Decision Making in the Language Arts. ERIC Digest.
by Smith, Carl B
When education seems to be in the midst of a change, decision making
is often confrontational. Almost any decision brings conflict. Even if
the administrator makes no decision and lets the staff drift with the current,
conflict will arise, for teachers and parents who want change to be mandated
and directed will cry for action. Thus the administrator is thrust into
the midst of the debate over change, even if he or she doesn't want to
When making decisions in language arts, an administrator can be guided
by a set of tenets for curriculum, instruction, and assessment (Bush, 1994;
Sanacore, 1993). The following principles represent a philosophy that gives
both the community and the learner a stake in the content and in the process
* The language arts curriculum needs to represent community culture
and the individual interests of students. The community expects schools
to transmit culture through literature and to develop fluency in reading
and writing sufficient for employment and independent learning. The personal
interests of students open up an unlimited array of topics and directions
to explore beyond the community curriculum.
* In literature and in communication skills the language arts curriculum
needs coherence and a sequence that enables teachers and students to have
a sense of direction and a sense of progress across the years.
* Both the community and individual students want language arts assessment
to give them an estimate of performance on communication processes and
on communication skills and products.
* The assessment of reading and writing needs to represent as closely
as possible the acts of reading and writing in their natural states. Assessment
for administrative purposes may be different from assessment for individual
* Children need to know how to approach books strategically and thoughtfully.
* Strategic thinking (comprehension) relies on knowledge and practice
for fluency and reasonable performance.
* Many reading and communication skills should be learned gradually
through the child's literacy environment. Schools should deliberately surround
children with all kinds of literacy experiences as one productive means
for developing skills and strategies that serve common sense communication
needs (Bromley, 1992).
* Students need to develop the attitude that they are the ones who build
meaning in the process of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. They
are the responsible agents who must actively pursue meaning through their
responses to literature, their organization of thoughts, their selections
of words for images when they speak or write.
* Standards for communication arise from excellent literature and from
the models presented to the students. Students need opportunities to analyze,
reflect, and practice the language models presented to them (Hennings,
A nagging issue in determining curriculum and in choosing literature
is the place of nonfiction in the curriculum. Quite understandably, fiction
and personal responses to fiction are the substance of the interest-centered
approach. Books and personal experiences that involve adventure and high
emotion are the stuff of personal interest. This is why the typical elementary
school child spends approximately 30 hours per week watching television--adventure
and high emotion. But in the child's world of study, and in the adult world
of work and information, nonfictional material is more often required reading.
When students need to study, to find information, or to apply information
to solving problems, they need skills and metacognitive strategies that
are different from the emotional responses and the reality testing they
use in reading fiction (Doiron, 1995). Study reading, information processing,
and organizing for problem solving are important life skills that may not
develop spontaneously if children are left to pursue only their self-defined
THE SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT
Many of the issues in language arts seem to revolve around the question
of the effectiveness of the environment as the primary teacher of literacy
and communication skills. If children are placed in a school environment
that is filled with high-interest books and offers them multiple opportunities
to communicate their ideas and feelings, will they thereby learn the language
skills, the thinking strategies, the study skills, and the cultural information
that they need for a successful life? Will their own interests and an adult
advisor (teacher) lead them to succeed in school, enter college, or perform
satisfactorily as workers in an information age? The stakes are high, aren't
Viewing the issue from the opposite perspective, the questions are
similar. If children are placed in an environment where the curriculum
objectives are the prearranged presentation of cultural literature and
the practice of skills that are needed to study and to use information,
will they attend well enough to these objectives and apply sufficient energy
to them to learn and to succeed later at work outside of school?
This discussion does not preclude a school from mixing interests with
a prearranged curriculum (Hirsch, 1993). But then the job becomes more
complex. And those who hold tightly to a particular philosophy will bemoan
the prostitution of their beliefs.
In an ideal world, all learning would flow naturally from the curiosity
of a learner, In this ideal world, boys and girls would see the moon appear
in various shapes and would ask why. On their own, they would make monthly
observations, draw diagrams, read books that explain the phenomenon, and
study the observations of others. Then they would write a summary of their
findings so that others could benefit from their experience (see, for example,
Chancer and Rester-Zodrow, 1997). All learning would occur in this way,
one question and answer leading to another, all subjects open to constant
exploration in a perfectly integrated learning process.
There would be no schools in this world. Who would need schools when
all learning is naturally prompted and entirely integrated? We have schools
because we do not live in an ideal world. The knowledge needed to thrive
in modern society is increasingly abstract and dependent on previous learning,
and society requires regular evidence that children are moving systematically
toward intellectual adulthood. Even so, the vision of the curious learner
who experiences knowledge in a functional, integrated way should be encouraged
in whatever manner modern schools permit (Argo, 1995; Carroll, 1993). If
we can create a school environment in which children work with classmates
to search for answers, we are helping them view learning as a natural and
valuable community experience.
We should strive to encourage children to learn language arts in a natural
way. As educators, it is our job to instill in children the desire to learn
language and modes of communication and to develop thinking skills. If
we are doing our job well, our students will read well written fiction
and nonfiction because they believe that doing so enriches their lives
by helping them communicate effectively and opening up their minds to new
and diverse ideas. If we strive for this ideal, I believe we can improve
language arts learning and instruction.
Argo, Donna K. Sherrill (1995). "Integrated Language Arts: A Study of
the Achievement of 6th Grade Students in an Integrated Language Arts Program."
M.S. Thesis, Fort Hays State University. [ED 384 048]
Bromley, Karen D'Angelo (1992). Language Arts: Exploring Connections.
2nd Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. [ED 375 403]
Bush, Betty (1994). "Integrated Language Arts: Curriculum Redesign in
Teacher Training." [ED 377 186]
Carroll, Jacquelin H. et al (1993). "Integrated Language Arts Instruction
(Reviews and Reflections). Language Arts, 70(4), 310-15. [EJ 461 023]
Chancer, Joni, and Gina Rester-Zodrow (1997). Moon Journals: Writing,
Art, and Inquiry through Focused Nature Study. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
[CS 215 649]
Doiron, Ray (1995). "An Aesthetic View of Children's Nonfiction." English
Quarterly, 28(1), p35-41. [EJ 521 418]
Hennings, Dorothy Grant (1997). Communication in Action: Teaching the
Language Arts. 6th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. [CS 509 419]
Hirsch, E.D., Jr. (1993). "The Core Knowledge Curriculum--What's behind
Its Success?" Educational Leadership, 50(8) 23-25, 27-30. [EJ 462 453]
Sanacore, Joseph (1993). "Schoolwide Literature-Based Practices: Cooperative
Leadership Is an Asset." [ED 354 488]