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Common Core: Too Much Focus on Language Arts?

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this blog post by Amy Benjamin, author of Math In Plain English, Teaching Grammar, Vocabulary at the Center, and many other Eye On Education English Language Arts titles.

In the post, Benjamin explains how a strong curricular focus on English Language Arts does not have to come at the expense of other subject areas.

In the Curriculum Matters blog post "Most Teachers See the Curriculum Narrowing, Survey Finds," we read that "Most teachers believe that in the era of high-stakes testing in math and English/language arts, other important subjects are getting pushed out of the classroom. At the same time, nearly half of those polled believe the extra focus on math and English is helping to boost students’ ‘skills and knowledge’ in one or both subjects." I think that both of these views are missing an important point:  Building skills in literacy and reasoning doesn't subtract from skills and content in subjects that are not called English language arts and mathematics. In fact, building literacy and reasoning skills amplify the learning capacity of students, thereby strengthening their ability to learn, remember, access, and process information throughout the school day and beyond.

Rather than seeing the Common Core as leeching time away from other subjects, we need to acknowledge and respond to the central importance that language and reasoning play in every subject. By infusing writing-to-learn activities, reinforcing academic vocabulary, and expecting students to access knowledge through content area independent reading (and helping them do so), we are enriching education, not diluting it. The accurate use of language sharpens, almost defines, and even creates thinking skills.

If we do this thing correctly—not with worksheets, but with meaningful reading, writing, and vocabulary experiences—adherence to the Common Core will result in students who can express what they know and, equally important, what they don’t know.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to be that English teacher carrying around a worn canvas bag stuffed with papers to grade. But teachers don’t have to grade, edit, comment on, or even read everything students are asked to write. The real value of writing is to increase and refine knowledge for the writer, not the teacher. Writing does more than just express what you know. Writing actually creates what you know and allows you to see it.
Teachers are concerned about "finishing" the curriculum—which amounts to "covering" a set number of topics. If it were only a matter of finishing the curriculum, we would be giving workshops on how to talk faster. The real problem is poor reading comprehension that results from 1) too slow a reading pace, the result of lack of practice; and 2) insufficient academic vocabulary, also the result of lack of practice. In the absence of practice,  we are stuck in a vicious cycle of having to teach around the fact that students are not up to the task of reading and using writing as a means for learning.  Because we don’t require and help them to do so, we have to disseminate information ourselves, with our students as passive (and ineffective) learners.

Reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing-to-learn affect all academic subjects. As for the arts, the incorporation of literacy-related experiences such as having small group discussions and using technical language only enhances a student's proficiency and ability to participate in a community of like-minded artists. Most students in art and music classes are not going to become professional artists and performers, but we hope that they will invite art and music into their lives as a means of pleasure and a vehicle for socialization.

Rather than exacerbating the need for remedial classes that take away from electives, let’s come at it another way. Let’s have the electives provide the literacy supports that are inherent in learning those subjects. That would be much more motivating and effective than having students doing worksheets and practice tests in a remedial class.


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