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A Rich World of Thinking: National Standards for English Language Arts

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Updated on Sep 5, 2013

Among all of the subjects kids learn in school, English Language Arts touches everything. After all, if a student can’t read, virtually every other subject becomes impossible. No surprise, then, that the course is required every single year from kindergarten to twelfth grade. States like California have even gone so far as to require that first and second graders must spend a full two hours and forty minutes a day on the subject.

And yet, when people really get down to it, there’s still hot debate on what “English class” really means. Is it reading? Grammar? Writing? Critical thinking? Speech? And how can you really divide skills from one grade level to the next?

In a large-scale, joint project, two of America’s leading professional teaching groups—the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, took on these questions. While recognizing the role of state standards—which specify curricula by grade—these educators ended up taking a different approach: they found twelve strands that weave together to form unified, effective instruction. Every strand should be present—at different levels of complexity of course--at every level. The goal: to support “the emerging literacy abilities that children bring to school” without diminishing the “innovation and creativity essential to teaching and learning.”

Here’s a summary of the list:

  1. Different kinds of text. To prepare for a fast-paced, complicated world, kids need to see many kinds of writing. They must “read fiction and non-fiction, classic and contemporary works.”

  2. Varied literature from many places, genres, and historical periods helps kids grasp the breadth of human culture.

  3. Reading comprehension. “Word calling” isn’t reading. Kids need to learn to make full meaning out of the printed word, and teachers need to practice increasingly complicated strategies as kids move through grades.

  4. Communication to specific audiences. Kids must practice adjusting their words to fit specific purposes and to reach different kinds of people.

  5. Writing. It’s a process, not a fixed product, and children must develop an effective toolkit for doing it.

  6. Spelling, Grammar, and Literary Terms. All of them are important to know. Even more crucial, however, is that students must use them accurately and well.

  7. Research. With strong instruction, students not only learn to find information but to analyze and organize it into well-argued statements that make a clear point.

  8. Information Resources. Today’s world offers learning resources not only in libraries but through the internet and other technologies. Students need to be able to use and assemble information from all of them.

  9. Respect for diversity. The human experience is both broad and deep. English Language Arts offers a powerful way to explore, discuss, and understand the rich and varied textures of human life.

  10. Support for second language learning. When English is a kid’s second language, teachers help them use tools from their first language in order to learn skills in the new one.

  11. Discussion and debate. Students share their ideas with one another and see English themes and skills across the other topics they study.

  12. Lifelong Learning. The classroom is just the beginning. Students learn to speak, read, and write the English language for a lifetime of exploring, sharing, and fun.

There’s obviously a big difference between a kindergarten room—where the “wide range of texts” will mostly contain just twenty pages or less—and a high school one, where students will be discussing novels. But every level, say teacher leaders, should include all of these standards so that kids develop broad, deep mastery of their language. After all, English Language Arts teachers have their eyes on a lofty prize: that all children be able “to develop the language skills they need to pursue life’s goals and to participate fully as informed, productive members of society.”

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