Joseph R. Lease
MAT 303b / Teasley
July 23, 2002
My Philosophy of Teaching the English Language Arts
The English language arts are expanding. What
once could have been simply and neatly defined as reading and writing has
now blossomed into a field that includes reading, writing, listening, speaking,
viewing, and even visually representing. Similarly, my own philosophy of teaching
in this field keeps expanding as I learn more about what it means to be a
teacher and how one can impact the lives of his or her students both in and
out of the classroom. For now, though, I can still define my feelings about
teaching English by addressing three basic ideas: what the English language
arts are, why they are important, and how I think they should be taught.
So, what are the English language arts? Well,
to begin with, language is defined by the New American Webster Handy College
Dictionary, New Third Edition (what a title - now there's an example of "language
art"!) as "the aggregate of words composing a system of communication
between persons in speech or writing" (387). Not bad, really - this is
a good example of a basic physical definition of language, but it is not complete
because it fails to address the ideas of viewing and visually representing.
However, skimming down to the third definition provided by Webster I see something
that I like much better: language is "expression of thought in any way"
(387). This is different from communication, which I would define as the act
of conveying a thought. Instead, I see language as a tool for improving communication.
Anything that expresses thought for the purpose of conveying it to others
is language. The English language arts, then, encompass all forms of communication
that convey thoughts in English.
Why are language arts important? They are important
for many reasons. In Standards for the English Language Arts, the National
Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association assert
that students should be "knowledgeable and proficient users of language
so that they may succeed in school, participate in our democracy as informed
citizens, find challenging and rewarding work, appreciate and contribute to
our culture, and pursue their own goals and interests as independent learners
throughout their lives" (vii). Those are all excellent reasons for approaching
and learning about this subject, but they do not touch on the reason why I
feel that studying language arts is so important. I believe that language
(i.e. expression of thought in any way) is the single most important development
in human history. Thought separates us from the other living things on this
planet, but what good would thought be without the ability to share an idea
with others? Through the communication of our ideas, we advance as a species;
and thus language arts, as defined above, are extremely important.
On a more individual level, I believe that studying
language arts enhances both cognitive and social development. In other words,
we become better people through studying language arts. When we read a novel,
we can live vicariously through the characters, learning from their mistakes
and sharing in their successes. We learn more about who we are and what we
believe by measuring our own thoughts against those present in the text. The
same can be said for poetry and music and sculpture and anything else that
deals with the communication of thought. By engaging with others' ideas about
the world, we develop and strengthen our own ideas about how and where we
fit within that same world.
As difficult as the language arts are to define,
they are even more difficult to teach successfully. Actually, I think I could
teach for twenty years and never come close to implementing a perfect system
for teaching English. I think the difficulty lies in the fact that every person
approaches language differently. We all bring our own experiences and thoughts
to the table any time we engage in communication, and every person engages
with a text (verbal, visual, or written) uniquely. How would it ever be possible,
then, to develop a formula for teaching language arts to every kind of student?
As teachers, we would need an infinite number of instructional formulas to
draw from in order to find and apply the right one for each individual student.
Having said all that, though, I do believe that there are some basic approaches
to teaching the English language arts that can be very effective.
First of all, I believe that students should
be exposed to a wide variety of texts. Not every student will enjoy reading
novels, but one negative experience should not define his or her response
to the language arts. Instead, students should be encouraged to engage with
any sort of text that they feel an attraction toward, whether that text is
fiction or nonfiction, written or verbal. It is very important that, while
in school, students are exposed to some form of the language arts that they
enjoy, so that they have other experiences with texts aside from what they
are assigned to do. Students should not limit themselves to these favorites,
but they can serve as a "break" in between texts that might be more
challenging for them. I also believe that, much like the national standards
suggest, students should be exposed to different texts and kinds of literature
from many time periods. In this, the English language arts can serve as a
valuable gateway to humanity's past, and I believe our schools should encourage
students to take advantage of this connection whenever possible.
Schools can also take advantage of opportunities
provided through the study of the English language arts by changing the structure
of high school English courses. The state standards of North Carolina mandate
a format where genre studies are covered in ninth grade, world literature
in tenth grade, American literature in eleventh grade, and English literature
in twelfth grade. I do understand some of the reasons for teaching literature
in this manner. It is very easy, for example, to coordinate American history
with American literature in eleventh grade and give students a connection
between classes during that year. Despite the advantages of presenting English
in this format, however, I believe it could be structured more effectively.
I believe taking a thematic approach to teaching literature would be more
beneficial to the students. For example, under the current format, students
miss out on opportunities to be exposed to many important world literature
texts because, as tenth graders, they are most often not prepared to engage
with many of the advanced texts of this genre. If classes were organized thematically,
though, twelfth grade students could engage with world literature, American
literature, and English literature texts centered around a specific idea,
such as the nature of conflict or the individual versus society. Each year
of high school students could engage with texts that are appropriate to their
maturity level, as opposed to studying only the literature of certain nationalities.
In all, I believe that gaining an understanding of and an appreciation for the English language arts are the most important skills that students can master during their secondary school careers. More than anything else that I will teach my students, the ability to comprehend and engage with texts will encourage them to continue to grow as individuals long after they have left my classroom. In order to ensure their success, however, I must be willing to be flexible and creative in the way that I approach teaching the English language arts, and I must strive to remember that each individual approaches this subject with a unique perspective from which he or she builds a singular relationship with every text.
National Council of Teachers of English and International Reading Association. Standards for the English Language Arts. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996.