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Language Arts Madness—and the Method In’t

Let’s face it: Language arts instruction is tough. In history class, you have people, places, events, and dates to rely on. In science, you have theories and laws and pictures of the Horse-Head Nebula. What do you have in language arts? Words, words, words.

Or, to quote from Hamlet II, ii, 191-195:

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet: Slanders, sir. For the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams; all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.

Polonius: [Aside.] Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

Words, words, words. Words with genius and madness in them—that’s what we have to teach in the language arts classroom. But what is the method for getting at all those amazing words and helping students learn to produce amazing words themselves?

According to pioneering researcher James Moffett, language arts-instruction deals with words in four ways: through speaking, listening, writing, and reading.

That’s a lot to keep track of. Sometimes, we cope by focusing on reading and hope that these other skills will follow. We pick reading because it can be taught and tested. We can hand a student a short story and say, “Read this and answer the questions.” Then we can check the answers to make sure the student understands.

Writing is a whole different story. It’s so interior. What do we hand students—a blank piece of paper? What do we tell them—”fill it up”? And even if they do fill it up, how do we assess what they fill it up with?

For nearly a century, the answer to all these questions was a simple assumption: “Writing can’t be taught.” So, we stuck with reading.

As a result, we saw the rise of reading/literature programs—thousand-page, level-by-level compendiums that, by sheer heft, must contain all of language arts instruction. Modern ones do include writing, but usually as the menial servant to reading. The approach is doomed to fail. Here’s what the great writing instructor Donald Murray had to say about using literature to teach writing:

Most of us are trained as English teachers by studying a product: writing. Our critical skills are honed by examining literature, which is finished writing.… Then, fully trained in the autopsy, we go out and are assigned to teach our students to write, to make language live.… We are as frustrated as our students, for conscientious, doggedly responsible, repetitive autopsying doesn’t give birth to live writing.… When we teach composition, we are not teaching a product; we are teaching a process.… Process cannot be inferred from product any more than a pig can be inferred from a sausage.

Donald Murray was one of the first people who believed writing can be taught. He and Donald Graves led a revolution with the likes of their New Hampshire irregulars and others such as Ken Macrorie and Vicki Spandel to provide a student-centered, authentic approach to writing. Out of their research, writing programs such as Write Source were born.

Now, let’s be fair: Just as reading programs don’t truly teach writing, writing programs don’t truly teach reading. The key, then, is to get a writing program to work with a reading/literature program. Only then can you get complete coverage.

So, that’s the method in the madness. Watch for my next blog post, which will contain some practical strategies for connecting a writing program with a reading program.

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