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.