Write Where It Belongs

Rethinking the English/Language Arts Curriculum

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The English/language-arts curriculum has got lost. It has wandered into marshy wetlands of feelings and introspection. Its traditional subject matter, literature, has been pushed aside and been replaced by subject-less reading and writing skills.

This has been brought home forcefully by recent experiences with English/language-arts assessments and standards, especially by the Vermont writing-portfolio assessment, plagued by low rater reliability according to a recent RAND study. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.) Both standards and assessments are at a delicate point in their development, a point where if they go wrong, promising assessments may be abandoned and standards will never be successfully written. The danger now is that we are trying to assess writing which has no audience and no purpose and therefore no criteria for judgment, and attempting to set standards that cannot be assessed because they are disguised political statements.

The following is a proposition to get the English curriculum back on the high road. The remedy I propose may sound radical, but it should not be dismissed until it has been argued out. Here it is: Reconfigure the curriculum so that writing and reading (after grade 4) are taught in other disciplines. Teach writing and reading in history, geography, science, the arts, mathematics, health and physical sciences, and in preparation for work. Preserve expressive writing, imaginative narrative, and poetry by placing them in the arts, making five branches: creative writing, dance, music, drama/theater, and visual arts. Remove the name "English'' from the curriculum altogether (thus obviating some political and social problems) and restore the central subject matter of the discipline by entitling it "literature.''

The advantages of this program are:

  • Students will learn the kind of writing they need in college and in the workplace by writing within the disciplines;
  • Students will be able to express themselves in all kinds of modes, including their home language and dialect, in creative writing, because criteria for success will not clash with demands for conformity;
  • The curriculum of literature classes can break free from the grip of Northern European males because it is no longer "English literature.''

Obviously this realignment of the curriculum is not a small change. Teachers in other academic disciplines will have to be prepared to accept the responsibility for teaching the rhetoric of their own subjects, for writing a history essay is different from writing a lab report or an explanation in mathematics or a memo in an office.

We have tried to do the impossible--teach both reading and writing without any subject matter. In the case of reading, instruction became phonics and basal readers, although to a certain extent, reading is being rehabilitated by the whole-language approach and literature-based curricula. But after grade 4, when we assume that reading can be used for learning, reading belongs in history/social studies, mathematics, and all the other disciplines, including literature. It has no existence apart from what is read.

Writing is a sad story. Writing as a separate subject had its origins in the perception that students couldn't write, so with the simplistic notions of remediation that pervade U.S. education, the answer was, Teach 'em to write as if writing could be taught directly, as driving can.

The job was given to English teachers, whose understanding of writing was the belletristic tradition of the "essay,'' going back to Lamb and Hazlitt. This tradition included reflection, letters, diaries or journals, all personal and dependent for their success on charm, wit, and literary allusion.

The audience for this kind of writing has shrunk radically and with the audience, the practice. Almost all that remains is the emphasis on the personal. The "essay'' has merged with the self-esteem and self-development movements, so that students are asked to write about their responses, their feelings, themselves--but without a rhetorical structure to give their writing any rigor.

Here is an example. A common assignment for middle school students is to ask them to describe themselves. This topic even appears occasionally as an assessment, where its deficiencies become glaringly apparent. Please note that the students are given no reason to write about themselves, although they could be asked to present themselves as candidates for an award, or for a job, or for an office in the school, or a part in a play.

Such writing has no audience and no purpose, the two fundamentals for communication. Consequently it is impossible to assess the value of the writing, except on its command of spelling and punctuation. (Even these in the real world are dependent on purpose and audience--you don't get picky about run-on sentences in a crisis-response memo, although you would expect error-free writing in a formal report.) Attempts will be made to judge the writing, but they are essentially indefensible: They will be responses to the kind of personality the writer has consciously or unconsciously projected.

What students need to know about writing is that it is communication within a context. The teachers best suited to teaching writing are those who understand the context. English teachers do their best, but they think science writing is what is produced by Stephen Jay Gould and Lewis Thomas, although science teachers want lab reports. (I once witnessed a student-teacher trying to teach what was called a "how to'' essay.) Writing must be assigned, taught, and assessed within the disciplines which use it.

What about expressive writing? Poetry, fiction, fantasy? Is there no place at all for a consideration of the self? Surely adolescents are self-obsessed, so their favorite subject shouldn't be denied them. Of course there is a place for expressive and imaginative writing: the arts, where the purpose and the audience are clear. A dialect, even street language, may be entirely appropriate in a creative language class. Even therapeutic writing (the kind whose audience is the writer or a therapist) has its place, for it enlarges our human sympathies, an important purpose of the arts.

The point is that such writing should be judged by appropriate criteria, just as writing in social studies, science, and mathematics is judged. These criteria are all different, because there is no such thing as "writing'' sui generis.

Attempts to write standards for English/language arts are confused by those who want to insure that students' dialect and language are respected, a legitimate political agenda. By putting creative writing into the arts and insuring that all students have access to creative-writing instruction as part of their education in the arts, we can respect their backgrounds and at the same time insure that they are equipped by writing instruction in all the other subjects for a world which expects a command of formal English.

But what can we do right now to assess English/language arts? It's O.K. to talk about realigning the curriculum so that writing is taught in academic disciplines and students express themselves in creative writing, but it won't happen tomorrow. Meanwhile, states and districts have English/language-arts assessments, and some, like Kentucky, Vermont, and soon California, have portfolios. The New Standards Project is designing portfolios. What shall we do with them?

Make their subject matter literature. Just as there is a rhetoric of science, history, mathematics, and so on, there is a rhetoric of literary criticism which every student should command. Portfolios for "English'' should become portfolios for "literature,'' thus at once enlarging the contents so that multiculturalism is an expectation, and narrowing them so that they can be scored by defensible criteria. Any piece of literature, even that read by 4th graders, can be analyzed for its structural and expressive qualities, for its context and references. Many elementary students have learned the elements of fairy stories and been asked to write their own. Both analysis and imitation can become the basis of literature portfolios and of on-demand prompts.

Realigning the curriculum should make most English teachers happy. They went into English teaching because they loved literature, not because they wanted to teach reading and writing. Let us restore them to what they love and what they do best; then ask those English teachers who like it to teach creative (expressive and imaginative) writing in the arts; and also help teachers of the other disciplines understand that assigning and teaching the written rhetoric of the discipline is part of the job.

Meanwhile, it is not too late to realign the national standards so that the arts have five components instead of four (as they do in the curriculum frameworks of some states), and English/language arts becomes literature. Let us not miss the opportunity to rectify a misalignment in the curriculum that could be costly for all our students, especially those who can least afford it.

Vol. 13, Issue 15, Pages 36, 44

Published in Print: December 15, 1993, as Write Where It Belongs
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