English Teachers’ Panels Urge More Focus on ‘True Literacy’

By Susan Walton — April 11, 1984 4 min read

Efforts to reform education will not result in “true literacy” if they persist in focusing on narrow, testable skills at the expense of writing, literature, and other less quantifiable areas of the language arts.

That is the view of a nationwide group of teachers of English charged with studying the trends and issues in their field.

Six task forces consisting of teachers and supervisors at all levels of education were convened by the National Council of Teachers of English to examine specific aspects of English instruction. Among the major points of their reports:

Language. The task force on language noted several effects of recent national reports on education that participants consider negative, chiefly the call for uniform curricula and the continued heavy emphasis on competency testing.

A uniform curriculum, the commission noted, “cannot adequately deal with language variation and cultural differences.” And the reports are also prompting policymaking bodies to “insist on inefficient and inaccurate standardized instruments in competency testing.” One task-force member argued that computers would “further the trend toward quantification of triviality,” while another pointed out that word processors in particular have enormous potential to improve instruction.

Curriculum. Special emphasis should be placed on publicizing the schools that combine the best of current theory and practice in their language-arts curricula, the task force recommended. Other educators could also benefit from information on how those schools set up their curricula, participants said.

The group also urged that prospective elementary-school teachers be required to study the humanities and that schools, at all grade levels, institute more balanced language-arts curricula to correct “a widespread overemphasis on narrowly conceived reading-skills instruction.”

Literature. Two “positive” trends surfaced in the report of the task force on literature: the inclusion of depictions of minority groups in classroom materials and an emphasis on storytelling as literature. But the task force found a “general decline in exposure of students to literature at all levels.”

Literature specialists, the group noted, are either relinquishing or losing control of library acquisitions; in the classroom, students are exposed primarily to anthologies instead of novels and other complete works; and responding to the back-to-basics push, education schools are neglecting literature.

Reading. Echoing concerns raised in the past few years by reading researchers, the members of this task force cited a tendency by schools to focus on a narrow range of “skill-and-drill” instructional methods. One way to ease the pressure for such programs, the group concluded, would be to make sure that parents and other members of the public understand the process of reading instruction. Jerome Harste, the Indiana University professor who directed the task force, pointed to the success some districts have had with briefing programs for parents, which are designed to explain the process by which children learn to read.

Composition. The task force on writing and composition identified teacher training as the most pressing issue in the field. Teachers need to know the techniques of writing as well as how students learn to write, the group concluded.

The group also identified the “teaching of academic discourse to all students” as a key issue. Defined as “the set of conventions that characterize college writing,” training in discourse now is part of the effort to prepare all students for the eventuality that they might attend college.

But instruction in academic discourse may be taking place at the expense of instruction in basic writing, the task force suggested. It characterized some aspects of academic-discourse instruction--argumentation, formal writing, and research papers--as “an unfortunate development in most cases.” And it recommended better coordination and articulation of writing instruction throughout all grade levels.

The panel concluded that not enough is known about two other trends--peer instruction and writing centers--to make any firm judgment. Educators, panelists agreed, need to identify the “actual and desirable qualifications of staff” and the relationship between such teaching systems and the regular composition curriculum.

The group expressed concern about the “persistence of competency tests that purport to test students’ writing ability without requiring the act of writing as part of the test.”

Media. The commission on media identified “a modest renaissance in interest in media study and use in English,” fostered in part by new research in semiotics, cognitive psychology, and visual thinking.

A classroom teacher who served on the commission, however, noted that most uses of media in the English classroom are still “noncontextual,” and are not linked to other parts of the curriculum. For example, the task force noted that films are shown purely as entertainment and that television programs are used to occupy a class period when the teacher has not made other plans.

Teachers’ competence in using media is being “ignored” in teacher-certification programs, one member contended. The group noted also that the trend toward competency testing for teachers is “working against support for media instruction, because media competencies are less testable than traditional academic competencies.”

Summaries of the reports appear in the March 1984 edition of the council’s newsletter, “Council-grams.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 1984 edition of Education Week as English Teachers’ Panels Urge More Focus on ‘True Literacy’