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Changing Direction: The Absence of Speaking and Listening Standards in ELA

One of the challenges of being a high school English teacher is that oftentimes students think there is nothing left for them to learn. “I already speak, read, and write English,” many of them explain, “why do I need to take this class?” The explanation is an easy one. In order to become contributing members of society, we all need to be skilled in processing the world around us through critically thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening at a higher level. “Basically, you need to be an effective communicator,” I often say. Usually, this explanation is enough for students to understand the value of taking an English class all four years of high school, even if they don’t love the subject.

Therefore, imagine my surprise when the Kentucky Academic Standards for ELA classes were recently revised. Speaking and listening standards were eliminated from my content area and instead were added as literacy practices. The difference is that standards are measurable learning goals for what a student should know and be able to do, while literacy practices are the activities associated with reading and writing that are meant to be integrated into instruction.. The revised KAS make it clear that, “the practices should not be confused as additional standards, but they should guide teachers in providing intentional opportunities for students to practice the behaviors of a literate citizen.” While I love the idea of embedding speaking and listening standards as expectations, I worry about how this will impact my instruction.

What this means to me as an English teacher, is that I am now limited in some of the creative projects I can do with my students because I cannot assess their speaking and listening performance. While I am expected to have my students practice these skills, I cannot measure their learning in these skills. By removing the speaking and listening standards, KAS has introduced ambiguity in the teaching and assessing of communication skills.

Take for example our end-of-year TED talk unit, designed so that students incorporate the skills they work on all year: reading, writing, researching, critical thinking, evaluating, synthesizing, etc., into a talk about something they felt passionate about. One of the main focuses in this unit was how students delivered their information. This was not a recitation of memorized information, this was an opportunity for students to practice and master how to engage an audience by varying their tone, pacing, and eye contact. Students were asked to listen to and evaluate other talks for what made them effective in order to incorporate those strategies in their talks.

The unit as a whole was a challenging one for students because public speaking is not an easy feat. However, despite the challenges, students always describe this unit as a memorable and formative one. No, it may not have been easy for them to stand in front of an audience of their peers, teachers, and community members to discuss something they felt passionate about, but they learned how to present their information with sufficient and appropriate evidence so that listeners could  follow their line of reasoning just like the standard called for.

Although it is highly unlikely that students will have to give a TED talk “in the real world,” the skills they learned throughout this unit would serve them far beyond our classroom because, truthfully, even some adults lack these skills. The current version of the KAS lists one of students’ learning goals as acquiring “communication skills necessary to function in a complex and changing civilization” but it is difficult to understand how teachers will assess those communication skills if they are no longer a standard that guides instruction.

As I begin to plan for next year, I am left to grapple with how to effectively incorporate practices that I cannot assess. Because I believe in the value of transparency, I plan on discussing these changes in the standards with my students. They may not have a say in the standards they are expected to master but they should be in the know of what the year-end goal is for an English student. My hope is that by having an open discussion about the value of speaking and listening standards, students will willingly work to improve and master those skills in relation to the current standards. The same way that students have learned to incorporate Thinking Strategies into their everyday life, they will incorporate the practices of being effective speakers and listeners throughout the year.

Vilma Godoy is a coffee loving high school English teacher in Shelbyville, KY. Born in Guatemala, raised in California, and transplanted to Kentucky, Vilma has a wide range of experiences that inform her teaching style and philosophy. She is passionate about providing rigorous opportunities for students to learn and grow, not only as English students, but as well-informed members of society. Her desire is that all students leave her classroom better prepared to face the world.