Teaching English in America has to change. It is essential to identify the problems and find solutions to those problems.
Is There a Problem with Teaching English in America?
The answer is yes. English is spoken by over 1.5 billion people worldwide. In the United States, it is the primary language of business, education, and politics. Despite its widespread use, the actual teaching of English is lacking.
For example, English is not often taught explicitly. We teach with the assumption students will acquire native language skills at home and by living in America. However, we are not a homogeneous society. Many of our students are immigrants or second-generation immigrants. Moreover, many historically marginalized communities do not speak formal English outside of school, creating a disadvantage when seeking employment.
1. Lack of Emphasis on Speaking and Listening Skills
Many English classes in the US emphasize grammar and reading comprehension exclusively while neglecting speaking and listening skills. This lack of emphasis on speaking and listening skills can lead to students who can read and write but struggle to communicate effectively in everyday conversations.
As a middle school English teacher, I hear about this all the time. Teachers at in middle school and above do not like to teach things they consider to be part of elementary school curriculum. Unfortunately, many (or most) of my students cannot complete multi-step instructions. If we want to foster leadership, we must teach our students to communicate effectively.
In order to raise our reading levels though, schools must incorporate more interactive activities into their lesson plans, such as role-playing, group discussions, and debates. They can also use audio and video materials to expose students to authentic language use.
Lack of Exposure to “Proper” English
A secondary effect of this problem is culture. O.k., let me preface this with I understand the idea of “proper English” as problematic but in this sense I mean it purely as a means of communication. Many of my students do not understand the need for formal English and feel disconnected because they do not speak formal English at home or with their friends. Exposing students to situations where they must use proper English to communicate effectively would help their communication skills and help them feel better connected to the content.
One example would be to allow students to connect with foreign exchange students. Since international students learn textbook English first, American students would have to speak formally to communicate effectively.
2. Insufficient Attention to Diverse Perspectives
The curriculum in America focuses primarily on works by white male authors. This leaves out perspectives and voices from marginalized communities, impacting students’ understanding of different cultures and experiences.
According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 23% of children’s books published in 2019 featured characters who were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).
Schools need to seek out diverse literature and media representing a variety of perspectives and experiences. They can also invite guest speakers from different cultural backgrounds to share their experiences and insights.
Similar to the cultural problem above, students in primarily white communities communicate better with people of color when exposed to them. Students of color engage better with material that represents them, giving them better access to the English language.
3. Lack of Engagement and Relevance
English classes that rely heavily on standardized testing and rote memorization may fail to engage students or help them see the relevance of the material. This can lead to disinterest in the subject and a lack of motivation to learn and improve.
As teachers, we don’t always have a choice. This year, our district handed down lesson plans. We had to follow them, and they were all specifically designed to align with standardized testing.
Teachers generally strive to make their lesson plans more interactive and engaging, incorporating real-life scenarios and activities that students can relate to.
However, teachers need more opportunities to allow students to pursue their own interests within the context of the curriculum. Otherwise, our students become disengaged and don’t learn.
4. Inadequate Support for Non-Native speakers
For students whose first language is not English, there may be insufficient resources and support to help them learn the language effectively. This can lead to feelings of frustration and exclusion, as well as a lack of academic progress.
Schools should provide additional resources and support for non-native speakers, such as tutoring, and access to bilingual staff. They can also foster a supportive and inclusive environment that values and celebrates linguistic diversity by ensuring the curriculum reflects the diversity within the school.
I love teaching. I love teaching English, but as I reflect on our educational system, I want us to do better. Many children pass through the system without understanding or connection to the material. If we expect our students to be college or career ready, we need to make sure we communicate the necessity of speaking, listening, reading, and writing well.