Try it yourself: Ask a group of English language arts teachers to distinguish the ‘skills’ and the ‘knowledge’ present in their courses. You’ll quickly develop a robust list: central idea, author’s purpose, figurative language, point of view, theme, citing evidence. But the problem will be: Which are considered ‘skills’ and which are considered ‘knowledge’?
It gets a little thornier if you couple this question with a prompt from ELA course materials. Let’s try this one from a tenth grade unit on the novel Life of Pi in Louisiana’s ELA Guidebooks:
How does Yann Martel introduce and develop a convincing narrative in Part One of Life of Pi? Identify at least two specific narrative techniques and explain the effects of each technique on your understanding of the novel’s emerging plot lines, multiple points of view, and characters. In your response, be sure to cite specific textual evidence.
So which are the skills? Maybe we can hone in on the verbs: “introduce,” “develop,” “identify,” “explain,” and “cite.” Well “develop” is about what our author is doing, rather than what a learner must do as a result of the task; we’ve only complicated things more. In order to “identify,” wouldn’t I have to know about the “narrative techniques” to identify them? So, ok—“identify” is the skill and “narrative techniques” is the knowledge. But that doesn’t seem right either.
These are just a few of the real ambiguities I’ve encountered in leading professional learning around high-quality instructional materials in the state of Louisiana. These anecdotes reveal some core misconceptions that the work of cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham and educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch has brought to light with regard to the teaching of literacy and English language arts.
What does ‘English language arts’ mean anyway? Perhaps this terminology has something to do with the difficulty of separating “skill” and “knowledge” in the context of literacy instruction. Literacy educators tend to think of their “content” as the skill-base of literacy—something like the verbs seen in the prompt analysis above. In this case, responses by English teachers to the question “What is the -content of English?” usually take the form of a summary of ELA ‘skills’: Cite textual evidence, determine central ideas, analyze how complex characters develop, determine the meaning of words, write arguments to support claims, establish and maintain a formal style, etc.
To revisit our anecdote above, what happens when we ask ELA teachers to distinguish “skill” and “knowledge” in the context of their coursework? Often, for example, the ‘skill’ of determining a central idea gets distinguished from the ‘knowledge’ of what a central idea is.” Again, these are symptoms of what education journalist Natalie Wexler describes as a misguided focus on skills-based literacy instruction which disregards the “knowledge” or the “content” of what really matters in literacy classrooms, the texts themselves.
But before we address this elephant in the room, what about that “content” word? Sometimes I find a jaunt into the thesaurus illuminating, and thesaurus.com here gives a definition of the noun “content” as “essence, meaning” with some synonyms being composition, idea, matter, subject, subject matter, substance, text, burden, constitution, gist, significance, and thought. Isn’t it interesting that “text” is in there?
What is the “subject matter” of “English language arts,” then? Is it a sort of list of literary figures and terminology like author’s purpose, point of view, figurative language, argumentative writing, rhetorical appeals? What I advance here is that the “content” of ELA is precisely the substance of the texts at hand for teaching and learning.
As Daniel Willingham has argued, one can’t practice such skills as “critical thinking” or even “creativity” without some sort of knowledge base upon which to critically think or create. When teachers routinely conflate the ‘skill’ and ‘knowledge’ of English language arts classrooms, believing there is a discrete “skill” of determining a central idea that can be performed independent of the specific text at hand, they’re misunderstanding the role of knowledge in literacy and demanding their students do something no one does in the authentic, real world: picking up a text, regardless of its content, and perform the ‘skill’ of determining central idea.
What really happens is that a reader brings their knowledge to bear on what’s present in the text at hand, and integrates their new discoveries into the schema of what they already know. With this clarity of understanding, ELA teachers move further into alignment with what’s been established in cognitive science: that we can’t even think about reading and comprehension of a text without centering the content of the text in practice of literacy.