Language arts is the term typically used by educators to describe the curriculum area that includes four modes of language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Language arts teaching constitutes a particularly important area in teacher education, since listening, speaking, reading, and writing permeate the curriculum; they are essential to learning and to the demonstration of learning in every content area. Teachers are charged with guiding students toward proficiency in these four language modes, which can be compared and contrasted in several ways.
Listening and speaking involve oral language and are often referred to as primary modes since they are acquired naturally in home and community environments before children come to school. Reading and writing, the written language modes, are acquired differently. Although children from literate environments often come to school with considerable knowledge about printed language, reading and writing are widely considered to be the school’s responsibility and are formally taught.
A different way of grouping the language modes is according to the processing involved in their use. Speaking and writing require constructing messages and conveying them to others through language. Thus they are “expressive” modes. Listening and reading, on the other hand, are more “receptive” modes; they involve constructing meaning from messages that come from others’ language. (For those who are deaf, visual and spatial language modes–watching and signing–replace oral language modes.
When one considers how children learn and use language, however, all of these divisions become somewhat artificial. Whatever we label them, all modes involve communication and construction of meaning. In effective language arts teaching, several modes are usually used in each activity or set of related activities. For example, students in literature groups may read literature, discuss it, and write about it in response journals. In 1976 Walter Loban published a study of the language growth of 338 students who were observed from kindergarten through grade twelve.
He found positive correlations among the four language modes both in terms of how students developed competency in each, and of how well students ultimately used them. His study demonstrated the inter-relationships among the four language modes and influenced educators to address and more fully integrate all four of them in classrooms. Models of Language Arts Instruction Many changes in language arts instruction have taken place in American schools since 1980.
To understand these changes, one must be conversant with the three basic models that have given rise to variations in language arts curriculum over the years: the heritage model, the competencies model, and the process or student-centered model. Each model constitutes a belief system about the structure and content of instruction that leads to certain instructional approaches and methods. The heritage model, for example, reflects the belief that the purpose of language arts instruction is to transmit the values and traditions of the culture through the study of an agreed-upon body of literature.
It also focuses on agreed-upon modes and genres of writing, to be mastered through guided writing experiences. The competencies model, on the other hand, emanates from the belief that the chief purpose of language arts instruction is to produce mastery of a hierarchy of language-related skills (particularly in reading and writing) in the learner. This model advocates the teaching of these skills in a predetermined sequence, generally through use of basal readers and graded language arts textbooks in which the instructional activities reflect this orientation.
The majority of adults in this country probably experienced elementary level language arts instruction that was based in the competencies model, followed by high school English instruction that primarily reflected the heritage model. Instruction in both of these models depends heavily on the use of sequenced curricula, texts, and tests. The third model of language arts instruction, the process model, is quite different from the other two models.
The curriculum is not determined by texts and tests; rather, this model stresses the encouragement of language processes that lead to growth in the language competencies (both written and oral) of students, as well as exposure to broad content. The interests and needs of the students, along with the knowledge and interests of the teacher, determine the specific curriculum. Thus reading materials, writing genres and topics, and discussion activities will vary from classroom to classroom and even from student to student within a classroom.
Authentic” assessment is the rule in these classrooms, that is, assessment that grows from the real language work of the students rather than from formal tests. Clearly the process model leads to more flexible and varied curriculum and instruction than the other two models. While the heritage and competencies models have come under criticism for being too rigid and unresponsive to student differences, the process model has been criticized as too unstructured and inconsistent to dependably give all students sufficient grounding in language content and skills.
In actuality, teachers of language arts generally strive to help their students develop proficiency in language use, develop understanding of their own and other cultures, and experience and practice the processes of reading and writing. Thus it seems that the three models are not mutually exclusive. They do, however, reflect different priorities and emphases, and most teachers, schools, and/or school systems align beliefs and practices primarily with one or another model. Focus on Outcomes
From a historical perspective, marked shifts in language arts instruction have taken place. In the early twentieth century, textbooks and assigned readings, writing assignments, and tests came to dominate the language arts curriculum. Instruction was characterized by a great deal of analysis of language and texts, on the theory that practice in analyzing language and drill in “correct” forms would lead students to improved use of language and proficiency in reading, writing, and discourse.
Instruction was entirely teacher-driven; literature and writing topics were selected by the teacher; spelling, grammar, and penmanship were taught as distinct subjects; and writing was vigorously corrected but seldom really taught in the sense that composition is often taught today. In the 1980s a shift toward the process model emerged in the works of many language arts theorists and the published practices of some influential teachers including Donald Graves, Lucy M. Calkins, and Nancie Atwell.
In 1987 the National Council of Teachers of English and the Modern Language Association sponsored a Coalition of English Associations Conference. Educational leaders from all levels came together at the conference to discuss past and present language arts teaching and to propose directions and goals to guide the teaching of language arts in the years leading up to and moving into the twenty-first century. The conference report specified the ideal outcomes of effective language arts instruction, in terms of the language knowledge, abilities, and attitudes of students.
These outcomes were largely process oriented, as illustrated by the following examples of outcomes for students leaving the elementary grades, as reported by William Teale in Stories to Grow On (1989): * They will be readers and writers, individuals who find pleasure and satisfaction in reading and writing, and who make those activities an important part of their everyday lives. * They will use language to understand themselves and others and make sense of their world.
As a means of reflecting on their lives, they will engage in such activities as telling and hearing stories, reading novels and poetry, and keeping journals. Principles to guide curriculum development evolved from the conference participants’ agreed upon student outcomes, and, like the outcomes, the principles were broad and process-focused. For example, two of the original principles are: Curriculum should evolve from a sound research knowledge base and The language arts curriculum should be learner-centered.
Elaborations on these and other curriculum goals deviated from earlier recommendations in that they included classroom-based ethnographic research, or action research, as well as traditional basic research in the knowledge base that informs the teaching of language arts. There was also agreement that textbooks serve best as resources for activities, but that the most effective language arts curricula are not text driven; rather they are created by individual teachers for varying communities of students.
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