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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

Trends: English / Preparing Teachers of English

In 1986, the National Council of Teachers of English published its Guidelines for the Preparation of Teachers of English Language Arts, edited by Denny Wolfe. By producing such documents nearly every decade for over half a century, the organization has greatly influenced how institutions of higher learning prepare their students to enter English classrooms as certified teachers.
Of course, other external considerations drive the curriculums that prepare English teachers. Notable among them are statewide certification requirements; recognition by national certification agencies such as NCATE; changes in how English is taught in colleges and universities; public perceptions of how well or poorly public schools are preparing students to be literate adults; and new books, based on continuing research, about teaching English and preparing English teachers.
Taking into consideration all of the influences and pressures upon those who prepare English teachers, Peter Smagorinsky and Melissa E. Whiting, both of the University of Oklahoma, have investigated what is reported to transpire in English methods classes and, more broadly, in the overall preparation of English teachers. They report their findings in How English Teachers Get Taught: Methods of Teaching the Methods Class (1995).
In 1992, Smagorinsky and Whiting requested syllabi for English methods classes from English educators in more than 300 colleges and universities throughout the United States. Of this number, 82—from a representative sampling of schools: public, private, rural, suburban, urban, large, small, and in-between—responded. The two researchers read each syllabus five times, seeking different information on each reading.
The most important information they gleaned suggested (1) the extent to which English methods classes reflect NCTE's 1986 guidelines, (2) what kinds of readings these classes require and/or suggest, (3) how students in such classes are evaluated, and (4) the kinds of early field experiences teacher trainees engage in.
The basic recommendations in the NCTE guidelines emphasize the need to (1) create student-centered classrooms, (2) adopt a holistic perspective on teaching and learning, (3) make copious field-based experience available to potential English teachers, (4) consider preservice, rather than inservice, education the higher priority, (5) offer models of various teaching methods in English methods classes, (6) stimulate the analysis of effective teaching methods, and (7) provide experience in observing and practicing effective teaching methods. The two researchers examined each syllabus submitted to determine the extent to which it reflected these guidelines.
In general, they found that the guidelines "appear to have had a positive impact on the development of many methods classes" (Smagorinsky and Whiting 1995, p. 106). They caution, however, that they have no way of knowing the extent to which this impact resulted directly from the instructors' having consulted the guidelines as they were shaping their courses. Change is always in the air. It can be misleading to conclude that a specific event motivates it. The researchers go on to say that they find "great potential for building on the general principles and spirit of the guidelines in developing the methods class." They express their concern, however, that educators might "try to accomplish too much at once at the expense of covering the most important issues" (pp. 106-107).
Certainly the NCTE guidelines are best accomplished when one or more professional semesters or quarters are devoted totally to teacher education, thereby making possible extended observations and interactions in schools prior to the teaching internship. In a most valuable appendix, Smagorinsky and Whiting reproduce descriptions of the methods courses of Helen Dale (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire), Robert E. Probst (Georgia State University), Michael W. Smith (Rutgers University), Bruce C. Appleby (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale), and Thomas Philion (University of Illinois at Chicago). These course descriptions reflect a broad variety of approaches to preparing teachers of English, but generally adhere to the NCTE guidelines. All of them reflect a consensus on the need for prospective English teachers to get into the field while they are being exposed to the more theoretical aspects of their training programs.

Smagorinsky, P., and M. Whiting. (1995). How English Teachers Get Taught: Methods of Teaching the Methods Class. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

Wolfe, D., ed. (1986). Guidelines for the Preparation of Teachers of English Language Arts. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

R. Baird Shuman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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