Center on English Learning & Achievement
Issues in the English Language Arts:
Arthur N. Applebee
During the past few years, the English language arts have changed in a variety of ways. According to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, process-oriented writing instruction, gaining momentum since the 1970s, has finally become the conventional wisdom for the majority of teachers. Whole language approaches have spread through the elementary and middle school curriculum. Multicultural literature has become a more important part of many programs. Alternative assessments stressing classroom based activities have been widely advocated. And national standards for the English Language Arts have been developed by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association. Amidst all of the enthusiasm for new approaches, what are the issues that most concern practitioners? What new movements are looming on the horizon, and what kinds of support do teachers need in adapting their practice?
To address questions such as these, the National Center on Literature Teaching and Learning (recently refunded and expanded as the Center on English Learning and Achievement) conducted a telephone survey of lead teachers and of state education agency specialists in the English language arts in the late fall of 1995. (The survey was funded by the University at Albany.) The survey was open-ended, to give respondents an opportunity to raise and discuss the issues that were most pressing in their own contexts, rather than to assess attitudes toward preselected issues that might or might not have been important to practitioners. We asked state coordinators and teachers questions about 1) what, from their perspectives, were the major concerns or changes that needed to be focused on in English language arts curriculum and instruction, and 2) what were the most useful things a national research and development center could do to help with these issues. Teachers in the sample were asked additional questions about 3) the sources they usually turned to for ideas and support in making changes in their teaching, and 4) access to and use of the Internet as a source of information and exchange of ideas. (The questions are listed in the appendix.)
Telephone interviews were conducted by staff members at the University at Albany, following a common protocol for initial contacts, call-backs, and sequence of questions. The interviews were informal and open-ended rather than precoded. Interviewers took notes during the interviews for later analysis of commonalties and differences across respondents.
Responses were coded to reflect the concerns expressed by the teachers and supervisors interviewed, using categories that emerged from repeated readings of the interview notes. Superordinate codes were used to cluster together related but low frequency responses. Coding was done across sets of related questions in order to better represent each respondent's total set of concerns. Thus for each respondent, answers to a general question about current concerns were coded together with answers to follow-up questions about issues specific to grade levels and about which of these issues seemed most pressing.
Table 1 summarizes the specific issues of concern to state English language arts coordinators and lead teachers across the country; these are summarized in terms of the percentage of interviews in which each issue was raised. Major categories (such as Integration) reflect the proportion of interviews in which any mention of the issue occurred; sub categories (such as Integrated Language Arts) are breakouts of more specific topics that are combined within the major categories. Because answers were multiply coded, the percentages for the subcategories may exceed the percentage for the major category.
The results in Table 1 highlight the extent to which issues in the English language arts are caught up in and reflect broader policy debates. The three areas of most concern to state coordinators were assessment (mentioned by 66%), integration (64%), and skills development (54%)-- all issues whose implications go beyond the English language arts. None of the traditional subdivisions of the language arts was mentioned as an imminent concern by even half of the coordinators. Literature came closest (mentioned by 46%), but even there the most frequently voiced concern was the development of a multicultural curriculum, again an issue that extends beyond the teaching of English.
Issues in assessment focused on performance assessment, in particular the use of classroom based portfolios. Widely advocated in recent years, portfolios remain contentious at the state and district level. They require new approaches to evaluation-- as one teacher put it, "The criteria I developed after years of evaluating individual writing samples no longer work when I am faced with a collection of pieces in different genres, written at different times, and with different degrees of help and revision." They are also expensive to implement in large-scale assessment, and raise issues of comparability and fairness when used for high-stakes decision-making. The sentiment in the interviews was largely supportive of performance assessment, but this support came with a background of concern that the unsolved problems in such assessments may cause them to be abandoned before they have had a fair chance. Assessment issues were also of concern to the teachers in the sample, though they ranked somewhat lower among their overall concerns (third in the elementary school and fourth in the middle and high school samples). Teachers' concerns focused more on the need for effective models and approaches to portfolio assessment ("I would really like to see how other teachers are doing it," as one middle school teacher put it), and much less on the political, legal, or statistical conundrums such assessments may raise.
State coordinators' second major area of concern was integration. This took several different forms, including a concern with cross-subject integration, in which the language arts are taught in combination with another subject such as history or science; within-subject integration, in which reading, writing, language, and literature are taught in interrelationship with one another; and integration of the teaching of reading and writing into content areas (content area reading, or writing across the curriculum). Of these, integrated language arts is primarily an elementary and middle school issue, while content-area reading and writing is primarily of concern to middle and high school teachers. Cross-subject integration, on the other hand, emerged as an issue of concern at all grade levels, and was an issue of particular concern to state coordinators. This is an approach with a long history, going back at least to the correlated curricula of the 1920s, but one with few well developed practical models of integrated curricula and little research to clarify the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach. It has, however, been an important part of recent reform proposals, such as those from the Coalition of Essential Schools; it is also implicit in such established approaches as whole language instruction and the use of themes to organize curricula in elementary and middle schools. Issues of integration ranked first among the interviews with elementary and middle school teachers, and second in frequency among high school teachers.
The third most frequent concern of state coordinators had to do with establishing a proper balance of attention to skills development. Their concerns were particularly focused on the elementary grades, and the increasingly politicized debate between whole language and more skills-oriented instruction. The great majority of those interviewed viewed the debate as having become increasingly destructive to attempts to improve instruction. As one said, "We've got to get beyond these false dichotomies, and find an appropriate balance, before the legislature and the governor take it out of our hands entirely." Another pointed out, "There is a perception that phonics is not taught but this is not true. It is an essential part of the integrated/whole language approach. There is a need to inform the public and politician's that phonics is used, just not in the old isolated manner." The problem of skills was particularly acute at the elementary school level, where a sizeable proportion (27%) of the teachers interviewed felt that recent approaches had gone too far and that it was time to refocus the curriculum on skills development. As one elementary school teacher put it, "There is not enough phonics, and not enough follow-through in the middle grades." Another said, "We need a way to tie things in better so we don't lose skill development."
In addition to these three major areas of concern, there are some interesting points to note about the other issues that came up in the interviews. Writing was mentioned as an important issue by over half of the middle and high school teachers, and by over 40% of the elementary school teachers. Their comments suggested a continuing concern that students do not write well enough, as well as a frustration with trying to teach writing to large classes of students. "Writing is deteriorating," as one middle school teacher put it, "because people don't have the time required to teach students to write." Teachers also noted the lack of a professional consensus about how best to teach grammar and usage, and a growing concern with technical writing. Few questioned how writing could best be taught, however, given small enough classes and space in the curriculum. The vocabulary of process oriented instruction dominated their responses, with frequent reference to drafts and revisions, workshop approaches, and prewriting activities.
Literature instruction was the fourth area of concern to state supervisors (mentioned by 46%), and ranked third among middle and high school teachers. How literature should be approached was unproblematic for most of the interviewees, though a number raised questions about how best to incorporate multicultural materials in the curriculum. "Kids do best when they have an eye to classics and an eye to multiculturalism," said one middle school teacher. Another pointed out the need to "resolve the issue between engaging students and reading the classics." Among state supervisors, censorship problems also continue to be a concern.
Recent attention to national and state standards for curriculum and achievement were also reflected in the survey responses, being mentioned by some 24 percent of the respondents overall. Closely related to concerns with assessment (and like assessment somewhat more of a concern at elementary than at middle and high school grades), comments about standards often raised questions about how to establish appropriate sequence within the curriculum, and appropriate benchmarks of student achievement. As a state coordinator put it, "The assessment system has high stakes. If thresholds go up in schools, there are monetary rewards which can be shared out among teachers. So, there is a lot of pressure from teachers for content to be specified (so they can teach it for the test)." A high school teacher commented, "We need a k-12 curriculum that builds on previous years. Presently, students are not accountable-- they haven't really learnt new things from one year to the next."
Technology, touted as a solution to the problems of schools, was seventh among the general issues overall, being mentioned in 17 percent of the interviews. When technology was discussed, comments reflected the low educational value (even if high technical quality) of most available software, and the problem of how to use technology to support rather than interrupt ongoing curriculum and instruction. A number of teachers commented on the difficulty of getting access at school to computer or videotaping equipment, and of not really knowing what to do with it when they did get access.
In spite of the concern with skills discussed earlier, specific comments about reading instruction were rare among elementary school teachers (ranking ninth out of ten issues). Middle and high school teachers showed somewhat more concern with reading, which ranked fifth among the issues they raised. To some extent this was a simple concern that students did not read well enough, but it also included a new interest in helping students with nonfiction and technical readings, which tend not to be well represented in their writing texts or literature anthologies. To some extent, these concerns were also related to issues of work skills and the school to work transition, mentioned by 18% of the high school teachers and 20% of the state coordinators.
Finally, issues of professional development were raised by a number of teachers and supervisors, usually in terms of the difficulty in keeping up with new approaches, the under-education of colleagues, or the ineffectiveness of traditional one-shot inservice approaches.
Although the interview questions did not ask explicitly about goals for the teaching of English and the language arts, teachers' emphases were often quite apparent. In order to capture this, each interview was coded as to whether it reflected any concern with each of five broad goals for instruction: Language processes (including such things as process-oriented writing instruction, a concern with engagement, and life-long learning); language skills (in particular reading and writing skills, but also including life skills, handwriting, and oral language); knowledge (including cultural literacy, knowledge of specific books or authors, and vocabulary); thoughtfulness (reflecting new concern with producing reflective thinkers as well as older concerns with critical thinking); and rigor (typically, expressed as a concern with higher standards or the need for a more rigorous curriculum).
Of the 119 teachers who were surveyed, 80 responded with responses that reflected one or more of these learning goals. Overall, the teachers were concerned both with language processes (a generally student-centered goal) and skills (a more subject-oriented goal). Concern with specific content knowledge, thoughtfulness, and rigor trailed considerably behind.
A second set of interview questions asked teachers and state supervisors what a national research and development center could do that would be most helpful in improving practice. The responses, summarized in Table 2, highlight the different needs at state and local levels. For the state supervisors, the most important role of a research and development center is in providing the research base for new approaches. They wanted to have concrete evidence that new approaches worked, as well as research based analyses of successful practice. Such research would in turn help them make the case for reform to their legislatures and governors, and help them convince skeptical teachers and principals. Next in importance to state supervisors are center clearinghouse activities-- making research widely available and accessible, providing information on what others are doing, and serving as a resource and referral center for research-based improvement of practice.
The lead teachers in our sample had less clear ideas about the functions of a research and development center. They were most concerned with receiving practical help, in the form of professional development activities (mentioned by 32%), including help with networking and community building; clearinghouse activities (30%), and model approaches to curriculum and instruction (25%). Aware of the many public controversies that have surrounded the teaching of English, 12% of the state supervisors and 15% of the lead teachers also mentioned the importance of generating public support for what English language arts teachers are trying to do. As one supervisor put it, "There is a tension between what we know about effective instruction versus what people remember from their own experiences as school children long ago."
In a related question, the teachers in the sample were asked to list the most important sources of profession growth: Where did they turn for new ideas and approaches? The results highlight the importance of a variety of traditional means of professional growth, including journals and books, professional conferences, and school and district staff development activities. Above all, however, the results highlight the importance of person-to-person contact, both with other colleagues and with supervisors and administrators within the school and district. These responses echo the requests that a research and development center help teachers not only through traditional professional development activities, but also with networking and community building.
The Internet is becoming an increasingly useful resource for educators, both as a source of information and as a means for developing professional networks and work groups. In this context, we asked teachers in our interviews whether they had access to the Internet at school or at home, and the extent to which they used the Internet if they had access.
The results indicated that in this sample of English language arts teachers, 41% had
access only at school, 10% had access only at home, and 20% had access at school and at
home; 29% had no access at all. Patterns of use were much more limited, however. Only 27%
made regular use of the Internet; and 56% made no use of it at all. It is not surprising,
given the limited numbers of computers available in most schools, that the proportions of
teachers who have access at home (30%) and those that use the Internet regularly (27%) are
nearly identical. Although Internet use continues to increase along with the spread of
online service providers, these data suggest that it will be a while before it reaches
more than a minority of English language arts teachers.
From your perspective at the state education department, what do you see as the major concerns we need to focus on in English language arts curriculum and instruction in your state?
Are there other issues or concerns that are specific to elementary (middle, secondary) school levels?
Of the issues you have mentioned, which do you feel are the most pressing?
What, from your perspective, would be the most useful things that a national research and development center could do to help with these or other issues?
Lead Teachers Nominated by the State Coordinators:
From your perspective, what do you see as the major changes we need to focus on in English language arts curriculum and instruction?
Are there other changes or concerns in your district that may be specific to other grade levels? What are they?
Of the concerns you have mentioned, which do you feel are most pressing?
What do you think would be the most useful things that a national research and development center could do to help you address these or other changes?
When you make changes in your teaching, who gives you ideas and support?
Do you have access to the internet or other online telecommunications service, either at school or at home? If so, do you use these services?
The Center on English Learning and Achievement