DictionaryDenotation = The dictionary definition.

Connotation = The common social (often emotionally loaded) definition.

Listening to yet another call for a return to “basic skills” in education, or more often, to lamentations about the lack of proficiency in these skills among our high school students or entering college freshmen (especially as compared to other nations), got me thinking about definitions.

Different people mean different things by the term “basic skills.” A basic skill is not necessarily something that is easily learned or easily taught. Basic skills are more often foundational ones upon which other knowledge or abilities are built.

However, even that seemingly straightforward definition can be misapplied, particularly in the area of language arts. Many, many people (including quite a few educators) believe students must learn grammar first, in order to compose pieces of writing. Others think children have to learn phonetic pronunciation of words before they can learn to comprehend the meaning of printed texts. Neither of these is true in all cases. For example, I have a deaf son for whom phonics are useless, but who has amazing reading comprehension. Or consider one of my former students, now a successful engineer, who wrote some of the most incisive prose I’ve ever read, but couldn’t pass simple spelling tests.

My good friend Rose Asera, a Senior Scholar at Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT), has been studying this issue as part of a project she’s been working on called Strengthening Pre-Collegiate Education in Community Colleges (SPECC). In one of her articles, Pipeline or Pipe Dream: Another Way to Think About Basic Skills, Rose makes two points that deserve much greater discussion and awareness.

First: “The apparent simplicity of the skills in question seems to provoke a simplistic pedagogy: if students don’t understand it, say it louder, say it slower! Too often, that is, basic skills courses are taught through drill and memorization of rules. What’s missing is any sign of intellectual vitality and engagement…”

Second: “These so-called ‘basic skills’ are not, in fact, so basic or simple. As the research on literacy shows, the reading process that most of us take so much for granted is highly complex. As we ‘decode’ a text, we bring to bear a vast reservoir of linguistic and cultural knowledge, connecting new ideas with old ones, figuring out words we may not know, actively questioning what we read as we read it, trying out and refining ideas and conclusions as we read.”

I’m sure there are those scoffers who are SURE they know what “basic skills” are and how they should be taught. Many of these people are also suffering from extreme forms of nostalgic fantasy (“Back when I was in school, we all learned…”) Before we start labeling today’s teachers or students lazy or incompetent, consider how many more facts and skills there are to be learned.

Marion Brady, in the Feb. 2008 Educational Leadership, makes the following observation on the increasing shallowness of curriculum in our schools:

Skeptics who don’t think this [trying to cover too many topics in a school term] is a problem would do well to borrow the textbooks in a typical adolescent’s backpack and count the ideas their glossaries insist are important. One set of popular 8th grade textbooks covering just four subjects—math, science, language arts, and social studies—notes almost 1,500 important topics. That’s for one year, or about 170 actual instructional days in those schools that haven’t switched to nonstop reading and math test-preparation drills and even fewer days for those schools that have. It’s akin to trying to drink from a fire hose.

— in “Cover the Material–or Teach Students to Think

How many facts does a child really need to know, and why does s/he have to learn them by a certain age or grade level? (I’ve camped on this ground before — grade levels are arbitrary inventions that have nothing to do with learning.) As the amount of information available to us multiplies exponentially by the hour, it’s time to redefine what are the real “basic skills” and how best to teach them to the citizens of our present and future.

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