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Teaching of Language Arts

Models of Language Arts Instruction, Focus on Outcomes, Language Arts Standards

Language arts is the term typically used by educators to describe the curriculum area that includes four modes of language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Language arts teaching constitutes a particularly important area in teacher education, since listening, speaking, reading, and writing permeate the curriculum; they are essential to learning and to the demonstration of learning in every content area. Teachers are charged with guiding students toward proficiency in these four language modes, which can be compared and contrasted in several ways. Listening and speaking involve oral language and are often referred to as primary modes since they are acquired naturally in home and community environments before children come to school. Reading and writing, the written language modes, are acquired differently. Although children from literate environments often come to school with considerable knowledge about printed language, reading and writing are widely considered to be the school's responsibility and are formally taught.

A different way of grouping the language modes is according to the processing involved in their use. Speaking and writing require constructing messages and conveying them to others through language. Thus they are "expressive" modes. Listening and reading, on the other hand, are more "receptive" modes; they involve constructing meaning from messages that come from others' language. (For those who are deaf, visual and spatial language modes–watching and signing–replace oral language modes.)

When one considers how children learn and use language, however, all of these divisions become somewhat artificial. Whatever we label them, all modes involve communication and construction of meaning. In effective language arts teaching, several modes are usually used in each activity or set of related activities. For example, students in literature groups may read literature, discuss it, and write about it in response journals. In 1976 Walter Loban published a study of the language growth of 338 students who were observed from kindergarten through grade twelve. He found positive correlations among the four language modes both in terms of how students developed competency in each, and of how well students ultimately used them. His study demonstrated the inter-relationships among the four language modes and influenced educators to address and more fully integrate all four of them in classrooms.

Models of Language Arts Instruction

Many changes in language arts instruction have taken place in American schools since 1980. To understand these changes, one must be conversant with the three basic models that have given rise to variations in language arts curriculum over the years: the heritage model, the competencies model, and the process or student-centered model. Each model constitutes a belief system about the structure and content of instruction that leads to certain instructional approaches and methods. The heritage model, for example, reflects the belief that the purpose of language arts instruction is to transmit the values and traditions of the culture through the study of an agreed-upon body of literature. It also focuses on agreed-upon modes and genres of writing, to be mastered through guided writing experiences. The competencies model, on the other hand, emanates from the belief that the chief purpose of language arts instruction is to produce mastery of a hierarchy of language-related skills (particularly in reading and writing) in the learner. This model advocates the teaching of these skills in a predetermined sequence, generally through use of basal readers and graded language arts textbooks in which the instructional activities reflect this orientation. The majority of adults in this country probably experienced elementary level language arts instruction that was based in the competencies model, followed by high school English instruction that primarily reflected the heritage model. Instruction in both of these models depends heavily on the use of sequenced curricula, texts, and tests.

The third model of language arts instruction, the process model, is quite different from the other two models. The curriculum is not determined by texts and tests; rather, this model stresses the encouragement of language processes that lead to growth in the language competencies (both written and oral) of students, as well as exposure to broad content. The interests and needs of the students, along with the knowledge and interests of the teacher, determine the specific curriculum. Thus reading materials, writing genres and topics, and discussion activities will vary from classroom to classroom and even from student to student within a classroom.

"Authentic" assessment is the rule in these classrooms, that is, assessment that grows from the real language work of the students rather than from formal tests. Clearly the process model leads to more flexible and varied curriculum and instruction than the other two models. While the heritage and competencies models have come under criticism for being too rigid and unresponsive to student differences, the process model has been criticized as too unstructured and inconsistent to dependably give all students sufficient grounding in language content and skills. In actuality, teachers of language arts generally strive to help their students develop proficiency in language use, develop understanding of their own and other cultures, and experience and practice the processes of reading and writing. Thus it seems that the three models are not mutually exclusive. They do, however, reflect different priorities and emphases, and most teachers, schools, and/or school systems align beliefs and practices primarily with one or another model.

Focus on Outcomes

From a historical perspective, marked shifts in language arts instruction have taken place. In the early twentieth century, textbooks and assigned readings, writing assignments, and tests came to dominate the language arts curriculum. Instruction was characterized by a great deal of analysis of language and texts, on the theory that practice in analyzing language and drill in "correct" forms would lead students to improved use of language and proficiency in reading, writing, and discourse. Instruction was entirely teacher-driven; literature and writing topics were selected by the teacher; spelling, grammar, and penmanship were taught as distinct subjects; and writing was vigorously corrected but seldom really taught in the sense that composition is often taught today. In the 1980s a shift toward the process model emerged in the works of many language arts theorists and the published practices of some influential teachers including Donald Graves, Lucy M. Calkins, and Nancie Atwell. In 1987 the National Council of Teachers of English and the Modern Language Association sponsored a Coalition of English Associations Conference. Educational leaders from all levels came together at the conference to discuss past and present language arts teaching and to propose directions and goals to guide the teaching of language arts in the years leading up to and moving into the twenty-first century. The conference report specified the ideal outcomes of effective language arts instruction, in terms of the language knowledge, abilities, and attitudes of students. These outcomes were largely process oriented, as illustrated by the following examples of outcomes for students leaving the elementary grades, as reported by William Teale in Stories to Grow On (1989):

  • They will be readers and writers, individuals who find pleasure and satisfaction in reading and writing, and who make those activities an important part of their everyday lives.
  • They will use language to understand themselves and others and make sense of their world. As a means of reflecting on their lives, they will engage in such activities as telling and hearing stories, reading novels and poetry, and keeping journals.

Principles to guide curriculum development evolved from the conference participants' agreed upon student outcomes, and, like the outcomes, the principles were broad and process-focused. For example, two of the original principles are: Curriculum should evolve from a sound research knowledge base and The language arts curriculum should be learner-centered. Elaborations on these and other curriculum goals deviated from earlier recommendations in that they included classroom-based ethnographic research, or action research, as well as traditional basic research in the knowledge base that informs the teaching of language arts. There was also agreement that textbooks serve best as resources for activities, but that the most effective language arts curricula are not text driven; rather they are created by individual teachers for varying communities of students.

Language Arts Standards

During the 1990s a movement toward greater accountability in education gained momentum, leading to the development of articulated standards. Standards grow from the endeavor to link curriculum and instruction with specific outcomes–what students can demonstrate they know and are able to do. In response to this movement, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA), two of the leading professional organizations in the language arts field, joined in developing a common set of national standards for the English Language Arts. These standards are more specific, detailed, and comprehensive than the guidelines from the earlier coalition conference, although that work provided a starting point for the development of the national standards. Advances in technology and communication have been rapid since 1987. In the national standards, the definition of English language arts includes viewing and visually representing as well as reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Perhaps the factor that has had the greatest impact on American schools is the immigration that has led to steadily increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in the population. The changing demographics of school populations are reflected in the newer national standards; students for whom English is not the first language are explicitly considered in the goals and recommendations.

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts

The following standards are taken from Standards for the English Language, published in 1996 by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Students 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; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

Students 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.

Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

Students use a variety of technological and informational resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

Students whose first language is not English make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum.

Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Evolving Issues

Evolving issues in language arts pedagogy hark back to the three models of instruction described earlier. The IRA/NCTE standards are process oriented, for the most part. Many individual state departments of education have developed their own language arts standards for students at various grade levels; these range from rigidly imposed standards and controlled curricula in the tradition of the skills-based model to process oriented standards and a good deal of local control over the curriculum. Educators are left with the task of reconciling such differences and designing curriculum and assessments that reflect their highest priorities. Issues similar to those in the United States have led to reforms in England–a leader, for many years, in the implementation of meaning-based instruction in reading and writing. Recent reforms in England and Ireland maintain an emphasis on integrating language arts in instruction, while recommending increasingly structured curriculum and assessments geared toward student achievement of specified outcomes.

Large-scale immigration, one of the most important social developments of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, is a global phenomenon, as noted in Children of Immigration (2001). As a result, increasing numbers of districts, schools, and educators in other countries as well as in the United States are faced with the necessity of adjusting the curriculum and the use of standards to make them appropriate for students of multiple language and cultural backgrounds. The tension between students' individual backgrounds and developmental levels on the one hand, and universal achievement goals in the language arts as reflected in standards on the other, provide the largest challenges to language arts teachers of the early twenty-first century.


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