English Teachers Criticize National Reports’ Focus on Basic Literacy

By Tom Mirga — November 28, 1984 2 min read

Detroit--Leaders in the field of English last week criticized the various national reports on education for having focused their discussions of the subject almost exclusively on its “service functions.”

By limiting their comments on English primarily to the issue of basic literacy, the reports may have set the stage “for a return to the kind of English that we taught 25 to 30 years ago, something that wasn’t particularly successful,” said Stephen N. Tchudi, immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, during the group’s annual convention here.

“The reports appeared to be calling for more of the fundamentals, for more drill and practice,” Mr. Tchudi said. “If the reform reports called simply for more literacy, for more reading and writing, I’d be for that. But what I see is a call for more ‘drill and skill,’ for more phonics, and I see that as a distraction.”

Quality’s Decline Presumed

According to Mr. Tchudi, who is a professor of education at Michigan State University, the reform reports also appear to presume that the quality of English instruction has declined.

“That is not a supportable position,” he said. “Anyone who has talked to English teachers in various parts of the United States, who has visited their classrooms and talked with their students, can see that English teachers know more about the nature of language and language learning than they did formerly. They certainly know more about, and are doing a better job of, teaching writing than they did as recently as a decade ago.”

No Focus on Literature

“We’ve had about 15 major reports on education so far, and with possibly one or two exceptions they made no statement about the teaching of literature,” said James R. Squire, a senior vice president of the publishing firm of Ginn & Company and chairman of the n.c.t.e.'s Task Force on Excellence in English and the Language Arts. “So little atten-tion was paid to it that I can foresee even less time and attention devoted to the study of literature than at present.”

According to Mr. Squire, “The reports dealt mainly with what I call the service functions of English.” The reason, he said, was because those who conducted the studies “were much more concerned with the study of mathematics, science, and technology, given the political and economic importance of those fields.”

“Literature conveys to students our accumulated knowledge and values,” Mr. Squire said. “One can-not teach about freedom in America without transmitting what’s best about America through literature.”

Teaching and Learning

Seminar participants also criticized the education reports for failing to address the processes of teaching and learning.

Eileen Lundy, professor of English classics and philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio and chairman of n.c.t.e.'s commission on the English curriculum, said she was one of six people asked to testify before the National Commission on Excellence in Education on the topic of English language and literature.

“I had not seen anyone else’s testimony in advance and no one had seen mine,” she said. “By the end of the day’s testimony, there was an air of exaltation because we had all emphasized the importance of processes--that is, not just what we learned, but how we learned.

“I saw no evidence of this in the excellence commission’s report,” Ms. Lundy continued. “The testimony just wasn’t understood. I saw much more emphasis in the report on what students should be doing. I have no quarrel with that. But more of the same mediocrity will not produce excellence.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1984 edition of Education Week as English Teachers Criticize National Reports’ Focus on Basic Literacy