Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Effect of Talking Trash

In a recent article in the New York Times (July 26, 2007, “Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?”), Anna Jane Grossman raises a couple of issues that demand a response. Grossman acknowledges that popularity of the Junie B. Jones series, but argues that “more than a few parents have taken issue with Junie B.” (Section G, p. 1). At issue, apparently, is Junie B.’s mischievous behavior and, especially, her non-standard grammar (she uses words like “funnest” and “runned” and her adverbs often lack the “ly,” for example). The reaction to Junie B. Jones has reached the point where Barbara Park, the author of the Junie B. series, is now among the American Library Association’s 10 Most Challenged Authors.
Grossman characterizes controversy over Junie B. Jones as a “pint—size version of the lingering education battle between advocates of phonics, who believe that children should be taught proper spelling and grammar from the outset, and those who favor whole language, a literacy method that accepts misspellings and other errors as long as children are engaged in reading and writing.” I want to know is where Grossman found these people, presumably teachers, who “favor whole language,” but accept “misspellings and other errors?” Are there really whole language teachers out there who just accept students’ errors? If so, then the critics of whole language practices are right. But this is not my experience. Good whole language teachers don’t “accept” errors although they likely recognize students’ developmental attempts to spell unknown words using their knowledge of letter-sound relationships and the conventions of the English spelling system. Effective whole language teachers recognize that insisting on word perfect spelling can limit students’ writing fluency by discouraging students from including in their writing words they don’t know how to spell conventionally. These same teachers take a similar stance on grammar, preferring students write in non-standard English rather than not writing at all. This does not mean, however, that whole language teachers “accept” unconventional spellings or non-standard grammar. Good writing teachers acknowledge students’ existing knowledge of language forms and use this knowledge to push students to become more effective writers. But the goal is NOT that students simply learn conventional spellings and standard grammar. The goal of writing instruction is to teach students to learn forms of writing appropriate to their purposes and audiences. Sometimes this means using academic language associated with schooling as in the case of research reports. But effective writers also learn that the academic language of schooling is inappropriate for some purposes and audiences. It would be odd, for example, if I wrote friendly emails using the same forms I use for journal articles. For teachers, this isn’t a matter of accepting or not accepting particular spellings or grammatical forms but providing students with the explicit support and direction they need to learn how to use writing to fulfill a range of purposes with a variety of audiences. This is what good whole language teachers do.

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