Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Texas educators split over teaching English basics

Sent to the Houston Chronicle, April 21, 2008 by Dr. Stephen Krashen

Missing from the discussion (“Texas educators split
over teaching English basics,” April 21) of how to
improve students’ writing and speaking is the role of
reading: Research consistently shows that those who
write better have done more self-selected reading. In
fact, in some studies, the amount of free voluntary
reading done is the only factor that is associated
with better writing. In contrast, direct teaching of
grammar has consistently failed to improve writing

Teaching grammar to older students has value, to fill
in gaps that nearly all well-read writers have, and as
an introduction to linguistics. But there is no
substitute for reading, the basis of our ability to
read well and write well, the source of much of our
vocabulary and spelling knowledge, and the source of
our ability to handle complex grammatical

Wide, self-selected reading is barely mentioned in the
proposed standards, and neither side in the debate, as
portrayed by the Chronicle, appears to be aware of the
research showing the power of reading, which has
appeared regularly and consistently in professional,
scientific journals for the last 100 years.

Texas educators split over teaching English basics

By Gary Scharrer

AUSTIN — The inability of many Texas students to write
and speak good English is like a dreadful disease
requiring aggressive treatment, say some education
advocates who want to use different teaching

Social conservatives on the State Board of Education,
influenced in part by a retired teacher, are backing a
new curriculum that increases the focus on basics,
including grammar.

They've met fierce resistance from teachers and
educators who warn this emphasis will prepare students
for the 1950s, not the 21st century, and embarrass
Texas in the process.

They fear the state's proposed new standards for
reading and English language arts contradict
established research and will only make things worse.

"The results will be bloody," predicted one of those
language experts, former English professor Joyce
Armstrong Carroll.

A fight over the board's perceived exclusion of
Hispanic experts from development of the curriculum
has overshadowed this larger struggle.

A public comment period on the proposed curriculum
will end May 18, and the 15-member board is to take
final action on May 22. If approved, it will guide how
the state's 4.7 million public schoolchildren learn
English and reading over the next decade.

Much of the debate focuses on grammar and reading
comprehension. The controversy is being fanned, in
part, by Donna Garner, a retired English and Spanish
teacher in Hewitt. Garner writes education-related
e-mails and contributes to My

Students must learn precise communication skills, and
grammar requirements must be spelled out with explicit
language, she argues.

"We have a disease in Texas — our students do not know
how to write and speak English well," Garner said. "We
need to treat the disease aggressively.

"The skills need to build upon each other as the
student progresses from one grade level to the next.
Learning the basics of the English language will
provide students with a strong foundation upon which
to write sophisticated papers and upon which to base
clear communication," she said.

The integration of grammar with writing has been
taught in Texas for the past 15 years without much
success, Garner said, citing statistics showing half
of Texas college freshmen are in need of remedial
education, compared to only 28 percent nationally.

Teachers, parents and employers are appalled by the
lack of speaking and writing skills, she said.

Ignoring research
But some experts warn of dire consequences of teaching
grammar separately from writing and skimping on
reading comprehension.

Standardized tests like TAKS and the SAT don't examine
grammar skills in isolation — they test comprehension,
said Carroll, a former professor of English and
writing at McMurry University, author and co-director
of Abydos Learning International in Texas.

Carroll was part of a professional educators'
coalition that offered input during the three-year
process of writing standards for the state's proposed
English curriculum.

Some coalition members take a dim view of State Board
of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist,
and board member David Bradley of Beaumont, who have
helped lead the push for a back-to-basics approach.

"Would anyone believe that the coalition's research is
bogus, but a dentist from Bryan is right ... and a man
without a degree from Beaumont is right?" Carroll

Bradley says he and McLeroy "are eminently qualified
because, first of all, we're parents, we're
businesspeople and we're taxpayers."

Many parents, he said, complain that the current
curriculum standards are "so confusing, so vague, so
mushy that nobody can understand them, so we have this
industry to help people interpret and explain and
develop strategies and techniques to teach this mush."

The proposed standards ignore at least 50 years of
research on grammar instruction, counters Kylene Beers
of The Woodlands, president-elect of the National
Council of Teachers of English and a senior reading
adviser to secondary schools in the Reading Writing
Project at Teachers College at Columbia University.

People who yearn for a return to the basics usually
attended school in the 1950s, and by the end of that
decade only 20 percent of the best paying jobs
required at least some college, she said, in contrast
to today's figure of 56 percent.

"When we talk about getting back to the basics in
literacy education, the first thing that smart people
have to do is to realize that literacy demands have
shifted. What's basic now isn't the same as what was
basic when middle-aged adults of today were in
school," she said.

Both sides view the fight over reading comprehension
as bigger than the one over grammar.

"They have renamed 'whole language' as comprehension.
It's down to the classic debate of phonics versus
whole language," Bradley said.

Keeping it professional
Decades of research into how children learn shows that
drilling the basics does not achieve desired results,
said Alana Morris, language arts program director of
the Aldine school district and president of the
Coalition of Reading and English Supervisors of Texas.

"If you drill the basics on handouts and worksheets,
then that's where kids will be able to apply them,"
she said. "The bottom line is that drilling doesn't
transfer into solid writing."

Teaching grammar is important, "but we want to teach
it clearly so that kids can actually transfer it into
their writing," Morris said. "Teaching grammar in
drills makes no sense, whatsoever, to them."

The proposal calls for students to learn how to infer
the importance of a setting in a story in one grade
level, visualize the setting in the next grade and
then summarizing the setting two grade levels later,
she said.

"It's the most ludicrous thing I have ever seen in my
entire life," Morris said. "Each year with higher
level text you should learn how to draw inferences,
how to ask questions, how to synthesize information,
how to summarize."

Teachers will remain professional if the State Board
of Education approves the pending document, Morris

"Teachers are not the type that will march on Austin,"
she said, adding that experienced teachers will simply
ignore the new English textbooks.

— Gary Scharrer
Houston Chronicle

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting: were I to attribute my long, convoluted, memory-laden sentences to anyone, it would be Proust - never assigned reading (but oh, what a goldmine of both style and thought); he taught me the majesty of the semi-colon, the parentheses (even the embedded parentheses(which I wasn't intending to use here, but did)). My short, pithy sentences? Hemingway's fault. He's in all the Am. Lit anthologies.

    The balance between the two extremes comes from all those other authors who have written thoughtful sentences, from the libraries of schools and cities and universities across this country who have let me explore those authors for free, from the anthologies I have taught from and been taught from (I thank those anthologies for my exploration of Isabel Allende, among others. They are not to blame for my former fascination with Ann Rice, poetic as her prose may be).

    And we're going to insist that Texas teachers provide isolated lessons in grammar? The sun don't shine where that idea came from.