Cal State

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education

California State University Northridge

Transcript of Sandra Stotsky
(edited by the speaker)
biography of speaker


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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 primary grades.

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 world.

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.


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Contact the organizers

Postal and telephone information:

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K12 Education

College of Science and Mathematics

California State University Northridge

18111 Nordhoff St.

Northridge CA 91330-8235

Telephone: (Dr. Klein: 818-677-7792)

FAX: 818-677-3634 (Attn: David Klein)