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Commentary on the Draft English Language Arts Curriculum

I appreciate that people are less unhappy with the draft curriculum for English Language Arts than with some of the other subject areas. But, as an academic who researches young people and their literacies – print, media, and digital – I am very concerned with its major omissions of topics crucial to the well-being of young people and to their development as citizens in a multimodal world. Here is a summary of my letter to Adriana LaGrange.

Of all the components of this dreadful draft curriculum, the English language arts element has come in for the smallest amount of criticism. Many people are very happy with the emphasis on phonics, morphemes, and the like.

I have a different perspective. I don’t have a lot to say about the technical work on teaching the decoding of print that is present in abundance in the ELA draft. Of course, children need to learn to read and write well; that goes without saying. However, I have serious reservations about what is missing.

My first concern is about the narrowness of text format considered in the draft. In the era of the smartphone, the average Albertan, adult or teen, is far more likely to have a video camera in their pocket than a fountain pen. In the era of YouTube, the average Albertan five-year-old arrives at the door of the Kindergarten classroom with a vast amount of experience of the moving image. In the era of covid, most young children in Alberta have learned to connect to family and friends through an assortment of screens.

But there is virtually nothing about the moving image in the ELA curriculum. Nothing at all about apps. Nothing about video games. All these formats involve the arts of language, and the ELA curriculum is where they belong. Children need to learn what is involved in making these forms, in interpreting these forms, in critiquing these forms; those capacities are what we call literacy. A thoughtful curriculum develops critical awareness of different text formats, including the ones dearest to the hearts of the students; and, as a result, it sends more aware gamers and app users back to their home screens. To omit all these formats from the curriculum is to waste a vital opportunity.

Karen Wohlwend, in an article now more than ten years old, sounds an alarmingly contemporary and relevant warning about the perils of ignoring the technological sophistication that young children bring into the classroom.  Although some of the technology she mentions, such as CD-ROMs have now vanished (a fact that is in itself a reminder of the speed of change), her concern for how we define “the new basics” remains extremely pertinent,  I like this piece because she is so clear that the stakes are high – and her respect for young children is also high. 

My second concern is that children are not being educated about how texts and language can be deployed against their own best interests. In the era of the Internet, the sponsored website, the edutainment universe, children’s leisure choices of videos to watch, games to play, and websites to explore are often monitored by commercial interests. There is nothing in this ELA curriculum to introduce children to the concepts and the rhetoric of advertising. Once, the junior high years may have been time enough to explore these issues, but elementary school children today are consumers – and frequently consumers under market surveillance. 

The ELA curriculum admires the rhetorical genius of Cicero but ignores the rhetorical genius of advertisers who seduce today’s children on every kind of screen.  It is not necessary to start from scratch in order to improve children’s alertness to their digital and commercial surroundings; age-appropriate and Canadian teaching material to enhance the security awareness of young children is already available, produced by organizations such as the not-for-profit charity, MediaSmarts.

Faith Rogow, in a 2014 chapter about media literacy for young children, addresses both of the issues I raise here.  She talks about the significance of children understanding how the media they use every day are put together, with many examples of the classroom potential of this topic.  She also introduces a handy list of simple questions for analyzing media messages, including the following samples:  “Who created this or Who made up this story?  (Authorship).  What does this want me to do?  (Purposes).  Who paid for this?  Who makes money from it?  (Economics).”  The entire list of questions is worth reading very carefully.  This chapter comes from a book entitled Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years:  Tools for Teaching and Learning (ed. Donohue) but you can read the chapter here.  

The draft ELA curriculum focuses almost entirely on words – mostly written, occasionally spoken. Today’s children live in a world of proliferating images and interactivity. They need to learn how to function as critical citizens of this lively world. They need to learn the uses and abuses of all kinds and forms of language in this world. There is actually a place for such activity in the ELA curriculum, the strand called “representing.” It is mentioned in the introduction but then it seems to vanish without trace.

Contemporary children already move in a world full of representations; drawing on that knowledge in order to expand and refine it should be one of the major tasks of the English language arts curriculum. This draft fails that challenge.