Academic English is very university focused with the almighty essay as the be-all and end-all of high school writing. I’m an English major, I love essays, but I recognize that the vast majority of our students, even the university bound ones, will never write another essay in their lives after high school. Asking senior academic English teachers to consider reports, or labs, or articles, or any other writing output is an uphill battle. They don’t want to water down their subject; the essay is sacred.
I get that, so perhaps it’s time to water down their population. Instead of dragging all senior students through years of mostly irrelevant English skills development, why not separate the vital from the overly specific? Literacy is a vital skill the general population needs to have, regardless of whether they major in English in university or work at a cash register.
One of the biggest challenges in English is facing an always packed class (never off the cap) full of an astonishing range of students. A typical academic English class will contain barely literate non-readers whose parents don’t want them to give up academic options (and who may be more than capable in numeracy, science or technology). Academic English bludgeons them with essays and Shakespeare. The solution is to pare off literacy from what is really a specific skill set needed only by advanced students of the arts and humanities.
The idea for mandatory grade 9 and 10 literacy and numeracy courses comes from this logic. The grade 10 course is a survey/review course that works to assess students literacy skills in a granular and meaningful way. The opposite of a standardized test, these courses challenge students in order to accurately assess their skills in numeracy and literacy in detail. The end result would be a certification in two important foundational skills.
Students who are able to demonstrate these foundational skills are able to continue in high school in which ever direction they choose with a clear idea of their strengths or weaknesses in fundamentally skills, or move beyond the building and into apprenticeships or the work place knowing that they have displayed an appropriate level of literacy and numeracy. Their proven ability in these two vital skill sets will resolve many of the fears surrounding letting students leave school early. Those that stay in high school are offered a plethora of courses, local, remote or a hybrid of the two, that allow them to develop interests and abilities that are flexible, encourage their strengths and change with the times.
Those interested in post-secondary can still take advanced English and mathematics courses, but these are entirely optional. They may also be specific to future needs. Science and technology students may take English that focuses on report writing and presenting analysis in clear and concise ways. Arts and humanities students may focus on more traditional English, such as literature and essays.
If we’re not going to do literacy and numeracy properly by underfunding it into oblivion, perhaps it’s time to separate the vital skills from overly specialized, academic English and mathematics and reconfigure for flexibility in our curriculum.