What Kids Should Learn in Language Arts
As children enter the sixth grade, most are capable enough as readers and writers, and they have also learned to use spoken language successfully. As I pointed out earlier, they are able to use books both for enjoyment and as useful sources of information. They also know how to use a library and are comfortable doing so. They use writing for a variety of purposes; they understand the writing process, including the value of responses from their peers and revisions; and they have a good sense of authorship. They can also use spoken language effectively in a variety of settings -- in discussions, oral reports, plays, explanations, and the like. They understand that language can be used in many different ways.
Where reading is concerned, the teacher's main task in grade six is to keep children reading. This means continually enlarging classroom libraries, making extensive use of school and community libraries, referring the children to new books, talking about books, reading to the children from increasingly complex works, and working with librarians and other teachers to organize such events as schoolwide book fairs and author visits for the children.
While some schools have organized the language arts curriculum around world literature in the sixth grade, most teachers believe it is more important to keep children reading many different kinds of literature, as their interests guide them, than to concentrate exclusively on a particular country, genre, or period. Regardless of the geographic focus, if any, the study of literature may be organized around themes. Mythology is a popular theme in sixth grade classrooms. When reading is organized around this theme, for example, students will read various cultures' creation stories. They will consider the moral dilemmas presented in such mythological tales as, for instance, the Prometheus story. The students will be asked to compare and contrast elements of the various accounts they read, to explain similarities and differences across cultures and over time, and to give their own definitions of such concepts as fear and courage, right and wrong. They will also write their own myths and moral tales. But even in classrooms that use this thematic approach to literature, the teacher's attitude toward reading should be inclusive, rather than narrowly limiting. Children need to know that when they become readers, a very large world is available to them. In the best settings, teachers will do everything they can to help children step into that large world -- and stay in it.
Writing is closely related to reading. Teachers should make sure that children write every day and that they see themselves as active communicators: writers of journals and letters, authors of poetry, biography, and fiction. Teachers know that writing improves with practice and that writing and thinking are closely intertwined, so they hold daily writing workshops -- periods when children write, revise, and discuss their work. In some schools teachers say that there is not enough time for daily writing workshops. There has to be time!
Sixth graders should be able to define good writing and to identify the strengths and weaknesses in their own writing and that of others. Writing portfolios that contain files of children's past writing, recently completed works, and writing in progress are well established by the sixth grade. Viewing this work over time is important to a child's self-evaluation and growth; in addition, the portfolio helps the teacher determine what kind of guidance and assistance each child needs. For instance, a teacher might notice that a child consistently confuses "there" and "their," still seems tentative about apostrophes, or is shy about using robust adjectives. These observations would form the basis of focused instruction for that pupil.
Because teachers know that autobiographical and reflective writing is a good means of reinforcing the writing-thinking connection, children are encouraged to keep journals in which they record questions and insights about the various subjects they study as well as personal reflections. Teachers also understand that such reflective writing is another means of promoting self-assessment, an important part of ongoing learning.
Children will know how to use most of the common writing conventions, including punctuation marks, paragraphing, and verb tenses. They will also know how to write dialogues, explanations, and comparisons, although they may not be equally skilled in all of these types of writing. They should, however, be reasonably familiar with narrative, descriptive writing, explanatory exposition, persuasive writing, business writing, and letters to friends. And they will have opportunities to use all of these forms of writing.
The oral aspects of languages -- especially effective speaking -- are always important. Teachers view both speaking and listening as closely related to reading and writing. Children are given many opportunities to speak in a variety of contexts: telling and retelling stories, participating in focused discussions about particular topics, sharing information with other children, giving formal speeches, appearing in plays and readers' theater, assuming the roles of historical figures to gain greater understanding of the lives of others, and reading published poems or their own writings aloud.
Children are also encouraged to examine how language is used in the home, the neighborhood, and the media and to develop an understanding of the power of the spoken word. It would be good if all children became anthropologists of language, observing the various ways that different people use words to say hello or good bye, to name things, and to express emotions such as joy and anger. Children should develop an appreciation of diaIects and of cultural differences in language use; this will help make them aware of the diversity and flexibility of language.
Reprinted from 101 Educational Conversations with Your 6th Grader by Vito Perrone, published by Chelsea House Publishers.
Copyright 1994 by Chelsea House Publishers, a division of Main Line Book Co. All rights reserved.