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Texas English Standards Underwhelm: Grammar not even Mentioned

New Texas English standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), went into effect last year. Sadly, they lack the solidity that the word “standards” implies. They have no aspiration towards concrete knowledge or grammar, taking instead a misguided “skills” approach to English. Let me repeat, the word grammar is not even mentioned…in English standards.

The relevant government officials likely do not tolerate this out of malice, but are instead unaware of the undergirding ideology of the document. Put simply, they are oblivious.

The English TEKS aim for abstraction rather than concreteness.

Shockingly, the word “grammar” does not appear in the English I, II, III, or IV Texas standards. Meanwhile, the Common Core education standards unapologetically state that students should, “Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.” If an English teacher in Texas is teaching his or her students about grammar (parts of speech, clauses, etc.), that teacher is going rogue and is out of step with the Texas Education Agency.

If Texas students wished to obtain grammatical knowledge, they would have to research it independently (try not to laugh). Conversely, the Common Core appendix notes:

 “Grammatical knowledge can also aid reading comprehension and interpretation. Researchers recommend that students be taught to use knowledge of grammar and usage, as well as knowledge of vocabulary, to comprehend complex academic texts.”

Are the TEKS authors not aware of this research?

In the TEKS, it is merely hoped that students will edit their writing for “command of the standard English conventions” (Eng III 9.D), without a teacher explaining what exactly those conventions are. How can we expect students to spontaneously edit themselves without being taught the conventions by…a teacher?

The English TEKS aim for abstraction rather than concreteness. The jargon in the standards creates an aura of impenetrability. I have not heard any educator comment on them. Perhaps the paper-thin intellectual veneer intimidates anyone from asking questions, lest they be suspected of not understanding such a profound document.

For example, take standard Eng III.4.C:

Comprehension skills: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and thinking using multiple texts. The student uses metacognitive skills to both develop and deepen comprehension of increasingly complex texts.

The TEKS standard goes on to lay out many examples of metacognitive skills which purportedly assist students’ comprehension skills, such as “establishing purpose for reading assigned and self-selected text,” “generate questions,” and “monitor comprehension.” 

This is fine in theory, but educators hold exaggerated ideas about the effectiveness of metacognitive strategies. There is little evidence to support them. As education author Natalie Wexler notes in The Knowledge Gap, focusing on metacognitive skills can actually make reading “more frustrating,” (90), making reading a laborious process of introspection rather than something natural and enjoyable. The relative benefits of metacognition are also disputed by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who describes the inculcating of metacognitive skills as having a “modest benefit,” with diminishing returns as a student reaches high school.

Contrast this with the Common Core standards, now used in 41 states. The ELA Common Core standards do not bother with these metacognitive strategies. Instead they focus on having students understand what a text actually says:

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

It may seem self-evident that this is what we should be doing in English. But this represents a push back from the trend of the “personal response” or “reader response” to texts. The reader response model uses prompts such as, “This story made me feel…” or “This story reminds me of…” Sure enough, the TEKS call for students to “make connections to personal experiences” in a text. Here we go again.

Here we go again.

The Common Core is much more concise than the TEKS. It does not aim to impress readers with its dense prose. It describes its standards “clear, understandable, and consistent.”

Both the Texas standards and the Common Core include vocabulary, but the TEKS eliminated many aspects of vocabulary from their 2009 iteration, such as analyzing word analogies and using foreign language cognates to identify word meanings. Why would they take that away?

The English TEKS fail in their lack of clarity, and they omit the most basic elements of what it means to teach English. The relevant stakeholders in Texas need to reevaluate these poorly constructed “standards” as soon as possible.

(originally published at the Chalkboard Review)

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