A Visit to the Core Knowledge Auto Body Shop

by Robert Pondiscio
February 14th, 2012

The New York Times offers up a piece about a New York City school that has put building background knowledge at the heart of its curriculum.  P.S. 142, a school in lower Manhattan hard by the Williamsburg Bridge “has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons,” the paper notes, “in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.”

“Experiences that are routine in middle-class homes are not for P.S. 142 children. When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher, asked her students recently how many had never been inside a car, several, including Tyler Rodriguez, raised their hands. ‘I’ve been inside a bus,’ Tyler said. ‘Does that count?’”

This is not a Core Knowledge school, but the teachers and staff clearly understand the critical connection between background knowledge, vocabulary and language proficiency.  The Times describes the school’s “field trips to the sidewalk,” with children routinely visiting parking garages and auto body shops, or examining features of every day life.

“In early February the second graders went around the block to study Muni-Meters and parking signs. They learned new vocabulary words, like ‘parking,’ ‘violations’ and ‘bureau.’ JenLee Zhong calculated that if Ms. Krings put 50 cents in the Muni-Meter and could park for 10 minutes, for 40 minutes she would have to put in $2. They discovered that a sign that says ‘No Standing Any Time’ is not intended for kids like them on the sidewalk.

The “no standing” example illustrates perfectly how easily a lack of shared references and experiences conspire to thwart comprehension.  It is simply inconceivable that a non-driver would connect the act of balancing on two feet with the act of idling by the curb in a car.  Our language is deeply idiomatic and context driven.  Even a simple word like “shot” means something different on a basketball court, a doctor’s office, or when the repairman says your dishwasher is “shot.”

Obvious?  Sure it is.  To you. But you’re not a low-income kid who has never sat in a car.  Or stood in one.  These things either need to be taught explicitly or experienced first-hand.

“Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge,” the Times notes.  It’s gratifying to see this point rendered as if it’s widely known in our schools.   Still the piece ends on a bittersweet note.  A local superintendent says he wished more principals would adopt the program but that they’re fearful. “There is so much pressure systematically to do well on the tests, and this may not boost scores right away,” Daniel Feigelson said. “To do this you’d have to be willing to take the long view.”

The long view should win out simply because there is no short view. At least not one that has been proven effective. Language growth is a slow growing plant, E.D. Hirsch points out.  There is no shortcut to building the vocabulary and background knowledge that drives comprehension. All the reading strategies instruction in the world can’t compensate.

Here’s my suggestion:  Although I love the phrase, PS 142 should immediately stop calling these activities “field trips to the sidewalk.”

Call it “test prep.”  Because that’s what it really is.


  1. All the whiile I’m worried about the amount of time my granddaughter spends in her car seat, it never occured to me that there are school-age children in the U.S. who have never been IN a car.

    Excellent reality check.

    Comment by Cindy — February 14, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  2. Another excellent blog–you’ve been on a roll, lately.

    Loved it, except for the last paragraph. I do–speaking of idioms–see the tongue in your cheek. But equating real education, those field trips to the sidewalk, with test prep makes my head and heart hurt.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — February 14, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

  3. @ Nancy Thanks, pal. But let me defend my kicker. One of my favorite edu-expressions, courtesy of Dan Willingham, is Teaching Content is Teaching Reading (click here to learn more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiP-ijdxqEc). But I might very well add to that, “Everything is Test Prep.” Why? Because all reading tests are de facto tests of general knowledge. You have to know all or most of the words and have enough background knowledge about the topic of a reading passage to form a mental model, make correct inferences, etc. There is no such thing as wasted knowledge, and anything that adds to your store of knowledge and vocabulary is probably a better use of precious educational hours than test prep.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 14, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  4. One great awakening in my last few years of teaching occurred when we realized that many students on public assistance had poor “money sense” because of the debit-card system utilized for distributing benefits to their families. When dollars, quarters, dimes, and nickels are not likely to be in a parent’s pocket, one more step – quite a challenging one- to one of the more common math challenges in elementary school. Understanding our students’ experiences (or lack of them) is critical to literacy, as any reading specialist knows.

    Comment by Lynn Dorr — February 14, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

  5. This is an interesting angle on the irrefutable idea that reading comprehension depends heavily on background knowledge.

    Which brings up a larger question having to do with standardized tests. If my ability to comprehend brief passages on such a test depends on my prior knowledge of the topics discussed, isn’t my “reading score” somewhat a matter of luck? Of course, if I’ve read widely, the odds more favor my having come across those topics before.

    But aren’t standardized reading tests then somewhat like the game show “Jeopardy”? You know, where most days I do really well at home, but the day I appear on-camera they pick categories like molecular biology, ancient African history, and curling, and I score in the negative?

    Math strikes me as being appropriate for standardized testing: 6 x 8= 48, everywhere, in all math curricula. But can reading comprehension really be tested this way?

    Comment by John Webster — February 14, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  6. I would argue no, it can’t be fairly tested that way. In fact, I *have* argued just that point:


    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 14, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

  7. Let’s see if I have a “shot” at doing better here than on the previous blog topic where Robert almost “shot” me for my semantics comment. Just kidding, Big Fella.

    Prior to standards based reform (most of my time in teaching) I wrote my own curricula because I was the only one I trusted enough with the task. Even after MERA in 1993, I still didn’t think Massachusetts officials had enough global rigor to get everything I wanted for my students in 180 days. Sure, I supplemented some of my READING with CK stuff, but even that never gained my kids exposure to all the great works I wanted for them, although it didn’t miss many.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 14, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

  8. So this classroom teacher really connects her kids to the language of the kid’s environment. I can see power in that because more often than not these children will not have a parent telling their kids about a parking garage. However I have plowed through the CK books to supplement my kids education and from what I see E.D. Hirsh advocating is at a much higher level for example tracing and discussing continents and history. Is this just one more way we condescend to poverty by saying let’s prioritize the parking garage and parking signs but not put the effort into higher level learning? I don’t know the answer here but not sure this article is really what should be advocating for core knowledge.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 14, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

  9. @DC Parent To be clear, I’m not suggesting schools drop the three branches of government and photosynthesis for a trip to the parking garage or reading street signs. What I’m pleased with is this school’s overt attempts to build background knowledge and explicit acknowledgement that there is a connection between common knowledge and reading comprehension. Far too few schools serving low-income kids get this. Or they may overestimate a students base of knowledge. Do I think it’s sufficient to “read your neighborhood.” No. But there is something to be said for “meeting the children where they are.” One hopes and assumes that the activities described here are the starting line, not the finish line. It would be curious if, understanding the connections between knowledge and language proficiency, this school would follow that understanding to it’s logical next step with a full, content-rich curriculum.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 14, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

  10. My two kids (6th and 8th grades) attend a terrific CK charter school. I look at their standardized test scores, but I’m far more concerned about how they do in their content-rich classes. The course-specific tests they take show me far more how they’re really doing than the standardized stuff.

    But most schools aren’t even close to the academic quality of my kids’ school. If standardized reading tests don’t show us that much, and in the absence of common curricula, is there a way for the public to accurately gauge achievement across the wide variety of schools? Surely we can’t rely on “authentic assessments” that are completely subjective and can be gamed by the K-12 world to reflect positively on itself.

    Forgive my layman’s ignorance on this issue. A proper response to my questions could probably justify its own (long) posting, maybe even an entire book.

    Comment by John Webster — February 15, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

  11. John,

    “…is there a way for the public to accurately gauge achievement across the wide variety of schools?” John, I believe NAEP tests (nicknamed the “nation’s report card”) are quite reliable but not are not taken by all students, even all schools.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 15, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

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