Why do I have to learn ELA?
It is fair to assume that most of us are aware of the fact that the fundamental reason for learning the English Language Arts (ELA) concepts and skills presented between Kindergarten and Junior High is to be able to function in society. Obviously, we need to be able to read the written portion of the DMV’s licensing exam, the menu at a restaurant, and the check-out instructions on Amazon.com. We also need to be able to request and present information verbally such as when we want to ask our friends what they thought about the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy or The Walking Dead, or if we need to convince mom and dad to let us borrow the car for the evening. But, if we learn how to do that by the time we get to our teenage years, why are we tortured with ELA instruction throughout high school, the first year or two of college, and by our ELA tutors?
The reason ELA instruction lasts so long after we learn to read and speak is that we also need to be able to understand how this whole language thing works. That way, we can understand the subtleties that make the difference between the literal meaning and the author or speaker’s “real” meaning and intent. When you listen to the weather report in the morning, you can be certain that the meteorologist is simply trying to inform you of what you will experience while you are outside today. However, are there ever times when what someone says or how he or she says it is purposefully meant to confuse, entertain, test, trick, or mislead you? Of course there are. One author who is famous for inventing such scenarios in written and spoken form is the one and only William Shakespeare. Arguably, his greatest skill was his ability to present language so cleverly that he could entertain the social elites and common rabble at the same time. Specifically, he could write a play that entertained the rabble by making fun of the elites without the elites realizing that they had just been insulted. Then, he would turn around and do the same thing and entertain the elites at the expense of the rabble. We study such works even to this day because we recognize the skill and power that results from mastering ELA. It is with those scenarios in mind, that high school teachers, college professors, and ELA tutors strive to get you to learn the subtleties, nay, the artistry that lies beyond the use of language for direct information presentation and reception.
Rhetoric – Word Choice
Without putting too fine a point on it, the two main areas of focus when classifying one’s use of language as great or just OK are rhetoric and structure. To paraphrase, rhetoric refers to what you choose to say and structure refers to the order in which you say it. There are many aspects to consider when analyzing rhetoric, but the simplest way to think about it is to focus on the desired result. Going back to our earlier discussion of the weather, we can choose to talk about the atmospheric conditions in our local neighborhood with two main goals in mind: we can focus on the scientific /factual nature of the weather or on the emotional result caused by the weather. For example, if rain is in the day’s forecast, the meteorologist could describe the atmospheric conditions using technical terminology such as informing us that there is an eighty percent chance of precipitation due to a high or low pressure system in the region, or he or she could say that we’re probably going to get some rain today, which is great news since Southern California is always in a drought. The difference between the two examples is that the scientific version left emotion out of the picture so that we could focus on exactly what was going to happen while the latter example encouraged us to be happy about the impending rain. These examples show a stark contrast between the two ends of the rhetorical spectrum, but one who has great control of his or her use of language can seamlessly blend the scientific and emotional sides so that the reader or listener thinks and feels exactly as the author or speaker intends.
Structure – Organization
While rhetoric addresses the issue of the type of impact we want our words to have – emotional or intellectual, the structure of our words can help us present the information or argument in the most effective order in terms of what will make the most sense to the reader or listener. To better understand the effect of structure, let’s compare the structure of words in a speech or written passage to the structure of music. What makes music musical and not just a collection of random sounds is how the sounds are structured: the order in which the sounds are presented. This is because our brains are designed to recognize patterns. Thus, part of the pleasure of listening to music comes from identifying the musical patterns and recognizing when the patterns change. Consider what happens when you are “rocking-out” to your favorite song. Most likely, the two best parts of the song are when you are in sync with the melody and when you anticipate the build up to the change from the melody to the chorus and back again. Our brains consider written and spoken words in the same way. We’ve come to expect information to be presented in certain ways. If the author’s purpose is to explain, we expect to be informed of the “Five Ws:” who, what, where, when, why, and how. If the purpose is to describe, we want to know who the main characters are and what happens to them. We generally consider the presentation of information successful or not based on whether or not our expectations have been met. However, if a speech or passage is considered successful when all of the parts have been included, how do we decide if it is better or more impressive that one we’ve heard or seen before?
What makes a passage great?
To answer that, we have to consider the rhetoric and structure of the entire work. A speech or passage is considered more successful if the elements were presented in a unique, interesting, and pleasing order. If an author intended to inform an audience of people who are out of touch with pop-culture and need to learn about selfies, the text would only be considered successful if the audience was informed about all of the necessary aspects of selfie taking more effectively and interestingly than ever before? For example, does the reader now know when it is appropriate to use a Selfie Stick, or how to ask a famous person to join them in a selfie? Was said information presented completely, clearly, and in a unique and interesting manner? If so, then, the author has written the best or most impressive informational passage about taking selfies ever.
We learn it because it’s Art
Language can be used to create the same or greater impact as the most famous painting, sculpture, or song. The only difference between the audience being able to appreciate the words, melody, or image is how well the audience understands mode of artistic expression. If you’ve learned to appreciate the technical and aesthetic components of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, it would only be possible because you’ve trained your “visual eye” to consider all of the relevant characteristics of the piece. Similarly, if you want to learn to appreciate Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” you would need to have trained your “literary eye” to identify the skill relating to the contrast created by employing a pastoral setting; the subtleties of satire; and the challenge of creating a story within a story and seamlessly transitioning between the two, all in order to appreciate the fact that the loves, pains, and joys that comprise daily life in the middle ages closely resemble those you and I experience today. If you can accomplish these tasks, you will likely appreciate Chaucer’s literary and cultural achievement. In the end however, appreciation for art – in whatever form – cannot be forced upon one who does not wish to “see” it. Therefore, schools and ELA tutors will continue to teach English Language Arts so that students will, at the very least, be able to tell the difference between someone’s thoughtless utterances and another’s words of wisdom.
Meet the Author: Alex Claude is an SAT and ACT ELA Director and an ELA tutor at Oxford Tutoring. He takes the time to get to know his students so he can learn and apply how to best teach them. Alex teaches his students how to effectively communicate through writing, and how to analyze informational texts and novels.
© Oxford Tutoring 2015