Meet the Children Where They Are…and Keep Them There

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2012

A lot of people whose opinions I respect don’t care much for Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Some of my friends view the standards as an abuse of power or coercive.  Some think them no better or even worse than their existing state standards.  Others bemoan the lack of specificity.

Say what you will about CCSS, but there are three big ideas embedded within the English Language Arts standards that deserve to be at the very heart of literacy instruction in U.S. classrooms, with or with or without standards themselves:

1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.

2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.

3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.

In an astonishing commentary in Education Week, Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) reads the Common Core ELA Standards and pronounces herself “truly alarmed” and “aghast at the vision of the dreariness and harshness of the classrooms they aim to create.”  Why?  Precisely because of the three ideas enumerated above.

I’m alarmed and aghast that anyone can fail to connect building background knowledge with language growth, or long-term success in reading comprehension.  Not for nothing are the standards titled “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, K-5.”

Yatvin’s bill of particulars boils down to a complaint that all that subject matter content is too hard, too soon and too boring for children. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” she writes. Her smoking gun is within the publisher’s criteria that accompanies the standards:

In kindergarten-grade 2, the most notable shifts in the standards when compared to state standards include a focus on reading informational text and building a coherent knowledge within and across grades; a more in-depth approach to vocabulary development; and a requirement that students encounter sufficiently complex text through reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  By underscoring what matters most in the standards, the criteria illustrate what shifts must take place in the next generation of curricula, including paring away elements that distract from or are at odds with the Common Core State Standards.

“This is a pretty strong dose of academia for children just beginning their schooling, with not even a ‘spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down,” she writes, forgetting that the teachers are free to dispense as many spoonfuls of C6H12O6  as they see fit to enable the prescription to enter the digestive tract.

News flash: It’s precisely the lack of coherent background knowledge—the kind of taken-for-granted knowledge of the world, and the gains in vocabulary that accompany it—that is holding back reading comprehension and language growth among our most disadvantaged children.  This is something that CCSS nails, emphatically and correctly.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

“For young children, the focus on academic vocabulary seems strange,” continues Yatvin, apparently believing teachers are expected to read directly from the Common Core Standards during story time on the rug.  “At this time in their development, would it not be more sensible for children to learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown?” she ask.

Well, no.  It would not be more sensible. Most of the words we acquire we learn not through memorization or direct instruction, but in context.  So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences.  If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences. Matthew Effect, anyone? It is incredibly condescending even to suggest that if a child cannot personally relate to a story or topic, they can’t possibly be interested or successful.

Yet Yatvin also doesn’t much care for the “significant increase in nonfiction materials at all grade levels” and CCSS’s call for “a mix of 50 percent literary and 50 percent informational text, including reading in [English/language arts], science, social studies, and the arts.”

“The fact that fiction now dominates the elementary curriculum is not the result of educators’ decisions about what is best for children, but a reflection of children’s developmental stages, their interests, and their limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology. It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

Wait.  Children have limited knowledge in science, geography, history and technology, so we shouldn’t muddy their minds with such marginalia?  The story is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge, not about (strawman alert!) “the inner workings of a locomotive,” but colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few.  There are no shortage of age appropriate, richly illustrated nonfiction picture books that would go a long way toward building prior knowledge on these and many other topics that are a natural extension of The Little Engine That Could.

I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story.  But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow.  Weirdly, Yatvin gets this.  She just seems reluctant to teach it:

“Reading any text requires more than decoding, fluency, and inferring meaning from context; the reader must form mental images of things mentioned based on previous experience or imagination. Although illustrations in many nonfiction books help considerably, there is a limit to how many unfamiliar things can be adequately illustrated in a book for young children.”

Right.  Which is exactly why we need to expand a child’s base of knowledge, not view it as too high a hurdle to clear.

“Ultimately, the authors show their contempt for teachers’ competence, the use of supplementary materials, and children’s experiences,” Yatvin claims.  But she shows her contempt for children in her assumption that if it’s not a part of a child’s everyday experience they couldn’t possibly be interested or expected to appreciate or understand it.

By placing subject matter content at the very heart of English Language Arts instruction from the first days of school, the authors of the Common Core Standards got it absolutely right.  In order to read, write, speak and listen with comprehension, children need more content, not less.   We learn new words by understanding the context in which we hear unfamiliar words.   Every reading teacher has encouraged a struggling reader to “activate your prior knowledge” when reading a difficult passage; or to “use your context clues” when stumped by an unfamiliar word.  Where – where exactly – do we expect that prior knowledge and context to come from if building it is not a primary function of language arts instruction?

Are there problems with Common Core Standards? Certainly. But there are far more problems with a view of literacy and teaching that boils down to “meet the children where they are…and keep them there.”

43 Comments »

  1. I’m not surprised at all, as the English Journal, the flagship journal of the NCTE, published that lovely article on teaching Great Expectations a la The Real Housewives of the Jersey Shore that I wrote about a while back. http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2011/11/14/greater-expectations/.

    Not surprised at all.

    In my experience, if the teacher loves the text, and is willing to take the time and the energy to share her enthusiasm and the necessary background, students can rise to the occasion. I have taught in private schools, public schools, gifted programs, and remedial programs, and I have seen students rise to the text almost every time.

    Comment by Jessica Lahey — February 27, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

  2. The fact that this woman is a retired public school educator (teacher and principal), a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, and a former member of the National Reading Panel, is a sad commentary on the state of public education in this country – VERY SAD.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 27, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

  3. People like this actually have a great deal of influence/say as to what goes on in our schools? Beyond sad, borderline embarrassing.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 27, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

  4. My kids would have loved to have read a book about how locomotives worked in conjunction with reading The Little Engine that Could. When they were toddlers and preschoolers, they loved trains, trucks, and vehicles and stories that featured them, but they especially loved learning about how they worked–I read non-fiction construction books over and over again to them. They still enjoy learning about how things work, the concreteness of it.

    I’m not sure if this is part of this, but to put it crudely, there can be a sort of bias among some literary types against non-fiction literature. The same thing exists (though in a different flavor of disregard) against science fiction literature–it’s not “serious” enough.

    It probably doesn’t directly relate, but this interview with John McPhee in the Paris Review is really enlightening on the subject of writing, literature, and non-fiction: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5997/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-3-john-mcphee

    Comment by Rachel Levy — February 27, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  5. I am 57 and I still remember being a child. I read early and often. The fact that “it was not a part of my everyday experience,” was precisely what I found so fascinating about books. I was very interested in things outside my little world. I appreciated it immensely, and understood, oh so much more, than my mother, or other adults realized. I read for information. That being said; I have always preferred fiction-content rich fiction- over nonfiction. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books influenced me greatly, and were a large ingredient in the formation of the pioneer, can-do spirit, that got me through tough financial times. Far from learning the inner workings of a locomotive fromThe Little Engine That Could, I learned to never give up. Johnny Tremain, was an attention grabbing introduction for the Revolutionary War. Huzzah, for content rich fiction – and curriculum that connects history, culture, character; with and through, reading, writing and arithmetic.

    Comment by Cherry — February 27, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

  6. I have a 5 year old boy. He started at a DC charter school when he was 3. The first year they did a lot of fiction and we had no end of parent conferences and recommendations to get him evaluated. I finally said “You don’t have enough predators in the books you read.” He doesn’t care about what you are doing in class. When they did a science unit he finally wanted to go to school. This school revamped their curriculum the next year and had a lot more natural science and active non-fiction and it made a huge difference for my son. He finally wanted to go school and told me about more than the discipline chart after school each day. We wonder why kids hate school so early and I think it is precisely because we underestimate their sense of curiosity very early on and maybe one too many adults just don’t have it in them anymore.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 28, 2012 @ 6:25 am

  7. It’s really stunning that a putative “educator” would write something like this — “limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology” — as an excuse for NOT giving kids more information about those fields. How perverse. I’m reminded of what Larry Sanger says about educational anti-intellectualism: http://larrysanger.org/2011/12/an-example-of-educational-anti-intellectualism/

    Comment by Stuart Buck — February 28, 2012 @ 10:51 am

  8. Debora Meier, who is certainly skeptical of CCSS herself, contends that students in the early grades are fascinated by nonfiction, particularly dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, and bugs. Of course, narratives are great for engaging early readers, but if you really believe that school materials for young learners should have something to do with their “interests,” but then you restrict it to fiction, you’re not making sense.

    Comment by Jeff Bryant — February 28, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

  9. If somebody reads “the collected speeches” of guys like Rick Santorum or – for that matter – William Jennings Bryan – are they reading fiction or non-fiction? Is the story less true from “an authority,” and does the “consequence” of truth always lead to a clear, concise, and manageable result?

    What is lacking in this dialog is some capacity to accommodate the “cognitive dissonance” of standards and the human consequences of teaching. Fiction and non-fiction are arbitrary (although with some ostensible reason), just as prerequisites or fixed sequences, that make some sense but have little universality. Kids can derive engineering from the Little Engine, just as they can find poetry in physics. And that is merely a matter of teaching, style, and substance.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — February 28, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

  10. I am shocked–Shocked!–to learn that, in Yatvin’s words, “the criteria show a bias toward a particular philosophical approach that lays out a mechanical and linear pathway to reading competence.” As if constructivism isn’t also a philosophical preference.

    All mockery aside, I share Ms. Yatvin’s concern over commercial textbooks and curricula, given the recent posting here about textbook quality. Even constructivists, like broken clocks, can be right occasionally.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — February 28, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  11. Robert Pondiscio has written an excellent critique of my commentary–although I continue to disagree with him on his interpretation of the CCSS. Yes, I’m a constructivist who believes children need opportunities in school to move away from the limitations of their home backgrounds into the wider world through self-selected reading and writing, collaborative projects, and individual explorations of topics that interest them. But I don’t like the tone of the CCSS authors in the Standards or the Publishers’ Criteria that strongly suggests their contempt for current teaching practices and teachers’ expertise and their adherence to a top-down model of instruction.

    Comment by Joanne Yatvin — February 28, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

  12. Ms. Yatvin, your comment and visit is deeply appreciated and admired. While I won’t claim to a constructivist, neither am I hostile to constructivism. There is room in any good classroom for a wide variety of pedagogical approaches. One question: Where in the CCSS do you see a “top down model of instruction” mandated or even prescribed? Unless you’re suggesting a that balancing fiction and nonfiction equals “contempt for current teaching practices,” I’m not seeing the heavy hand you condemn.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 28, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

  13. “…their contempt for current teaching practices and teachers’ expertise and their adherence to a top-down model of instruction.”

    Ms. Yatvin, the top-down model you so disparagingly refer to is a plan, yes FINALLY a plan as to what should be taught and when in our public schools. Oh, every state has had standards now since 2002 but some of the states were duplicitous, fraudulent, and short-sighted in the standards they developed for the children in their state.
    There was little or no rigor and even less authenticity.

    I taught elementary classroom for three and a half decades in Massachusetts and I had contempt too for a number of (especially) my primary colleagues who taught reading/language arts all day, everyday, with zero regard for mathematics, science or social studies. Is that the expertize you so cavalierly associate with today’s teachers? We wouldn’t want that narrow minded approach for our own children so why should we as teachers impose it across an entire state?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 28, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

  14. One thing I always find really odd is the suggestion that kids aren’t interested in learning nonfiction. Most typically do enjoy it. Kids generally do want to understand the world around them. I would think that learning new things would be far less boring than learning things you already know. This blog post asks if basic facts are boring: http://www.earlyknowledgeforkids.blogspot.com/. I think no.

    Comment by GC — February 28, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

  15. I should have given the direct link to the blog post asking if basic facts are boring. It is http://earlyknowledgeforkids.blogspot.com/2012/02/are-basic-facts-really-boring.html.

    Comment by GC — February 28, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

  16. [...] amounts to meeting children where they are and keeping them there, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. He lists the standards’ “three big [...]

    Pingback by Common Core reading: Too hard? Too factual? — Joanne Jacobs — February 29, 2012 @ 10:05 am

  17. Responding to Robert’s questions:

    I see it in the emphasis on whole class instruction, “explicit, systematic,instruction,” and the expectation that all students will work with grade level texts, analyzing them and identifying subtle features, such as word choice.

    One thing I did not mention in my commentary and was not listed in my credentials is that I was a member of the College Board commission (2007-2010) that wrote the AP standards for coming assessments. some of the things we said should be required of high school AP students are echoed in the CCSS standards for elementary grades.

    Incidentally, I have no problem with non-fiction that is coordinated with science, history, etc. units of project, or that individual students want to pursue. But I do think that a 50/50 split between literature and non-fiction is extreme at any grade level and that teacher selections of whole class non-fiction are bound to be beyond the interest and understanding of some students.

    Comment by Joanne Yatvin — February 29, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

  18. Typo in second line of last paragraph; it should say “or projects.”

    Comment by Joanne Yatvin — February 29, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

  19. As an adult reader of serious books, the truth that reading comprehension depends heavily on background knowledge seems too obvious to need saying – how could any reflective person believe otherwise?

    But I wonder how this idea works in the context of the Core Knowledge curriculum. For example, in first grade CK science, kids study the solar system. Several years later (I forget which grade), CK science again covers the solar system at a more complex level.

    Let’s say that ten kids (the X kids) studied the solar system in 1st grade and then studied it again several years later in more depth. Now let’s say ten other kids (the Y kids) only learned about the solar system at the older grade level.

    Would the X kids have greater reading comprehension about the solar system than the Y kids? Or would the Y kids be able to “catch-up” fairly easily? If so, why then teach 1st graders these particular facts? Why not wait (this question applies to other academic topics as well)?

    I speculate that the value of the earlier learning would result from the use of “distributed learning” – the knowledge acquired early on would be recalled from long-term memory and then be reinforced by additional repetition. As a parent, elementary age learning has always been a mystery to me; it seems to almost magically happen. Has the value of early fact-acquisition on reading comprehension been empirically proven?

    Cognitive scientists and elementary age teachers, please weigh in.

    Comment by John Webster — February 29, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

  20. My sense is that Robert Pondiscio may have misinterpreted what I think Joanne Yatvin meant (and, in my opinion, expressed rather poorly).

    I think Cherry actually got it right. It is not that children should not be taught rich content, it is that rich content is best taught in early grades through content-rich fiction rather than non-fiction. Sure, kids may be fascinated in early age with dinosaurs and such, but most of them will find non-fictional accounts of dinosaurs detailing their food and their variety rather boring. It is when dinosaurs are weaved into a story that the content becomes much more attractive and memorable.

    Common Core’s error is — in my opinion — when it pushes non-fiction much too early and much too hard, rather than content-rich fiction. Sure, there may be a handful of kids enjoying geography books in the third grade, but most would rather learn about it through reading Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days and similar.

    ———-

    On another note and responding to John Webster, I think he confuses “distributed practice” with what he calls “distributed learning.” The former is a well supported technique to solidify recall of learned content. The latter is fake justification for spiraling and never teaching to mastery (at the level taught).

    Comment by Ze'ev Wurman — February 29, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

  21. John,

    The first grade solar system unit is relatively rudimentary. When it resurfaces a year or two later, it becomes more complex.

    Whether the kids who had the solar system in grade one would realize better reading comprehension probably depends on each student. Some kids, after learning something in school about the solar system in grade one, will be motivated enough to read more about it on their own. These kids will benefit greatly. Other kids might not be as interested and will obviously not benefit as much. Their reading comprehension might not be as advanced on this topic.

    You also must consider other variables in learning of young children. The SES and stability of the family, their innate ability (IQ), their level/degree of readiness for the subject matter, their personal motivation, etc., all lead to pluses and minuses in the process.

    You’ve asked a complex question that’s not easy to answer. That’s what teachers face every day, a kaleidoscope of variables. There’s simply not a great deal of homogeneity in many classrooms. Kids can literally be all over the place and teachers must somehow figure what’s best to do and then effectively execute it.

    That, John, is why we get the big bucks. It’s not just all these good looks.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 29, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  22. Ze’ev, welcome to the CK blog. Glad to see you chiming in. I hope this critical topic of systematic early knowledge does not morph into pro or con the Common Core. That way, madness lies, as the bard said. We have been trying to duck the stray bullets. One important distinction to be made is between narrative exposition and straight exposition. I agree with Ze’ev that young children thrive on narrative. That’s the preferred vehicle — probably for many grownups too. It’s been said that a good biographer is a novelist on oath. And good writing for children whether fiction or non fiction is good narrative — a good story. Dickens’ History of England for Children is a whopping story. And a lot better for their education than The Beavers’ Day at the Beach.

    Comment by E D Hirsch — February 29, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

  23. Thanks for the welcome, Don. You must have noted that I made only a very specific observation re the Common Core.

    Comment by Ze'ev Wurman — February 29, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

  24. @Ze’ve-

    I can’t come at this question with any studies than what I see with my own children. My youngest son craves non-fiction, will only read fiction that is “silly.” A classroom totally or even majority taught from the perspective of fiction would bore him to death. My daughter loves fiction and does well with historical pieces but it is amazing how much better she understood Bud Not Buddy when we read a non-fiction book about the Depression and watched a one hour documentary on the Depression from the History channel on Netflix. Before that point she told me well a lot of people don’t have jobs, but could not tell me why or why even the Hooverville in the book existed. I really question especially in the case of historical fiction if kids can understand the significance of many events without companion non-fiction. Further how do kids learn historicity without reading it in the form of non-fiction history. Balance makes a lot more sense to me.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 29, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

  25. Ah, balance … that wonderful word that sounds so sane until … http://jaypgreene.com/2010/10/21/hemisphere-fallacy-sighting/

    I am sure kids like yours exist, yet it seems to me that overwhelmingly younger children prefer narrative rather than informational texts. A good teacher will have some of those too in his stash and bring them out if and when needed.

    And it also seems a matter of grade. 50% informational in grade 4, as the Common Core expects, sounds to me like an overkill. 55% in grade 8 seems almost reasonable. 70% by grade 12 implies that seniors in English classes spend most of their time reading Microsoft instruction manuals and Federal Reserve analyses rather than Shakespeare or Hemingway. Is this what we really want or need?

    N.B. History Channel programs typically are precisely the narrative type of history that Don Hirsch mentions rather than just informational ones.

    Comment by Ze'ev Wurman — February 29, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

  26. John, Paul, interesting points. I want to weigh in with a third. If I understand core knowledge correctly, and I might not—perhaps Mr. Pondiscio or Dr. Hirsch could offer correction—the point of early exposure to the solar system or any other disciplinary field of knowledge, is not primarily to enhance learning of that particular field, but rather to engage the “Teaching content is teaching reading” paradigm that seems to have strong empirical support—Willingham, et al. That is, If kids are exposed to the basic vocabulary of the solar system, they don’t just learn about the sun and planets, they absorb a vocabulary of rich metaphorical use across the whole spectrum of their reading. Think about the uses of the word “orbit,” for example, or just the fact that the planets are named for a group of mythological entities that kids will encounter throughout their present and later study of almost all of the other disciplines. However rudimentary the science value of the exposure, it actually serves a more important purpose. Does that make sense? Robert? Dr. Hirsch?

    Comment by bill eccleston — March 1, 2012 @ 6:46 am

  27. @Bill I will let others decide whether knowledge is its own reward or valuable as means of building vocabulary and language competence. For me it’s both. But as a policy lever, I can think of few initiatives that would be more valuable than a coherent, knowledge-rich elementary level curriculum for exactly the reason you describe. I think it was Dr. Hirsch (it wasn’t me) who described knowledge as intellectual velcro. The more you know, the more you are prepared to learn. And nowhere is this more true than in vocabulary acquisition, since we learn nearly all words in context. Knowledge builds context; context drives language growth. This is why I have always thought of Core Knowledge, for example, not as a means of learning about science, history, art and music, but as an ELA curriculum.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 1, 2012 @ 8:12 am

  28. I’m an immigrant who did probably 50/50 fiction and nonfiction at school long before grade 4. The idea that kids prefer narrative rather than informational content, so we should avoid informational stuff until later years is ridiculous. As long as content is written in a way that is understandable to children they will easily learn it. I did and most of my classmates did as well. Children differ so much in their tastes that it would be impossible to create a curriculum that every child prefers.

    The focus should be on what do kids actually need to know to succeed in high school and college and to compete in a global economy. A move toward an even split of fiction and nonfiction is a good step in that direction. It will also make school more interesting for the many children who do crave knowledge and currently don’t get nearly enough of it.

    Comment by JC — March 1, 2012 @ 8:35 am

  29. JC and others. Non-fiction, biographies, science and social studies textbooks, today are all written at different grade/age levels. This allows young children to devour non-fiction that interests them, especially outside of school.

    As an elementary teacher all my life, boys (excuse the broad brush here) couldn’t seem to get enough of non-fiction; and the brighter the student the more they were willing to learn. Someone once said, “knowledge is power.” In my experience, boys ate up this congruency.

    While I’m sure Ze’ev is correct about “young” children preferring narrative, for me, I’d have to amend that a bit and say young/preschool children prefer narrative over informational text. Once kids hit school, many are eager and anxious to consume as much as they can possibly digest during the school day and after. Never met a single child who wasn’t anxious to show how much they could learn.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 1, 2012 @ 10:49 am

  30. Children should read 33 percent fiction, 33 per cent non-fiction, and 33 percent poetry, IMO. I don’t see poetry here and you can’t understand “Western” culture without it.

    Comment by Harold — March 1, 2012 @ 11:16 am

  31. The suggested percentages for literature and non-fiction text in the Common Core span the entire curriculum. What 70% really implies at the high school level is that we need to be coordinated in the types of disciplinary reading that is occuring in the content areas and the English classroom. High school English may see a modest increase in literary non-fiction, but the expectation is hardly that 70% of texts in an English classroom are non-fiction.

    Comment by Tim S. — March 1, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

  32. Thanks for the responses to my first comment (19). Ze’ev (comment 20) correctly spotted my flawed proofreading. I meant to write “distributed practice”, a technique I’ve read about many times, and used myself as a student long ago. My mistake was beneficial, as I now know what “distributed learning” is (it doesn’t sound like a good thing).

    I framed my questions around the X and Y students for a practical reason: from my experiences as a school board member and fellow parent, most parents view things the way Ms. Yatvin does. They don’t see the need for kids to learn “mere facts” at such young ages; such knowledge is readily learned at a future time. So long as the elementary classroom has a bright, multicolored reading rug, the kids are learning to “work together” by means of wonderful “projects”, and the teacher is warm and fuzzy, parents think all is OK.

    The metaphor of knowledge as intellectual velcro makes sense. And of course there are many factors that will determine the level of reading comprehension for a specific child, as Paul Hoss pointed out.

    But the next time a parent asks me whether it’s really necessary for elementary kids to absorb a lot of factual knowledge, what should I say? Are there empirical studies – not just gut level hunches – to validate the CK approach in my scenario of the X and Y students?

    Comment by John Webster — March 1, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  33. As Paul noted, Dr. Yatvin was a member of the National Reading Panel. What has not been mentioned in this thread is her dissent. For those who support or constructively criticize her, reading the “Minority View” published in the final pages of the Report of the National Reading Panel should be essential reading.

    Comment by bill eccleston — March 3, 2012 @ 9:56 am

  34. I’d like to add another document to the syllabus here: Dr. Willingham’s latest blog post, “Early elementary education teaches almost no science.”

    The figures are stunning.

    Comment by bill eccleston — March 3, 2012 @ 10:21 am

  35. This either-or discussion about reading pedagogy does children a disservice. The question is not, “Do we only activate students’ prior cultural knowledge, potentially denying them new information, OR do we only provide new knowledge via the “text”? This is a false dichotomy. The real answer is to 1) surface and honor students’ prior knowledge and experiences, and 2) use that to build a bridge to new knowledge/texts so that students learn to be successful in the dominant culture.

    The standards’ emphasis on new texts (while connections to students’ lives) is built on the argument that “meeting the child” where s/he is at means learning also ends there. This is a classic straw man argument: pretend concern for equity using “disadvantaged” students as the poster children, then promote practices that in fact undermine it.

    Yes, there are many shallow and tokenistic examples of “relevance” that start with students’ lives but go no further (“I’ll let Johnny do a rap instead of a term paper!”). But educators must differentiate between these destructive practices and the quality pedagogy that recognizes and then builds upon learners’ prior knowledge.

    I will welcome the day when I see more a nuanced discussion of this on this and other sites.

    Comment by Susan Santone — March 9, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

  36. I’m starting to wonder how much background knowledge some of my fellow teachers have, especially at the elementary level.
    How many teachers in the Inglewood/El Segundo area of Los Angeles can explain superficially why or how those airplanes landing at LAX do what they do?
    “Mr. Ford, why is it’s nose tilted up? Can’t they see where they’re going?”
    That so many teachers aren’t willing or fearful of ‘the inner workings of a locomotive’ (or axial turbine turbofan engine) could be why so many boys find school boring, and develop no interest in reading.
    If all the teacher knows is ‘reading strategies’ and ‘activating prior knowledge,’ no wonder our children don’t know much.

    Comment by Peter Ford — March 10, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

  37. Sorry I’m late! First off, I’m glad Tim (31) made the point that the 70/30 split for HS is about the total curriculum and not the English classroom. Will high schools actually try to measure and quantify this? I doubt it, and in a way, I hope not – at least not down to a granular degree. What will help is for schools to build a shared commitment among all faculty members to teaching reading and language skills – which in theory could and should be happening with or without CC. But if CC provides the impetus to do good work, then we have at least one thing to be thankful for. I’m also hopeful that English teachers will, regardless of arbitrary percentages, take up the invitation to systematically include more non-fiction.

    I’m also slightly confused about the disagreement between Robert and Joanne regarding “academic vocabulary” – which, for me, means the vocabulary of academic work. These would be terms like “summarize, analyze, speculate, synthesize, denotation, connotation.” At any grade level, there’s an appropriate academic vocabulary, but it should be experienced, not taught as a vocabulary set or list. For example, you don’t teach kids what a character is; you just keep talking about characters. You don’t teach them the definition of plot, but just talk about it. (Sort of like we never teach the definitions of door, fork, etc.). I do think it makes sense to assess that vocabulary at some point and look for gaps. But I only see a slight overlap with the idea of background knowledge.

    Comment by David B. Cohen — March 11, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

  38. Core Knowledge vinidcated in NY Times (which misses the point by terming it “non-fiction”) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/12/nyregion/nonfiction-curriculum-enhanced-reading-skills-in-new-york-city-schools.html

    Comment by Harold — March 12, 2012 @ 2:20 am

  39. Good teachers incorporate “how does this apply to me” into everything they teach – even fiction. There are lessons to be learned from everything read – “theme” of the story. What are the major ideas about life that the author is trying to get us to see from this story? Any time relevancy can be added to the curriculum – no matter what the grade – the students will be more interested.

    Comment by Rhea Wynn — March 12, 2012 @ 8:14 am

  40. Bravo!!
    Updating, improving, and raising, the standards in the classroom, is NOT a bad thing. Like many other efforts at reform, it takes time to see the results. Time is what is being taken from educators in America today. Everyone who does not teach wants to see results NOW. It does not work that way. Lesson plans are never perfect, nor are they good for extended periods of time. Teachers have to change materials, and use of technology, often, in order to widen the students knowledge and use of available resources. This means new learning for teachers as well.
    I support higher standards across the board, hand in hand with more effective training for teachers, more financial support for more education for teachers, and more TIME to learn, plan, and implement the higher standards.

    Comment by MEllis — March 15, 2012 @ 4:08 am

  41. This educator or former educator lacks the conviction that teachers can motivate children to higher heights for the simple reason that I have seen children protesting vehemently their dislike for a certain topic and later after some exposure come to the realisation that they are comfortable with it. Of course children must learn and know their environment first but then too background knowledge must be taught: the children cannot be left where they are.

    Comment by George Imhoff — March 15, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  42. The Common Core Standards are an interesting topic in today’s society. I feel that everyone would agree that teaching standards are necessary, however they should make sense and be age appropriate. Many people discuss the fact that Americans are behind in education, but that issue can not be fixed by making unrealistic demands on our students. Those students that have a supportive home life thrive in our schools, in most cases. Americans need to realize that the school is not alone in raising their child, but it is intended to be a partnership between us and their home. It just seems that some parents do not value education, and therefore neither do their students. If education is not a priority at home, it will not be a priority to the students. You can take a student to school, but you can not make them learn. With this in mind, I am speaking about all of those teachers that spend their days, nights, and weekends worrying about their students and how they are going to get them to pass these high stakes tests. I do understand that there are some teachers that are employed that need to retire or find another profession. Finally, standards are important we have them in many parts of our lives. However, there many more obstacles to overcome than just standards, if we are being honest. All children have the potential to be successful, and it is part of our job to help them realize that.

    Comment by Lisa Walden — March 15, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

  43. [...] February 27, 2012             MEET THE CHILDREN WHERE THEY ARE…AND KEEP THEM THERE             “Say what you will about CCSS, but there are three big ideas embedded within the English Language Arts standards that deserve to be at the very heart of literacy instruction in U.S. classrooms, with or with or without standards themselves. ” >>read more>> [...]

    Pingback by What Experts Realize About Common Core Standards: 2012 « COMMON CORE — September 11, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.