Return to conference page
Ms. Stotsky thank you very much Marion. My brief title for my talk
today will be -- When a sacred cow shouldn't be, Or beware of the Trojan Horse in
Today's Literary Stables.
Let me begin with a few comments on the California standards which I think are among
the best in the country, and this is a general national judgment as well. It has
a very strong English language arts vocabulary strand and that is the strand that
I am going to bounce off for the comments I will make today. California has probably
the most developed and detailed vocabulary strand of all of the English language
arts documents in the country for the state standards. Rightfully so for this kind
of emphasis on vocabulary as anyone who looked into the reading research knows. Vocabulary
is the key component of reading ability and it has been shown consistently. If we
have learned anything from reading research for the past 100 years, we have learned
this. As important as the phonics and language debate is, and I in no way want to
detract from the work Marion has done on that issue, it is a debate centered on the
There are other issues that become very important at the upper elementary grades
which is where I focused my own work when writing my book called Losing our language.
These are the grades where the critical emphasis is on building up comprehension
of written language--those words, structures, paragraphs and genres that get students
into advanced literary prose.
Children need selections of interest to them, not necessarily to adults. They need
paragraphs that develop concentration over longer stretches of prose. They need a
variety of sentence structures and a rich English vocabulary that give them access
to more difficult literature in the secondary schools and text books in history,
science and other areas. Unfortunately much of what is in so called children's literature
or reading selections today, whether in basal readers or trade books, defeats these
basic primary educational goals, or the instructional goals for upper elementary
grades. The problems I will detail are based on my examination of leading basal readers
in this country as of a few years ago, the teachers' guides that go with these readers,
the professional literature in journals and research reports, and trade books as
well. I analyzed the contents of many different sources of what children are asked
to read as possible. I want to make clear that not all readers are alike, and by
that I mean basal readers and instructional text books. They are not equally problematic.
They have different strengths. But all the trends I talk about at the level of vocabulary
can be found in all of them. It matters a great deal in the context today of the
most recent NAEP reading test results announced in February of 98. At that announcement,
Vice President Gore presided over what seemed a hyperbolic reaction to these results-a
slight increase after almost a decade of decline. Yet, there is a different story
in the details of the difference between the scores of minority students and the
scores of other students on those reading tests since the early 90s. There has been
a growing gap between scores of black and Hispanic students and the scores of other
students regularly since the early 90s. The full report has yet to be released. It
should be out within a week or so. All of you should consider this growing gap over
the past decade and begin to wonder what is accounting for it. I am suggesting here
what I think is one significant factor accounting for that gap which should worry
all of us.
What did I find at the level of language itself? There were other things I found,
but what did I find in basic reading instructional text books at the level of language
that I found extremely problematic? I want to preface my remarks by saying that many
years ago I taught third grade and I am well aware of what the vocabulary in a developmental
reading series should be. My own dissertation focused on vocabulary development in
instructional reading textbooks as well.
First of all, I found what I call many academically useless words. What are those
academically useless words? Many non-English words are there, despite the fact that
these texts or used for teaching reading in English. You have to keep the purpose
of these reading instructional text books in mind. These words may come from Swahili,
Spanish, or other languages. Often they were the names of foods. There seems to be
an assumption that 4th and 6th grade students are interested in cuisines around the
In some books I found selections altogether in another language, paired with their
translation into English. The purpose for this kind of offering was never made clear
in the guides I looked at. Another group of academically useless words are ethnic
words. These are words that appear in English and can appear in the English dictionary
such as kiva, a word for a ceremonial chamber used by Indians in the southwest, and
mozzarella, the name of an Italian cheese. These are what I mean by ethnic words.
They are not core vocabulary words for developing an English vocabulary and getting
into academic or literary prose. It's unlikely you would find mozzarella used in
a math or science book. There were other academically useless words; these were dialect
words. Most often black dialect, but that was not the only kind. I was amazed at
the editors' or advisors' ingenuity in finding selections that demonstrate the dialect
of the deaf, Appalachian dialect, Norwegian dialect. One can find all kinds of dialect,
it seems, if one is after dialect. There is another very large group of what I also
called academically useless words. I was dumbfounded by the number of proper nouns
throughout the readers, differing in spelling or pronunciation from English language
patterns. I want to indicate quickly how I happened to notice such a phenomenon.
I studied German many years ago. As you know, when you read a page in German, you
are used to the fact that both common and proper nouns are capitalized, and you get
used to the visual image of a German page. An English page doesn't give you that
visual impression. When I was reading these children's stories, I had this deja
vu effect that I was reading German, not English. I stopped to analyze what I was
reading, and I realized that there were capitalized nouns all over the place. That
was because the stories come from a variety of ethnic groups, language groups, and
they all have different names for the characters, name places, rivers, gods, deities
of different kinds. There just seem to be capitalized nouns all over the place because
of this variety of groups being portrayed in the readers.
The final thing I found, and it's related to all the others, was a smaller number
of literate English words. That was how I would define them. There are a variety
of ways I try to tap into that, and I won't go into my methodology here because it's
laid out in my book. But the question was, what would account for the smaller number
of literate words? Now, what do I mean by a literate word? A word like "insignificant,
incomprehensible, illiterate" -- the words that are useful in academically advanced
English prose, whether it's literary or academic. And here was where I began to
make a link between what seemed to be a reigning multicultural philosophy as it is
now defined -- and I don't want this to be seen as an attack upon diversity in itself.
The question was, what it now seemed to be representing in terms of these reading
selections. This link between today's philosophy of what this word means and reading
skill development. All of these academically useless foreign words, proper nouns
or ethnic words are there in the stories that come from the many different ethnic
groups now featured in these textbooks, presumably, I would gather, to build the
self-esteem of those groups who use the words.
I won't have time to give you some of the passages that show examples of Jap-lish,
Spang-lish, or the use of Swahili in passages, but one has to keep reminding oneself
that these are textbooks designed to teach children how to read English. And if
you give them 35 Swahili words in one story, 20 Japanese words in another story,
that means they have not learned 35 English words in that story or 20 English words
in the other. This kind of language stew is not characteristic of the majority of
selections -- I want to make that clear -- but they do represent the ideas promoted
in today's educational journals. You also find the emphasis on the daily life culture
of a group of people in today's view of what multicultural literature is all about.
That means you are focusing on the names of foods, clothing, features of homes,
other aspect of daily life that are used to distinguish their, quotes, "culture"
from other cultures. But by definition, all of these words, even in English, are
not academically enriching words. Dialect stories are not academically enriching
words, and they are featured because children's language is seen as, quotes, "part
of their cultural identity."
So all of these things get put into reading selections or are chosen because they
reflect this philosophy. You have stories with lots of conversation or dialogue,
which show the language of these children, and as you know, part of the way in which
we show changes in conversation is that you have short paragraphs. Every time the
speaker's voice changes, you have a new paragraph, so you don't have prolonged paragraph
development. That's part of the problem with those story. You also have an emphasis
on genres like family chronicles, diaries, and so forth -- the writings of the people,
so to speak. So again, you have "I" as the subject of a sentence, or "you"
and "he," not other kinds of words as subjects of sentences. If the intention
is to change students' attitudes, values and feelings, which is what Geneva Gay and
others say is the orientation of much of what is called multicultural literature,
then social goals will be trumping intellectual or academic goals and drawing on
a vocabulary that excludes a good part of the enriched vocabulary that children
are supposed to be getting. I'm sure this was not intentional on the part of those
promoting stories about different kinds of groups of children. The question is why
certain selections are there, why they are chosen in such abundance, and what effect
this has on the ability of an editor or a teacher in a classroom to put together
a program that allows for systematic development of an advanced English vocabulary.
What I am suggesting finally is that if you want to make sure that the fine vocabulary
strand you have in your English language arts frameworks is to really amount to
something that's meaningful, teachers will have to be very careful that the reading
series they use or whatever selections they use to teach reading are serving not
as tools in the culture wars, but as tools in the war against illiteracy, which once
was the purpose for reading instructional textbooks in English. Thank you.
Go to transcript of Patrice Abarca