Education Commentary

The Need for ‘Gatekeeper’ Courses in English

By Margaret Storch — November 23, 1994 7 min read

Current reform efforts tend to focus on mathematics and science. Not only does talk of reform generally involve raising standards and achievement in these two areas, but also, no other subjects receive the kind of federal support extended to programs in math and science.

Not surprisingly, the central thrust of initiatives aimed at enhancing the educational opportunities of disadvantaged students has come to involve restructuring high school mathematics courses. Low-level “consumer math” courses, which do not introduce students to the more advanced and complex levels of mathematics, are being eliminated and policies established to insure that all students study algebra. The College Board’s admirable Equity 2000 national education-reform project, taking as its premise that algebra is the “gatekeeper” to college and academic opportunity, works with certain high-risk school districts to insure that all students take high school courses in algebra.

It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of solid learning in math and science for students’ cognitive growth or preparation for more advanced levels of education. But we are tending to overlook the equally fundamental importance to intellectual development of English and the language arts. People sometimes appear to believe that reading and writing are superficial skills, whereas math is the real mental activity. Ability in reading and writing, though, is intimately connected to the capacity for thinking clearly and for organizing ideas. In fact, high school and college mathematics instructors often report that their students’ most serious deficiencies are language-related--for example, an inability to read mathematical problems with comprehension.

It is relatively easy to convince the public, parents, and students that math and science are critical academic fields, and that achievement in them is closely tied to economic success, but the same is not true of English and related humanities subjects. The ability to write effectively, to read with insight and judgment, and to communicate complex ideas clearly and persuasively are not widely recognized as having great value, although they are in fact the marks of a powerful elite in our society: in the legal profession; the upper reaches of business, industry, and education; and in politics. We should recognize more fully that highly developed language ability is fundamental, both in helping students develop personal autonomy and in educating them to be working members of society.

We therefore need a strong policy of insuring that all students, and most especially disadvantaged students, have the opportunity to attain a high level of genuine literacy. True learning in English and language arts is a “gatekeeper” to college, to personal empowerment, and to meaningful career options.

What kinds of English courses, then, are the equivalent of algebra in providing students with a basis for advancing to higher learning? They should contain and require work in reading and writing that is challenging both in content and in amount. Education in language means developing the ability to think, understand, and make distinctions; organizing and presenting ideas clearly; and acquiring a rich and exact vocabulary. Such capacities can only evolve over time, and through considerable exposure to stimulating reading and meaningful writing experience. Writing is not a mere skill that can be applied in any situation. If students write only about simple personal topics, and that not very frequently, they are not equipped to tackle more advanced subjects, even if they have learned to write with mechanical smoothness. The ability to write about complicated themes can be developed only through long practice with writing tasks that do not come easily. Reading and writing are closely interrelated. All students should be working at a level in reading that is challenging for each student individually in terms of comprehension and vocabulary; and they should be writing frequently in a variety of modes.

The reality of high school English courses is that there is great variation within and between schools in what is expected of students. This is partly due to the increased resistance to reading and writing on the part of students themselves. In middle-class, suburban schools, college-bound Advanced Placement students are usually offered the kinds of courses I am describing. Students who are not identified as being college-bound and of superior ability (found in greater numbers in poor urban schools), may be given English courses that are the exact equivalent of low-level “consumer math,” courses where little may be required in terms of reading and writing throughout an entire semester and readings and other activities are “dumbed down,” or unlikely to promote learning. These students are not introduced to the more stimulating areas of the subject that lead to more advanced kinds of thinking.

To be prepared for college work across the subject disciplines, students need experience in a range of types of reading. English classes in high school are often heavily focused on literature. While this is of irreplaceable value, more attention also needs to be given to expository writing, for example, on social and scientific topics, which provide good models for students’ own writing and for effective patterns of organization and expression. Such assignments also make important intellectual demands of the student. Literature stimulates personal and cognitive development in a number of ways. It helps give a sure grasp of cultural experiences and viewpoints and, in its many varieties and its precise use of words, develops a sense of the specificity and uniqueness of feelings and ideas. In addition, recent experiments with music and mathematical performance seem to suggest that engagement with creative art forms may enhance intellectual power by releasing the mind from predetermined patterns of thinking.

The emphasis in English teaching for the last 10 years or more has tended to be on writing. The techniques of teaching process writing have been refined and widely disseminated, and are commonly used in high schools as well as in college. One obstacle to their effectiveness in high school is that high school English teachers, especially in urban schools, often are responsible for so many students that they cannot give them the individual time that process writing requires. Whereas, the National Council of Teachers of English recommendation is for a ratio of one teacher to a maximum of 100 students, these teachers may teach as many as 150.

Recognizing that writing is a process, and that several drafts and some struggling with organization and word choice may be necessary before the most effective final form is achieved has been a very healthy move. This approach has not always given sufficient stress, however, to the content of writing and to the close link between writing and reading. Students will not make progress to advanced abilities in thinking and expressing ideas unless they are also regularly reading at a challenging level. There are signs of a growing movement to give greater emphasis to reading. High school teachers are curious about how well-prepared their graduates are for college-level work in reading, knowing how difficult they have found it to motivate them to read. College teachers also report that some students need remedial reading support, although this is even more strongly resisted than remedial writing. They also say that many entering students are shocked at the sheer volume and difficulty of reading required in college.

As with writing, the responsibility for students’ attaining higher levels of competence in reading rests with teachers in all subject areas, not simply in English. Teachers of science and social studies can make an important contribution. The time is ripe for a vigorous “reading across the curriculum” movement. But it is probably English teachers, as the specialists, who will have to spearhead such a movement and motivate their colleagues.

In short then, “gatekeeper” courses in English should require of students large and sustained amounts of reading and writing, at a level that is individually challenging for each person in level of comprehension, difficulty of ideas, and vocabulary. Suggested readings should be wide-ranging, including both literature and expository prose; and writing tasks should similarly be varied, with the expectation that students will learn to develop ideas at length in longer papers.

None of this will be easy. We will need to convince students and parents that high levels of accomplishment in reading and writing are an essential base for true options in education and careers, and we must give particular attention to the requirements of language-minority students. Funding for education should be targeted to reduce the student load for teachers, so that they can teach more meaningfully; and we should recognize that K-12 teachers, and perhaps most especially English teachers, often face immense problems in motivating their students because of various cultural changes in recent years. College English teachers can help improve the situation by working sensitively and positively with their K-12 colleagues.

It will be difficult, but we must do all of these things if we are to provide equitable educational opportunities for personal fulfillment and social empowerment for all students.

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as The Need for ‘Gatekeeper’ Courses in English