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English Education

Preparation Of Teachers

The field of English education includes research and practice related to both the teaching and learning of English/language arts and the preparation of English teachers. As befits a broad and comprehensive subject matter, the field of English education includes a wide range of topics and lines of research. Under the umbrella of English education, one might find research on rhetoric and the teaching of writing, on the literature curriculum and different approaches to the teaching of literature, as well as a range of topics related to communication, visual literacy, drama, journalism, and language more broadly. In fact, one of the persistent challenges facing the field of English has been the difficulty of self-definition, as Peter Elbow (1990) plaintively inquires in the title of his book, What is English? Others have asked, equally plaintively, what important topics might not be considered the province of English teachers. This lack of self-definition leads to what Robert Protherough termed "a pervasive uncertainty about the nature of the discipline" (p. 1).

The sheer scope of the subject matter and its blurry definition have its roots in the history of the subject matter. In a definitive history of the field, Arthur Applebee demonstrated the various ways in which the subject has been defined over time, from its first emergence as a major school subject in the 1890s. While earlier battles focused more on the relative centrality of classical versus vernacular texts, more recent skirmishes have tackled the role of literature–and the type of literature–in the English classroom. One of the enduring themes in the history of English education has been the search for a way to unify the subject.

In addition to breadth and lack of clear definition, English education is characterized by a multiplicity of theoretical perspectives regarding the subject. Different versions of English to be found in classrooms might include a basic skills approach, an approach that privileges cultural heritage, a personal growth approach, an apprenticeship into the discipline, and an approach that advocates critical or transformative literacy. Each of these versions implies a different set of assumptions regarding the goals for teaching English, posits a different curriculum, and advocates distinctive approaches to teaching.

Preparation of English Teachers

These features of the subject matter pose challenges to the preparation of English teachers. The sheer breadth of the subject raises questions about how to assure that prospective teachers develop a deep understanding of the field. The existence of multiple, and often competing, versions of English suggests that pre-service teachers will encounter quite different practices during their own experiences in schools. Finally, the inherent complexity of the subject, with its separate domains and subcomponents, offers teachers greater autonomy in developing curriculum. For beginning teachers, however, such autonomy can be daunting as they struggle to decide what exactly to teach.

One critical question concerning the preparation of English teachers has to do with how well prepared they are within the subject matter itself. According to a national survey conducted by Applebee in the early 1990s, approximately 95 percent of English teachers received degrees in English or a related major. However, Richard Ingersoll's 1998 study of out-of-field teaching found that nearly one-fourth of teachers who teach English have neither a major nor a minor in English or related fields. While a major in English does not guarantee the depth of subject matter knowledge required for teaching, the fact that people without English majors are teaching the subject is certainly cause for concern.

English teachers in the United States receive their professional preparation in a wide variety of programs, from undergraduate programs lasting four or five years, to fifth-year programs in which teachers have one year of professional preparation following completion of an undergraduate degree, to alternative route programs. In the early twenty-first century, research has only begun to chart how differences among programs affect the quality of teacher preparation. Michael Andrew's 1990 study, for example, found that graduates of five-year programs reported greater satisfaction with both their teacher preparation and chosen career and were more likely to remain in teaching than graduates of four-year programs. However, much more work needs to explore how structural differences among preparation programs affect the quality of their graduates.

Relatively few studies have looked systematically at teacher education within the field of English. Studies on the preparation of English teachers have focused primarily on teachers' knowledge and beliefs about the subject matter, and on how teachers develop their understandings of how to teach English. A growing body of research suggests that what English teachers know and believe about literature influences both their curricular and instructional choices. How teachers choose to teach a literary text reflects their own understanding of literature and its interpretation. Similarly, teachers' knowledge of the complexity of the writing process affects their approaches to the teaching of writing. The teaching of writing requires knowledge of how the demands of writing vary depending upon the nature of the task, audience, and genre, among other factors. Lack of this knowledge among teachers may help explain why writing instruction too often reduces the writing process to a lock-step series of discrete stages.

Another body of research has focused on the development of pedagogical content knowledge–the knowledge of how to teach English to a wide range of students. A number of studies have looked at how teachers transform their knowledge of the subject, per se, to knowledge of how to teach the subject to diverse learners. In looking at this transformation, a number of studies have focused on the importance of subject-specific methods courses. This line of research suggests that prospective teachers begin the task of rethinking their subject matter from a pedagogical perspective within the context of English methods courses. Such courses often require prospective teachers to confront their implicit assumptions about the subject matter, through assignments such as literacy autobiographies or the examination of personal metaphors for teaching. Methods courses also provide opportunities to learn more about how students learn to read and write, and some of the predictable struggles they may face. The potential of methods classes to shape prospective teachers' classroom practice is mediated by their experiences in actual classrooms. When they do not have opportunities to observe or try out the practices they are studying in methods classes, they may begin to doubt their feasibility.

Learning to teach English takes longer than the brief period allotted for teacher education. Research conducted by Pamela Grossman and colleagues in 2001 suggests that new teachers are still in the process of learning to teach when they enter the classroom. Given the importance of the first few years of teaching, many districts provide support to beginning teachers through mentoring programs. This also suggests the need for more longitudinal studies of learning to teach, that span teacher education and the first few years of teaching.

Professional Development

Perhaps the best-known professional development opportunities for English teachers are the workshops offered by the National Writing Project (NWP) and its affiliates. The NWP is a national network that began in 1974 at the University of California, Berkeley. Its goal is the improvement of the teaching of writing and the quality of student writing. The NWP has served more than 2 million teachers, across all grades and subjects, since it first came into existence. Some of the basic tenets of the NWP model include the need for writing teachers to become writers themselves; the importance of teacher knowledge and expertise in the teaching of writing; and the value of teachers teaching other teachers. Although relatively little systematic research has investigated the influence of teachers' participation in NWP activities on classroom practice, teachers are generally enthusiastic about their experiences and value the sense of community and professionalism engendered by the writing project activities.

No equivalent large-scale professional development model exists for the teaching of literature or language. The closest equivalents are teachers' book clubs, in which teachers read literature, including memoirs, fiction, and other genres, as way of learning both about their students or about literature and how to teach it. However, these are primarily local innovations. Other models that exist are summer institutes for teachers, run by organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Bread Loaf School of English, in which teachers have the opportunity to learn more about the subject matter.

The most common form of professional development for English teachers, however, continues to be the district in-service day. By their very structure, in-service days are generally dedicated to technical issues important to the district, such as learning new assessment schemes, writing objectives for student learning, or implementing a new curriculum or textbook series. Because district in-service programs are designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of teachers, they are generally unlikely to address subject-specific concerns.

If English teachers are to benefit from the growing body of knowledge about effective professional development, those responsible for teacher learning will need to invest more strategically in school-based structures that support ongoing teacher learning, collegial interaction, and experimentation. Critiques of the NWP have suggested that without strong support at the school site and without opportunities to get ongoing help in developing new practices, teachers find it difficult to implement the ideas they encountered in summer workshops. Another body of work suggests that departments may be the locus for professional community and provide the impetus and opportunity for continued learning.


English continues to be a contested field of study. Although recent debates have focused on what literature should be taught in schools, others have questioned whether literature should even continue to occupy the center of the subject. The range of literacy required of students, from print literacy to visual and technological literacy, has again expanded the scope of the English curriculum. Such expansions to the curriculum inevitably pose challenges for the education of teachers, as both teacher education and professional development must prepare teachers to incorporate new content and skills into their teaching. Given the features of the subject matter that make such redefinitions inevitable, prospective English teachers will need opportunities to grapple with the multiple purposes envisioned for the teaching of English and to explore ways of bringing coherence to students' experiences in English classes.


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