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Teach for 30 01-01-1970 12:00 AM

NCTE and other theories
I have been reading many of the posts on this board. Agreeing with some and shaking my head at others. After almost 30 years of teaching writing in the classroom to a broad array of student abilities, I will tell you to be careful of subscribing too blindly to any one teaching theory. Read every side to every issue and make your own decisions. Students often need to be directly taught but there must be a balance. Make your own instructional decisions based on diagnostic teaching not theories. Be open, remember those individuals who defend any theory too loudly usually have been brainwashed! The NCTE (The National Council of Teachers of English) is not touted by all experts as an organization grounded in real research but more theories and philosophies. They have done some good work but have been off the mark, also. Many schools, especially those with minority populations in urban areas, have moved away from their whole language/balanced literacy approaches because of the obvious failures of this population as a whole. The NCTE have come under scrutiny even from the NY Times, a very liberal publication, for their lack of standards in some areas. Read below, I copied just one article of numerous. Some would disagree, respectfully I hope, but please look carefully at ALL SIDES!

English Standards Provoke Criticism
Education Reporter

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."

maryteach 06-09-2006 08:00 AM

Thank you for such
an informative post, and thank you for backing up what you say. I am going to disagree with you, but I appreciate that you have really read and thought about what you post. I get so tired of teachers who don't even know what they're talking about bashing whole language--yet they can't even define whole language! So I appreciate that you are knowledgeable.

I stand by whole language, as well as the NCTE and the IRA. The reason I say this is because I can't believe the CRAP that passes for writing instruction on this board, and in classrooms across the country. Basic Writing Skills. Empowering Writers. The Write Stuff. Step Up to Writing. Write Reflections. All these programs are geared toward teachers who have no clue in the world how to teach writing or how to evaluate it.

Diagramming sentences, or spending inordinate amounts of time on grammar/parts of speech instruction is such a waste of time, yet I read over and over on here not only that teachers are wasting time that way, but they want better ways to do it! No one here has been able to give me a satisfactory answer yet when I ask them exactly HOW this helps their kids become better writers. The teacher happens to like doing it, so that's the instruction the kids get.

I can't begin to tell you how frustrating it is to read about teachers giving kids worksheets to do, and calling that language arts instruction. Kids need to WRITE, not do worksheets. I have said before that I think the main reason that teachers who do not teach writing in a writer's workshop is that they lack more than just basic classroom management skills. Over and over, I've been told that it's not possible to keep the other kids on task while they take three whole minutes to conference with a student. That's just plain sad. Teachers can't manage kids, so they deliver sub-par instruction.

I can tell you that my kids write heads and shoulders above all the other kids at their grade level in the district--and I am one of the only whole language, writer's workshop teachers around. Yet all I hear is that it just can't work.

Having ranted, I will say that I understand that some who read this document want things set in concrete: here is the standard we propose, here is how to meet it. The problem with that is, whole language, as stated, is a PHILOSOPHY and not a program. So no, there is no whole language website, but there's a BWS site. No one person pioneered or thought up whole language. Unlike the programs out there, no one profits from teachers deciding to do whole language. If you've had enough hours in your undergrad (I'm talking about majoring in English, not education--education, sorry, is a pseudo-degree which prepares a person to do very little in the way of actual teaching. Many states have discontinued that degree altogether, and all should) then whole language is really the best answer. It hits all kids at their level ALL THE TIME and is based on the teacher's thoughful diagnosis and reflection. Unfortunately, many teachers feel safer with a program like BWS that gives them all the worksheets they could ever need, and they don't have to reflect on a thing. Just grade the worksheets.

I'm sticking with whole language, as I know the instruction I give is far superior to the worksheet queens' instruction. And I stand by the NCTE and the IRA (I also hold a minor in reading instruction--18 hours in my undergrad. Most teachers are also woefully unprepared to teach reading, but that's another rant). These organizations have done more to promote best practice (did you know that today's recognized best practice, all of it, came from these very people?) than the superintendent (yes! superintendent!) who made up BWS, or any of the other for-profit programs out there. The people who AREN'T selling a program are the people you should be listening to.

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