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Common English And Its “Domain-Specific” Vocabulary

From middle school on, English teachers spend tons of time teaching what are now called “literary elements.” When I was a kid, we called them “literary devices,” which I think is a better term for things like metaphor, imagery, onomatopoeia: the devices that writers use to create literature. Whatever you call them, these devices are the foundation of a solid English education.

When I teach “Of Mice and Men,” the class spends a lot of time talking about imagery. When I teach “Romeo and Juliet,” we talk about metaphor. And when we finally get around to poetry, we talk about alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, and all the other specialized devices that elevate separate great literature from office memos.

There are always students who ask, “Why do we need to learn this stuff?” They say that nobody’s ever going to approach them on the street and ask them to clarify the difference between simile and metaphor; no job interviewer will ever ask them what they know about assonance. These students are probably right. Unless they become English teachers, having a thorough understanding of literary devices will not help these students make money. The truth is, we don’t teach literary elements because students are likely to use them in the workplace. (The same could be said, by the way, of calculus, chemistry, and American history.) We teach them because they are the building blocks of literature, and of all sophisticated writing. Without understanding these elements, students can’t discuss reading or writing with any authority; without understanding these elements, those students who want to become writers will lack many of the tools necessary to create great writing.

As far as the folks behind the Common Core standards are concerned, that’s just fine. Thanks to the Common Core, this year a series of “Shifts in ELA/Literacy” will be imposed upon English teachers across the country. These shifts require, among other things, that English teachers spend less time on “esoteric literary terms … such as ‘onomatopoeia’ or ‘homonym’” and more time on “pivotal and commonly found words…such as ‘discourse,’ ‘generation,’ ‘theory,’ and ‘principled.’” It’s worth noting that not one of the terms identified as “pivotal” under these common core shifts is specific to the discipline of English. This is particularly interesting given the Common Core’s insistence on “domain-specific” vocabulary.

Why do the folks behind the Common Core think domain-specific vocabulary isn’t important when it comes to English? Again, the language used to describe the new Common Core approach highlights the ways that these standards will change the goal of English study from understanding and mastery of literature and literary writing to “constantly build[ing] students’ ability to access more complex texts across the content areas.” In other words, the goal of English class will become helping students read texts for their other subject areas — the ones that really matter, like math.

Contrast the mandated shifts in English curricula to the Common Core “Shifts in Mathematics.” In math, under the Common Core, teachers are instructed to “teach more than ‘how to get the answer’ and instead support students’ ability to access concepts from a number of perspectives.” In math, the goal is that “students demonstrate deep conceptual understanding of core math concepts by applying them to new situations, as well as writing and speaking about their understanding.”

I have to be honest: that sounds awesome. It’s exactly what the goal should be for English class: deep conceptual understanding of core literary concepts. In order to gain such a deep understanding though, students must first master the elements that make up literature. Unfortunately, the folks behind the Common Core have made it abundantly clear that they see little value in having students understand literature. Over and over again, Common Core advocates have promoted teaching “informational texts” over literature. According to the Common Core, more than 50 percent of high school English curricula are supposed to consist of informational texts. By 12th grade, the Common Core recommends that 70 percent of the texts students read in English be informational, not literary. In other words, the more advanced students get in English, the less specialized their knowledge will become.

How will this affect me in the classroom? For starters, it will be deadly boring. Pulling information out of a text is not a high school-level skill. Indeed, according to basic literacy theory, “reading to learn new information” is a skill that should be mastered from ages 8 to 14. In high school, we should be focusing on moving students past basic comprehension (recommended by the Common Core) towards viewing texts from multiple perspectives, and then eventually towards constructing their own critical perspectives on these texts.

“Informational texts” provide few opportunities for such high-level thought. They are written at a basic level for a basic purpose— to convey information. This is why teaching literature is so essential. When my students read “Romeo and Juliet,” they have to gather information: plot points, character traits, and characteristics of setting are all forms of information that students must gather from literary texts. That information gathering, however, is not the goal of our study. The goal, ultimately, is to have students understand how Shakespeare uses language to provoke a variety of reactions in his readers. How does he use imagery to convey his characters’ emotional states? How does he use dramatic irony to heighten the audience’s interest? How can we use Shakespeare’s methods in our own writing? How do great writers use language to convey complex ideas and manipulate their readers?

We can approach these complex questions through “Romeo and Juliet” because Romeo and Juliet is literature; it is complex writing that operates on many levels simultaneously in order to transcend the limits of language and provoke complex reactions in its readers. As such, literature demands far more of its readers than do “informational texts.” Along with that, it offers far greater rewards.

Under the Common Core, English teachers are told that for every unit we spend on “The House on Mango Street,” we must spend another on texts that are less rich and less complex. We are instructed not to teach the literary elements that make deep, complex writing possible. In the end, we are required to emphasize the most basic and superficial aspect of written communication — the simple transmission of information — at the expense of all the elements that make students want to read “The Hunger Games“ rather than watch reality television. When, after pulling a fact out of an informational text for the umpteenth time, students ask me that old question, “Why do we have to do this?”, I don’t know what I’ll say. It just doesn’t make any sense.

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