English degrees still have value

A fourth and fifth grade teacher at Calvin Coolidge Elementary school in Cedar Rapids talks with a reading group on Jan. 23, 2018 about the next novel on their schedule. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A fourth and fifth grade teacher at Calvin Coolidge Elementary school in Cedar Rapids talks with a reading group on Jan. 23, 2018 about the next novel on their schedule. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

As a junior and senior high school English teacher of 36 years, now retired, I feel adamantly that college students pursing a language arts degree should be encouraged, not discouraged.

Although I obviously will agree the explosion of technology has been exciting and even astonishing at times, there exists a negative side to ponder: the unfortunate diminution of oral communication. The value of spoken information cannot be slighted in a technology world. Here are two examples: A young couple, eating at a restaurant sitting adjacent to us, played on their smartphones the entire time without saying one word to each other; another incident involved students who should have been listening to a great speaker, but decided to play on their “gadgets” instead. Unfortunately, these situations might be becoming part of a norm.

So how does an English degree enter this picture? Surprisingly, it has been printed that as many as “90 percent of college freshmen are afraid to stand up and deliver a three-minute speech.” If true, an English instructor can considerably help by requiring an oral speech unit. Several of my students built enough confidence to enter the annual Optimist Oratorical Contest, returning with medals.

Emphasizing oral competence can reveal individual problems, which can be alleviated. A student of mine didn’t realize he had dyslexia and often reversed his b’s and d’s. After staying after school for special exercises, I am happy to reveal this young man later became a medical doctor.

I was especially impressed with an eighth-grader who asked if he could buy his grammar book — “I feel the spoken and the written word are both important in this world.” How astute was that? This young man, Thomas Cech, later became a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, initially graduating from City High School in Iowa City.

So, what are some suggestions for students contemplating English degrees? Teachers and colleges must decide what the goals of students should be in the classroom. Then, bring in technology to aid these decisions. Technology by itself should not be dictating classroom goals.

In other words, teachers should not become techno-facilitators, concerned only with process. Their content and knowledge in their field are valuable.


When I taught Title I, a program designed to improve reading skills, it was interesting to observe that several students seemed to value my oral input in place of controlled readers and accelerators.

Student users of technology should realize that conversations involving machines, where their viewpoints often appear dominant or isolated, do not necessarily have the same outcomes of confidence as entering a room of strangers. Although technology remains exciting, I would like to emphasize that test scores have not notably improved; “relevancy” does not necessarily a “learned-person make” and process without discussion can weaken a student’s overall knowledge.

Educational institutions need qualified English teachers who contribute their expertise in recognizing student strengths and weaknesses for potential success in a complicated and challenging world.

• Alta M. Cook is a retired English teacher form Iowa City, a KGAN Golden Apple Award Winner, and an inductee into City High’s Hall of Fame.



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