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Current Dynamics in the Teaching of English and Foreign Languages in High School and College: Gathering Forces in the High School English Curriculum

by Ida A. Jewett - 1947

English is not a subject of instruction but an aspect or element of experience, sometimes dominant and sometimes subordinate, but never disconnected from the pupil's acting and thinking and feeling. English is not a body of subject matter to be learned but a series of inescapable or desirable experiences, in which the school offers such guidance as necessary to insure success in them.

A DOCUMENTARY survey of the last twelve years' developments in high school English —from An Experience Curriculum (1935) to the current comprehensive study by the Curriculum Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English.

IN 1935, the National Council of Teachers of English issued a "pattern" or "type" course of study in English entitled An Experience Curriculum in English1 In it was formulated the belief of leaders in the field that only by education in the normal, present experiences of life (rather than by preparation for ideal conditions and remote contingencies) can children be helped to understand and use advantageously their experiences past, present, and future. This document analyzes talking, listening, reading, and writing into "strands of experience," each composed of a number of specific successive experiences running through the years. For example, the speech strand consists of conversing, telephoning, discussing and planning, telling stories, dramatizing, reporting, speaking to groups. The techniques necessary for success in conducting these activities are not to be "taught" separately nor yet neglected but are to be made to function in carrying on activities of interest and value to learners. Grammar is eliminated as a separate phase of the curriculum but is integrated with expressional activities.

This "pattern" curriculum shows clearly the trend away from the subject-matter-set-out-to-be-learned type of program with its emphasis upon preparation for college. Equally apparent is the influence of the "child-centered" philosophy, with its insistence upon consideration of the needs, interests, activities, and potentialities of learners. The "social-adjustment" philosophy is seen in that the activities in English are related closely to life activities (conversing, telephoning, discussing, letter writing, and the like).

In 1936, another statement2 of the "experience" philosophy advocated by the National Council was prepared by a group of its leaders in order to give especial attention to the problems of supervision. The thesis of this volume, like that of the Experience Curriculum, is that

English is not a subject of instruction but an aspect or element of experience, sometimes dominant and sometimes subordinate, but never disconnected from the pupil's acting and thinking and feeling. English is not a body of subject matter to be learned but a series of inescapable or desirable experiences, in which the school offers such guidance as4s necessary to insure success in them.3


English teachers in large numbers have attempted to carry on their work in the spirit of the philosophy set forth in An Experience Curriculum, but in many cases they have merely substituted for the old formal lessons in description or paragraph development new units of conversation or letter writing taught with equal lack of functional relation to real experiences and needs. As a means of helping these teachers, a committee of the Council collected into a volume descriptions of teaching which exemplified the philosophy of the pattern curriculum.4 Still another collection of accounts of the teaching of English grew out of the Stanford Arts Investigation, in which twenty-five reports by teachers of English, foreign languages, and social studies recounted attempts to make English functional in the personal lives of students and "to develop penetrating cultural integration in the present and future by effective communication of socially significant content."5

English teachers have given thought to the implementation of their philosophy through correlation, integration, or fusion of subject fields, and in 193tithe Council issued a report on the subject.6 This monograph analyzed the possibilities of correlation and described units of work in which teachers had worked together to unite the resources of two or more fields. Detailed accounts of correlation of English with other subjects have appeared7 from time to time, but the movement for merging subject fields in high school, whether under the name of integration or of core curricula has not been widely adopted; and "it is a conservative statement to say that in 90 per cent of America's 16,000 high schools the subject curriculum is still firmly entrenched, fortified on either side by complacency and sentimental faith."8 In the majority of American schools, English teachers agree with the "thirty schools," which after several years of experimentation decided that "putting subjects together" is nor a satisfactory procedure, that the scope and sequence of the fused course is usually determined by the systematic organization of one of the fields, and hence the subject matter of the other is irrelevant or is in direct conflict with the purposes of the core course.9 It is equally true, however, that many teachers of English believe that the divisions which keep teachers and pupils from realizing the essential unity of all knowledge can and should be eliminated. Until, however, a deeper and sounder basis for integration has been found and teachers themselves have been educated by means of such teaching, the practice of fusing English with other subjects will be sporadic.


The figures on American illiteracy revealed by CCC and army records10 shocked all thinking Americans. The fierce ideological conflicts which began to rage during the decade before Pearl Harbor and are even yet making difficult, if not doubtful, the winning of a just and enduring peace, gave dramatic emphasis to long-held beliefs that ideas are weapons and words are bullets. Hitler's perverted use of language awoke the public to some awareness of the power of language. People began to realize also that the vast increase in the number of listeners made possible by voice amplifiers, radio, and cinema has multiplied the power of words for good or evil. Even between people who speak the same tongue and have no wish to deceive, words are used with such variations of meaning (democracy, free enterprise, freedom of speech, liberal, reactionary, soldier, father) as to cause unlimited controversy. When words are deliberately misused with intent to deceive, the results can be disastrous.11

By countless such teachings educators have been forced to conclude that the right use of language is as crucial to national and individual life as is control of atomic energy; that words, like atomic power, may be cruelly destructive or fruitfully energizing, and that "a mastery of the various arts of using one's own language is the most universal of all educational objectives."12 By the ruthless logic of events teachers have been made increasingly aware of the importance of language as the basic instrument of all thought and communication and of the urgency of the need to convey this awareness to the youth in our schools. They are beginning to realize the implications for them of Mumford's words:

. . . man's greatest triumph in producing order out of chaos, greater than law, greater than science, was language. To keep the channels of human communication clean is a duty as primal—and holy —as guarding the sacred fire was for primitive man. He who debases the word, as the fascists have so unsparingly done, breeds darkness and confusion and all manner of foulness.13

Teachers of English are coming to feel that they must use pupils' experiences with language in such way as to give due attention to the emotional, psychological, and social factors involved.


The advent of war brought out a number of documents published by government agencies with the cooperation of the National Council of Teachers of English. Among these were The Communication Arts and The High School Victory Corps; "Pre-Induction Needs in Language Communication and Reading," Education for Victory, the War Department's investigation into the basic language needs of soldiers; and the Treasury Department's The Teacher of English and the War Savings Program. All of these suggested ways of using the teaching of English as a communication art to promote the war effort. The Council also issued a series of pamphlets setting forth its analyses and recommendations for the teaching of English as a communication art.14 All of them stress the need of accuracy and effectiveness in the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing as basic to the arts of survival in war and in peace. All emphasize the importance of the ability to use language in meeting personal and group needs.


Early in 1942, hundreds of members of the National Council of Teachers of English united in an expression of their views concerning the nature and purposes of their work as teachers of English. This authoritative statement, entitled "Basic Aims for English Instruction in American Schools,"15 is an articulation of firmly held convictions of this representative body of teachers of English (with more than ten thousand members and nearly one hundred affiliated organizations) regarding the fundamental role that the study of the language arts and literature should have in a republic of freedom-loving citizens, and as such is given extended summary here. An effort has been made to give the substance of the report accurately, using, whenever possible, the exact words of the statement.

The committee declares that "Language is a basic instrument in the maintenance of the democratic way of life"; and that intelligent living in a democracy requires ability to read intelligently; the habit of keeping informed through periodicals and books, by public discussion, by radio, and by motion picture; power to think clearly even on emotion-befogged topics; and ease in using the language techniques of discussing, formulating principles, and reaching conclusions.

The pronouncement continues by maintaining that "Language study in the schools must be based on the language needs of living," and that "The vital program in language uses every kind of experience significant in the life of the individual." These principles demand that conversing, discussing, letter writing, preparing reports, making talks, and similar activities be given special emphasis in the school program.

The enrichment of personal living and the deepening of understanding of social relationships should receive primary emphasis.

Through the program in expression the pupil may clarify his own thinking, integrate his personal experiences, stimulate his imagination, and find an outlet for his thoughts and feelings. Through literature chosen with his peculiar needs and capacities in mind, he may gain an insight into human motives essential to more intelligent understanding of himself and more sympathetic appreciation of others.

The reading materials used should be of the highest literary standards commensurate with the reader's understanding and the growth of his interests in reading. Guidance in choice of materials and the establishment of more discrimination in magazine and book selection and in choice of radio programs and of motion pictures are major responsibilities of instruction in English.

English uses literature of both past and present to illumine the contemporary scene . . . The literary heritage has vital significance for the pupil capable of responding to it intellectually and emotionally, as a means of interpreting experience and as an instrument of growth—not, however, as a storehouse of experiences unrelated to the problems with which the world grapples today. Insight into the present is the ultimate goal— insight in terms of a growing concept of the good life, by means of which the direction of the future may be determined.

Among the nations represented in the program in literature, America should receive major emphasis. Through the deeply personal records of men and women portrayed in American biography, fiction, drama, and poetry, and the spirit caught from our songs and orations, young people may grasp something of the ideals which prompted the founding of this nation, the spirit of its leaders, and the meaning of the heritage which is theirs. In addition to the literature of our own country there should be literature of other peoples which helps us to understand the influences that bind us to the rest of the world and gives insight into the ways of life of other peoples.

The goals of instruction in English are, in the main, the same for all young people, but the heights to be attained in achieving any one of them and the materials used for the purpose will vary with individual need.

Creative writing, reading for pleasure and relief from personal problems— satisfaction of all kinds of interests, abilities, and needs may be found in the program.

"English pervades the life and work of the school." Ability in expression contributes to and depends for motivation and practice upon every experience of the school day. Teachers of every subject can and should help pupils increase their skill in getting thought from the printed page, improve their power to understand cause-and-effect relationships, to clarify their ideas through reading and listening, and to state their ideas adequately and accurately, practicing the conventions of acceptable speech and writing.

"English enriches personality by providing experiences of intrinsic worth for the individual." The program in English offers wholesome enjoyment and recreation, taps innumerable sources of interest, and encourages young people to explore their powers and to give expression to their personalities through concrete and imaginative presentation of human experience; literature assists young people in crystallizing ideals of personal conduct, in attaining an adequate personal philosophy of life, and in providing an effective stimulus to action. This point of view rejects the notion of English as merely a tool. English is a tool, a valuable instrument of thought and expression, but, in addition, it offers rich resources of the spirit.

"Teachers with specialized training are needed for effective instruction in the language arts." They must understand the relationship of the teaching of English to the major social objectives of today's world, and should themselves be the product of teaching which puts social awareness and the attainment of social insights above mere knowledge of literary history and literary techniques. They must know and like young people and books, and be able to bring the two together; they must be qualified to direct young people in the language activities important for practical needs and for personal growth; "they must be able to lift language and literature out of the more inflexible categories of the scholar and relate them directly to those activities in which they have significance for young people."


Yet another influence of the war is to be seen in the pronouncements of national organizations of educators outside the field of English. For some years now, beginning even before the war forced a re-examination of the purposes of education, many groups have been issuing considered statements of their beliefs regarding the nature and purposes of education in our republic.16 These reports all declare that the purpose of American education should be to meet the needs of young people living democratically and to preserve and extend the way of life in which Americans believe. In the words of the Progressive Education Association Commission on the Relation of Schools and Colleges.

The purpose of general education is to provide rich and significant experiences in the major aspects of living, so directed as to promote the fullest possible realization of personal potentialities, and the most effective participation in a democratic society.17

The acceptance by leaders in English of these views regarding the major purpose of education in a democracy is suggested by the following statement from a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, writing in a publication prepared by direction of the executive committee of the Council:

It is not enough for young people to know how to listen, to speak, to write, and to read. Their experiences in communication should have direction. In recent years the values to which we in our free society are committed narrowly escaped extinction at the hands of fascist enemies, whose ideology is not without powerful instruments available to our society in the defense of its own purposes and ideals. Communication in the high school should be directed toward the achievement of those attitudes, beliefs, and purposes which will strengthen youth's devotion to the ideals of personal freedom, economic security, and equal rights for all regardless of race, religion, or cultural background. The broadening of the allegiances and sympathies of youth to include the peoples of all nations has become a fundamental necessity in a day when international cooperation and good will is the only alternative to future destructive wars which can destroy all we know of civilization. . . .18


In 1946, an important and carefully considered statement of the nature, purposes, materials, and procedures of English as a subject field was prepared by a group of spokesmen for the National Council of Teachers of English and issued as a bulletin of the National Association of Secondary-School Principals. This publication, appropriately named The Emerging Curriculum in English in the Secondary School, gives thoughtful consideration to varied phases of the teaching of English and shows the effect of the war-impelled re-evaluation of the purposes and methods advocated for the teaching of English. Indicative of the trends of thinking among leaders in the teaching of English are such titles as: "English Instruction in Education for Democracy," "Control of Language: A Major Problem of Education," "Reading, a Social Function," and "English as a Help in Developing Mature Personalities."

The criteria for determining the effectiveness of a secondary school program in the language arts also reveal the philosophy underlying the teaching of English advocated by the makers of the "emerging curriculum in English." They are as follows:

1. Is the school providing a balanced program of appropriate, diversified experiences in all types of language communication?

2. Is the school systematically developing in youth the abilities required for democratic group thinking and decision?

3. Is the school encouraging youth through reading and various kinds of creative expression to clarify their own thinking about and attitudes toward personal problems, goals, ideals, ambitions?

4. Is the school giving systematic guidance in the development of young people's ability to express ideas, in speaking and in writing, with precision, clarity, and vigor?

5. Is the school helping youth to deal intelligently with the multiple and shifting meanings of words, and to distinguish clearly between the symbol and the reality it represents?

6. Is the school developing in young people the ability to listen effectively?

7. Is the school aiding, young people in the cultivation and maintenance of language habits acceptable among literate English-speaking people?

8. Is the school giving adequate aid to young people in the cultivation of clear, pleasant, and correct speech?

9. Is the school assisting young people in attaining their full individual development in reading power?

10. Is the school expanding the young people's range and depth of appreciation of worthy literature suited to many moods, interests, situations, and individual preferences?

11. Is the school broadening and refining young people's tastes in radio programs and photoplays?

12. Is the school effectively utilizing language and literature experiences in promoting devotion to the democratic way of life?19


Impelled as never before by a sense of the urgency of the need of a literate citizenry in a democracy, the National Council of Teachers of English has begun a nation-wide study of the curriculum in the language arts from kindergarten through college. This curriculum will attempt an integration of subject matter, the social situation, and the psychology of the learner. Emphasis will be placed on English as communication; stress will be laid on the two-way nature of the process of dealing with words; and an attempt will be made to find the kinds of experiences which will ensure adequacy in meeting individual and group needs in the use of language.

The Curriculum Commission of the Council has distributed among its members a 36-page mimeographed statement of its platform, which is briefly summarized in the following paragraphs by the Director of the Commission:

The platform recognizes, first, that the program of the school takes its rise from the social philosophy and needs of the times—that it must fit the individual to play his part in the life of the world about him and, at the same time, help him to live richly, to achieve personal satisfactions in harmony with his own potentialities and desires, and to develop assurance and authority in his own right. It urges, also, that we offset the mechanistic tendencies of our day by giving large emphasis to spiritual values, to the development of an adequate philosophy of life, to the arousing of intellectual curiosity, to the stimulation of critical thinking, and to the improvement of social sensitivity in human relationships.

It calls attention to the importance in modern life of mass modes of communication, such as the radio, the motion picture, the public forum, the periodical and newspaper, and to the need of developing among young people the power to use these mediums intelligently and the capacity for critical examination of what they present.

Our platform recognizes the indispensability of mastery of language as the basic instrument of all thought and communication, urging that we foster a program which will extend the opportunity of young people to grapple with the actual expression of ideas under expert guidance for valid social purposes and to learn in the approach to increasingly complex and challenging problems those skills of reading essential to intelligent living today.20

The Curriculum Commission debated for some time the nature of the organization of its work; whether committees should be appointed according to the larger outcomes of education, such as preparation for life in a democracy, understanding of human relationships, promotion of individual emotional stability, and preparation for vocations; or according to aspects of the language arts, such as reading and literature, writing, speaking, and listening. The latter organization was finally agreed upon, with the understanding that primary emphasis within each area should be given to the larger personal and social goals of education to which instruction in English should contribute. A special committee has been assigned to work intensively on each aspect and phase of English: grammar and usage, literature and reading, writing, talking and listening. Problems of organization are being studied: (1) continuity within the program; (2) care for individual differences; and (3) integration of the language arts with all the situations in which pupils use language in home, school, and community.

It can be seen that the new curriculum will mark an advance over the Experience Curriculum comparable to that which the 1935 pattern showed over the 1890-1930 curricula. The Experience Curriculum emphasized the practical uses of English instead of the belletristic purposes of earlier programs; and the new study will stress the emotional, psychological, and social factors involved in mastery of language. The movement has been from aesthetic to practical to moral-spiritual uses of language.

A heartening example of what can be done when an entire school system works toward the goal of democratic living is seen in the work of the Baltimore schools. There, it is asserted, "All auricular and extracurricular activities in the Baltimore program have been focused on the development of civic competence."21 Among the activities listed for the fields of English and the social studies were these: analyzing controversial issues; practicing the democratic way of life, including the democratic process of group discussion and decision; strengthening the ideals of democracy through creative expression in art, music, speaking, reading, and writing, and through participation in welfare projects. World citizenship and intercultural cooperation were emphasized by study and action programs: correspondence, contributions to educational reconstruction, junior town meetings (two international radio programs allowed participation with students in England), participation in the New York Herald-Tribune Youth Forum, use of student newspapers and school assemblies, an Atomic Energy Institute, and other activities. United Nations youth groups prepared radio programs, sponsored city-wide meetings for adults and students, and brought thirty-one students from Latin America and Canada into the Baltimore schools.


In the statements described in the foregoing pages are many implications for the education of teachers. The "Basic Aims" statement asserts that language is an all-school job.

English pervades the life and work of the school. Language power cannot be acquired in a vacuum. It develops in the process of daily living—it involves grappling with ideas and giving them adequate expression in the achievement of ends toward which they make a significant contribution. Skill in getting the thought from the printed page is an important factor in every subject where reading is used in the acquisition of knowledge or as a stimulus to thinking.

Adequacy and accuracy of statement, understanding of the relationships of cause and effect, determination of precise meanings, and clarification of ideas through reading and expression are language powers basic not alone to the teaching of English but to intelligent progress in every aspect of the curriculum. It is therefore the responsibility of all teachers to see that young people, in the carrying-out of their daily programs, grow in language power through the development of careful habits of expression and the practice of correct forms and conventions.22

Teachers of English must be helped to realize that language is a complex activity which involves all the higher powers of the human mind and body; that it is not textbooks, sets of rules, or courses of study but is a way of behaving; that reliance upon "correctness" as a matter of fixed rules is as outmoded as Newtonian physics. They must be shown how to organize and teach the whole field of grammar or linguistics in such a way as to develop in young people a keen interest hi making their communication effective. In order to do this they must be made acquainted with- the meaning for education of recent scientific studies of language (Sapir, Bloomfield, Leonard, Fries, Pooley, and others). Teachers must be able to guide young people to constantly more effective adjustment through language—adjustment to other people and to their own needs as individuals. They must constantly strive to develop hi their students greater ability to think clearly and critically. They must be quick to see opportunities for providing practice in listening to other people's information, opinions, and ideas in order to clarify and modify the listeners' own thinking. The schools must develop in youth ability to talk and write with sincerity and with some clarity and effectiveness. Teachers of English need to know how to develop in youth the ability to read for information and for pleasure: to analyze the thinking and weigh the arguments presented, and to experience the emotions and vicarious living to be had from drama, fiction, and verse.

The Curriculum Commission proposes to consider the relationship of the English curriculum to the adequate training of teachers with the conviction that—

If teachers are to guide young people in the experiences outlined in this study, they must have the same kinds of experiences in their program of preparation.

The best curriculum is useless if teachers are not trained to sense its purposes, to carry out its provisions, and to use the materials suggested in it. To follow a program based on the principles described in the platform of the Curriculum Commission, the teacher of the language arts will require (1) a broad general education adequate to intelligent living today; (2) specialized training in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, similar in range and in emphasis to the program he is expected to teach; and (3) adequate professional preparation to understand the purposes of growth in young people, and the methods and materials best suited to their stage of development.23

1 W. Wilbur Hatfield and others, An Experience Curriculum in English. D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935.

2 Marquis E. Shattuck (Chm.); "The Development of A Modern Program in English," Ninth Yearbook, Department of Supervisors of Instruction, N.E.A., 1936.

3 Hatfield and others, op. cit., p. 29.

4 Angela M. Broening, Conducting Experiences in English. D. Appleton-Century, 1939.

5 Holland D. Roberts, Walter V. Kaulfers, and Grayson N. Kefauver, English for Social Living, p. 18. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1943.

6 Ruth Mary Weeks, A Correlated Curriculum. D. Appleton-Century, 1936.

7 B. J. R. Stolper and H. C. Fenn, Integration At Work: Six Greek Cities. Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, 1939.

Frances G. Sweeney, Emily Fanning Barry, and Alice E. Schoelkopf, Western Youth Meets-Eastern Culture, Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, New-York, 1932.

8 Harold Spears, Secondary Education in American Life, p. 103. American Book Company, 1941.

9 H. H. Giles, S. P. McCutchen, and A. N. Zechiel, "Exploring The Curriculum," Vol. 2 of Adventure in American Education, p. 35. New York: Harper and Bros., 1942.

10 Ruth Kotinsky (Elementary Education of Adults) declares that the number of persons in the United States who cannot read and write well enough to meet the requirements of an ordinarily literate environment is approximately four times as great as reported by the census.

11 See Russell Porter, "Semantics a Red Weapon," New York Times, November 2, 1947, Section 3, p. 1, discussing the Report of the President's Committee on Civil Rights.

12 N.E.A., The Purposes of Education in American Democracy, p. 53. Educational Policies Commission, 1938.

13 Lewis Mumford, Faith for Living, p. 201. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940.

14 Lennox Grey and Consultants, What Communication Means Today; Helen G. Hanlon, Miriam B. Booth, and Committee, Junior High School English; Alice Sterner and others, Skill in Listening.

15 The English Journal, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, pp. 46-55, January, 1942; also published as Pamphlet No. 3, The National Council of Teachers of English, Chicago.

16 Alexander J. Stoddard (Chm.), The Purposes of Education in American Democracy. N.E.A., Educational Policies Commission, 1938.

American Youth Commission, What the High Schools Ought to Teach. American Council on Education, 1940.

Alexander J. Stoddard (Chm.), Education for All American Youth. N.E.A., Educational Policies Commission, 1944.

John J. DeBoer (Editor), The Subject Fields in General Education, A Report to the National Commission on Cooperative Curriculum Planning. D. Appleton-Century, 1941.

Wilford M. Aikin (Editor), Adventure in American Education, The Story of the Eight-Year Study. 5 volumes, Harper & Brothers, 1942.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 49 Number 3, 1947, p. 143-153
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5417, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 6:23:04 PM

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