Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In the Common Core, Is there a Place for Domain Specific Vocabulary in the Discipline of English/Language Arts?

The Common Core standards consistently emphasize "general academic and domain-specific vocabulary," in equal measures. They are almost always used together.

One thing I've noticed in the standards, however, is both a peculiar lack of domain-specific vocabulary within the discipline of English and Language Arts, and inaccuracy when it is used.

For example, Ye Olde Massachusetts Standards:

Identify and analyze characteristics of genres (satire, parody, allegory, pastoral) that overlap or cut across the lines of genre classifications such as poetry, prose, drama, short story, essay, and editorial.

That sort of genre analysis -- fundamental to the discipline of English (and the humanities in general) -- is conspicuously absent from the Common Core.

This is a more typical formulation for the CC:

Analyze a case in which grasping point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Is it my imagination, or is this written in such a way to require as little domain-specific knowledge or vocabulary within English Language Arts as possible?

When domain-specific vocabulary is used in the standards, it is mangled. For example according to CC, "informational texts" = "literary nonfiction" which is defined as:

Includes the subgenres of exposition, argument, and functional text in the form of personal essays, speeches, opinion pieces, essays about art or literature, biographies, memoirs, journalism, and historical, scientific, technical, or economic accounts (including digital sources) written for a broad audience.

That's just a mess on stilts, none of those definitions fits their "domain-specific" definition or makes any sense.

What I'm realizing now is that all this is a bit more intentional than I thought.

Here's what Achieve is telling secondary school leaders:

Academic Vocabulary: Students constantly build the vocabulary they need to access grade level complex texts. By focusing strategically on comprehension of pivotal and commonly found words (such as “discourse,” “generation,” “theory” and “principled”) and less on esoteric literary terms (such as “onomatopoeia” or “homonym”), teachers constantly build students’ ability to access more complex texts across the content areas.

This argument by Achieve has no basis in the text of the standards, which gives general academic and domain-specific terms equal weight, but it is becoming the standard interpretation.


SHIFT 6: Academic Vocabulary from EngageNY on Vimeo.


What I have come to realize over the years is that I teach discreet [sic] genre-related skills for poetry, drama, “the novel and memoir.[sic] Why was I sending kids off to college and work without teaching them how to engage in complex, informational and non-fiction text? Now I have partners in that effort in other content classes down the hall. it makes sense.

Now, I'm actually sympathetic with their general point about "tier 2" words being relatively under-taught, and I can see how this could especially be an issue with disadvantaged students. And I can imagine liking a set of standards which de-emphasized some academic vocabulary because they were less narrowly academic overall.

But these standards are not only very narrowly academic in their goals, but with a particular emphasis on close reading and textual analysis. Are we really dead set on doing this without using "esoteric literary terms (such as “onomatopoeia” or 'homonym')?" Why, exactly? In the video, David Coleman talks about the subtlety of meaning lost in over-emphasizing synonyms. Is it ok to teach the word "synonym" but not "homonym?" Or should we just use "words that mean almost the same thing" and "words that sound the same but are different" instead to prepare kids for college?

I think Coleman genuinely wants students and teachers who love words and language, but I don't understand the hostility toward words used to describe and analyze other words.

To the extent there is an explanation to this, I think it can be attributed to the rivalry between ELA and Literacy experts and teachers. Literacy people heavily outnumbered ELA people on these standards, and they're using the process to disarm their institutional rivals by literally removing their words -- their tools -- from schools.


EC said...

An interesting post--but ultimately not very important. Explicit vocab instruction is not very important, and which particular words are explicitly taught is even less so. What seems important, as far as I can tell, is meaningful discussion of meaningful texts and a lot of independent reading. I mean, I love literature--I'm probably the most traditional Am. Lit. teacher in my school--and some "domain-specific" vocab gets taught in my classes (I do a fair amount of work with poetic meter in particular )--but I don't really care about my students knowing the words "homonym", "metonymy," or whatever. When they have to learn it, they will...

Tom Hoffman said...

The question isn't so much whether these are important to teach/learn in general, as trying to figure out what the Common Core is supposed to be telling us to do -- or just expose its contradictions. Focusing on producing textual analysis while de-emphasizing the tools one uses for the task is peculiar. Is that really the intent?