadingAssociation (IRA) have produced a volume called Standards for the English Language Arts. The 132-pagedocument has been hailed by the professionals asrepresenting "the best thinking and experience ofthousands of English language-arts teachers across thecountry," but it apparently has pleased almost no one.
With a title like 'Standards for the English LanguageArts,' one would expect to find, well, standards. At theoutset, the authors glowingly report that their workproduced 12 content standards, defined as "statementsthat define what students should know and be able to doin the English language arts."
However, the standards turn out to be only a set ofvague recommendations. In the introduction, Miles Myersof the NCTE and Alan E. Farstrup of the IRA state that"a guiding belief has been that the process of definingstandards must be an open, inclusive one."
The NCTE and the IRA, which together represent 200,000language-arts educators, solicited input from diversecontributors with "different voices, interests, andconcerns" and assert that "no single publication, nosingle set of standards, can satisfy all interests andconcerns."
According to the New York Times, the authors "quicklyvanished into a fog of euphemism and evasion," usingphrases such as "writing process elements," "a varietyof literacy communities," and "word identificationstrategies."
Unlike the standards set in other subjects, thislanguage-arts document fails to define what studentsought to know at various grade levels. Each of the 12standards conspicuously lacks prescriptive words suchas "expected," "ought," or "should." The NCTE and theIRA both view language arts as process rather thancontent, so they believe benchmarks are superfluous."It would be presumptuous in the least to tell any onegroup what they should be working at," says NCTE VicePresident Sheridan Blau.
None of the 12 standards directs educators to teachphonics, spelling, grammar, or punctuation, or providesany suggestions for reading lists. The InternationalReading Association has been known as an anti-phonicsforce.
Despite shortcomings, the writers "fervently hope thatthis work captures the essential goals of the Englishlanguage arts instruction at the turn of the century inthe United States of America." According to NCTEPresident Beverly Ann Chin, "Recognizing the widespreaduse of computers, film and video in modem society, thestandards also require students to be active, criticalusers of technology." The assumption seems to be that,as long as schoolchildren know how to cruise theInternet and send e-mail, who needs to diagramsentences?
The impetus for the standards set in 13 disciplines,including the arts, mathematics, and science, was the1989 governor's summit in Charlottesville, VA. Despitean enormous commitment of time and federal money, thestandards have so far had no discernable impact uponstudent learning.
The ambiguity of the English language arts standardsdrew fire from the Department of Education, whichinitially gave the project $1 million. It stoppedfurther funding in March 1994, citing the document'svagueness as the reason. "Unfortunately, they are veryvague," said Michael Cohen, senior advisor to Secretaryof Education Richard W. Riley. "They don't communicateclearly to the teachers or provide any suggestion toparents about what students ought to learn." He statedthat the new "standards" are not "what people arelooking for when they're looking for standards."
The NCTE and IRA continued the project, using $1million of their own funds.
Definitions Chart New Course
The authors take care to define the terms used inStandards. "Text" includes printed texts, spokenlanguage, graphics, and technological communications."Language" includes visual communication, as well asspoken and written expression. "Reading" encompasseslistening and viewing in addition to decoding printedwords.
Terms with generally agreed-upon meaning are not safein this document. "Standard English" is redefined as"the language of wider communication" that "is spokenand written by those groups with social, economic andpolitical power in the United States."
The authors add a new twist to the traditionaldefinition of literacy: "Being literate in contemporarysociety means being active, critical, and creativeusers not only of print and spoken language but also ofthe visual language of film and television, commercialand political advertising, photography, and more.Teaching students how to interpret and create visualtexts such as illustrations, charts, graphs, electronicdisplays, photographs, film, and video is anotheressential component of the English language artscurriculum." One gets the impression that knowing howto 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 9addresses "diversity in language use" and, in so doing,reveals a tired concentration on differences amongstudents. Students should "explore the linguisticdiversity among their peers [to] discover that languageuse, dialect, and accent are cues for other kinds ofdifferences."
The experts assure us that, although English is "thelanguage of wider communication," "this does not implythat other varieties of English are somehow incorrector invalid; rather it means that all students need tohave standard English in their repertoire of languageforms, and to know when they should use it."
In the same vein, the authors stress the "need tohonor that which is distinctive in the many groups thatmake up our nation," i.e., multiculturalism. "Studentswho have difficulty relating to peers from differentcultures may find it easier to understand theirclassmates' unfamiliar backgrounds and experiences —and may discover unexpected similarities — when theyread and discuss stories and other texts that dramatizecultural frameworks and relationships."
Standards also makes a pitch for more bilingualeducation programs. The experts declare, "Studentswhose first language is not English are more likely toachieve academic success in English in settings wheretheir primary language is nurtured.... The developmentof competency in English is most effective whenstudents are in programs that build on their firstlanguage. . . . Whenever possible, then, students whosefirst language is not English should learn and studycontent in their first language while learning Englishas a second language."
IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts
1. Read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build anunderstanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of theUnited States and the world.
2. Read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genresto 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 tocommunicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for differentpurposes.
5. Employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use differentwriting process elements appropriately to communicate with differentaudiences 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 andquestions and by posing problems.
8. Use a variety of technological and informational resources togather and synthesize information to create and communicateknowledge.
9. Develop an understanding and respect for diversity and languageuse, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,geographic regions, and social roles.
10. For students whose first language is not English, make use oftheir first language to develop competency in English language-artsand develop understanding across curriculum.
11. Participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and criticalmembers of a variety of literacy communities.
12. Use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their ownpurposes (learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and exchange ofinformation).
Copies of Standards for the English Language Arts are available fromthe International Reading Association, (800) 336-7323.
PO Box 618