Language arts is essentially the study of how we use words to create and to decipher meaning. In general, schools divide language arts into four broad fields: reading, writing, speaking, and visual literacy.
Reading is the foundation of language arts. To be a competent writer, one must first be a good reader. Reading begins with learning that a language's alphabet is formed of individual letters that compose words, sentences, and paragraphs. Reading, however, is also being able to understand the larger meanings that exist within the printed word and often beyond it. A successful advanced reader can (1) understand complications in plot and character and (2) ultimately make larger inferences about how works of fiction and nonfiction relate to the world.
Writing, or composition, involves using various parts of language to form a written narrative. Composition falls into a number of categories:
- Fiction. Fiction is most often defined as imaginative writing that tells a story by way of integrating plot, characters, and themes. Fiction is divided into three genres: the novel, the short story, and poetry.
- Essays. Essays are works of nonfiction that may be either impersonal or personal in nature. Essays are typically grouped into broad categories that include argumentative (or persuasive) essays, cause-and-effect essays, compare-and-contrast essays, and reflective (or narrative) essays.
- Technical writing. Technical writing includes the composition of instructions and manuals. Technical writing often uses specialized language specific to a field—medicine, engineering, computer science, and so on.
A speech is usually composed of an introduction, a central message that must be communicated to an audience, and a conclusion. Speeches target a specific audience and may contain language, or “jargon,” with which that particular group will be familiar. Good speeches often contain anecdotes that engage the listener. In addition, many speeches also include visual components, such as PowerPoint slides or video clips, that help deliver and emphasize a speech's primary themes.
A “visually literate” person is able to interpret meaning from an image. In effect, visual literacy means being able to “read” a picture. Although a picture itself does not tell us literally how to read it, we assign words and thus ideas to the image.
- In the U.S. education system, "language arts" began to appear as a popular term in the 1950s.
- Today, there are hundreds of academic journals dedicated to language arts instruction and education.
- Even though the term "language arts" appeared in the 1950s, the fields of language arts were identified and defined much earlier. For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined these elements of a speech: "In making a speech one must study three points: first, the means of producing persuasion; second, the language; third the proper arrangement of the various parts of the speech."