The vexing question, ‘What is English?’ resonates today (Goodwyn et al. 2019) and has resonated within and across the profession as well as the larger culture since the official formation of the school subject in the late 1800s (Applebee 1974; Berlin 2003; Elbow 1990; Lloyd-Jones and Lunsford 1989). English language arts at the secondary level has evolved from its onset in the colonial era to its current iterations, trending toward 1) a curricula of multiliteracies, reflecting the ubiquitous nature of digital media; 2) culturally responsive/engaging/humanizing curricula and instruction, responding to recent demographic shifts and larger movements for social justice despite 3) accountability mandates offering a countervailing force that threatens to stem the tide of critical and progressive approaches to English language arts (Pasternak et al. 2017).

Drawing from Applebee’s (1974) Tradition and Reform, a classic history of the profession, three key orientations to the subject matter have pervaded the discipline over time: 1) the academic tradition; 2) the ethical/moral tradition; 2) and 3) the personal growth tradition. Each of the three promotes a particular ideology that underlies the curricula. For instance, the academic tradition strand emphasizes English as the training ground for future leaders and society’s elite, preparing students for the rigor of post-secondary education. The ethical/moral tradition capitalizes on character training, preparing students to assume social responsibilities that enhance the greater good, cultivating good citizens in a democracy. The personal growth model focuses on literacy for enjoyment, focusing on self-improvement, as opposed to the academic tradition emphasizing literary knowledge. Leading scholars in the field testify that this tripartite division still holds true today (Durst, Newell, and Marshall 2017; Langer 2017).

Since the emergence of the discipline in 1892, classroom practices, particularly literary studies and writing, have been conceptualized in predominantly white male, Eurocentric, heteronormative terms, manifesting in the traditions of essayist literacy (decontextualized text with a monolithic and singular meaning) as well as in the canon, the Great Books programme (meaning books that supposedly constitute what was deemed as essential for Western literature), and high school anthologies and reading lists that tacitly construct the canon through their choices (Durst, Newell, and Marshall 2017; Langer 2017).

In the last part of the twentieth century, however, scholars and teachers began infusing multicultural awareness in English language arts, acknowledging that a predominance of white middle-class English teachers were serving culturally and linguistically diverse students whose social and linguistic practices differed from their own. As studies of classroom ELA practices have suggested, teachers needed to develop curricula and instruction that would be culturally responsive to students with diverse ways of constructing and interpreting texts in and out of schools. These disconnects drive preservice and inservice teacher education (Hallman, Pastore-Capuana, and Pasternak 2019a; Hallman, Pastore-Capuana, and Pasternak 2019b).

Simultaneously, the standardized testing campaign went full throttle. Policy makers and professionals observed differences in test scores with higher rankings for white middle class students and lower scores for all others, including white students of working class backgrounds, students of colour, second language learners, and students with special needs. Dubbed the achievement gap and/or the opportunity gap, this chasm led conservative scholars and policy makers to urge teachers to increase test scores for marginalized groups to level the playing field. However, the call for increasing test scores decried the narrowing of curricula, specifically to material that was more easily assessible through standardized tests. More so, it obscured the systemic historical, economic, and social issues that created the gap in the first place.

The confluence of demographic shifts, testing mandates, achievement/opportunity gap issues, and the trend toward infusing the curricula with multicultural content led the profession, including teachers and researchers, to challenge deficit views of diverse students. Emphasizing asset-oriented approaches that utilize students’ social and cultural home knowledges, the profession endorsed culturally sensitive and humanizing approaches to instruction. Over the past few decades, scholars have deepened the field’s understanding of the affordances of utilizing students’ assets, or funds of knowledge in the classroom, drawing from their linguistically and culturally diverse epistemologies, rhetorics, and social practices. Taken together, recent studies have created a rich repository of research on diverse epistemologies, practices, and ways of knowing and doing school that suggest a broader view of teaching and learning.

The issues of diversity, opportunity, and access, have continued to complicate contemporary discussions of the curricula, suggesting that the question, ‘What is English?’ is equally relevant, its answers equally elusive, today. Whether considering English as a monolithic subject or analyzing it with the traditional tripartite divisions of composition, literature, and language, sociocultural and political perspectives on equity issues prevail. That is, issues such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and (dis)abilities cut across our discussions of what counts as English/language arts/literacy today, leading us to consider not only what English is, but also what it might become.