An Unclaimed Lottery Ticket

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 17th, 2013

Inspired by Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence, which lay out in disheartening detail the growing inequality of income and opportunity in the United States, I have a new article in City Journal: “A Wealth of Words.” I hope you’ll find time for the whole article, but here’s my CliffsNotes version.

With the decline of the middle class, the aristocracy of family so deplored by Jefferson seems upon us; the counter-aristocracy of merit that long defined America as the land of opportunity has receded. But there is a road back to the City upon a Hill.

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

The correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

The sociologist Donald Hayes, following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies.

If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process. Consider the word “excrescence.” Few know the word; fewer still encounter it in their everyday lives. Maybe you do know it, but imagine that you don’t.

Now suppose I gave it to you in a sentence: “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of the plane’s cabin.” That single exposure to the word is probably insufficient for you to grasp its meaning, though if you know something about aerospace engineering, you’ll be likelier to make a good approximation. Here’s an encounter in another context: “Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.” Perhaps now you have a vague understanding of the word. A third meaningful encounter will allow you to check your understanding or refine your sense of the meaning: “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.” By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of the word, and one more encounter in a familiar context should verify your understanding: “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.”

You’ve probably figured out that the word “excrescence” means “an outgrowth.” That’s an accelerated, artificial example of how word-learning occurs. Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

The context for an unfamiliar word isn’t just the other words surrounding it in a text but also the situation referred to by those words. Familiarity with the relevant subject matter ensures that a student’s unconscious meaning-guesses are likely to be right.

So the fastest way to gain a large vocabulary through schooling is to follow a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts, thereby enabling the student to make correct meaning-guesses unconsciously. There are so many words to be learned by 12th grade—between 25,000 and 60,000—that a large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from systematically acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.

The idea is to immerse students in a domain long enough to make them familiar with the context—and thus able to learn words faster. For the purposes of teaching vocabulary, a “domain” could be defined as a sphere of knowledge in which concepts and words are repeated over the course of two or three weeks. Such repetition happens automatically in a classroom unit on, say, plants and photosynthesis.

I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential: better preschools; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool. Of these, the last is the most important but also the toughest to achieve politically. But the new Common Core State Standards for language arts, now adopted by more than 40 states, may offer a ray of hope (see “The Curriculum Reformation”). One statement in the new standards reads: “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” A second encouraging passage: “The Common Core Standards do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

These two statements are big steps forward from the failed how-to approaches of the recent past. My hope is that some influential district superintendent will require a specific grade-by-grade knowledge sequence. The striking success of one major urban district could transform practice throughout the nation.

18 Comments »

  1. Maybe one of the best examples of this was described by Justice Sotameyor in her new autobiography.

    “I came to accept during my freshman year that many of the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude or application as I’d feared,” she writes. “I honestly felt no envy or resentment, only astonishment at how much of a world there was out there and how much of it others already knew. The agenda for self-cultivation that had been set for my classmates by their teachers and parents was something I’d have to develop for myself.”

    After disappointing grades her freshman year at Princeton, Sotomayor bought grammar books and vocabulary texts and practiced each lunch hour at her summer job. She eventually flourished, winning Princeton’s top academic prize and graduating with highest honors, summa cum laude.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/sotomayor-tells-life-story-shaped-by-disease-overcoming-adversity/2013/01/13/17e75fd2-5b3a-11e2-9fa9-5fbdc9530eb9_story_1.html

    Comment by DC Parent — January 17, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

  2. Perhaps one more recommendation: Have doctors, hospitals, clinics, daycare providers, etc., make sure this information is directed toward our most disadvantaged mothers/parents, from birth through each child’s growth up through kindergarten.

    Bureaucratically, this could be challenging, but the rewards could be extremely beneficial; to the parents, the community at large, and especially to each child.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 18, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  3. Although I appreciated Robert’s articles, your depth of knowledge and understandings expressed so clearly here has prompted me to be notified of every new post. I feel like I’m learning something, not just reading someone’s opinion. Please keep them coming.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — January 18, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

  4. To try to make up the educational gap between middle class children and the extremely poor we must have all day Kindergarten and all day pre-K for all poor children; however, these early childhood programs must have very extensive parent training components or they will have as little impact as Head Start. These early childhood programs should use the Core Knowledge Foundation K and Pre-K curriculums.

    Comment by David J. Krupp — January 18, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

  5. In addition to the mentioned curriculum changes, there also should be changes in instructional methods. Eliminate working in groups and discovery learning. Even if you believe that such methods are effective, and I don’t (pooling of ignorance is more like it), they are highly inefficient. What can be taught directly in a short period requires vastly more time to “discover”. Especially with those disadvantaged kids who start behind middle-class kids, time is extremely precious and should never be wasted. That group is also likely to require more practice to achieve mastery.

    Also, teachers need more content knowledge, particularly at the ES level and also at MS level. You can’t teach what you don’t know. This also applies to pre-k situations. Right now, inner cities (and probably very poor rural communities)don’t have enough strong teachers to cover the k-12 levels (as one of the former DC school superintendents admitted). Where will they find enough adults to model appropriate speech/behaviors to preschoolers?

    Of course, the very first step to improving schools is the removal of the disturbed, potentially/actually dangerous, severely disabled and chronic disruptive kids to suitable alternative placements. Next is the enforcement of appropriate discipline. Without a safe and orderly school/classroom, teachers can’t teach and even good curriculum and instruction won’t make a difference.

    Comment by momof4 — January 18, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

  6. I meant to include leveled, homogeneous grouping by subject,in my post, so that ALL kids are challenged but not overwhelmed. I think that one of the possible drivers of the slowing in upward mobility (aside from the economy) is the insistence on heterogeneous grouping and mainstreaming. Given even one or two disruptive kids (regardless of cause), those kids who behave and are likely to pass THE test are likely to be ignored while the teacher tries to drag up the unwilling and put out behavioral brush fires. The able and willing should never be sacrificed.

    Comment by momof4 — January 18, 2013 @ 3:45 pm

  7. mom,

    Isn’t leveled (ability grouping), homogeneous grouping another word for tracking? Would have to respectfully disagree with that approach. It might be the most convenient for the teacher but there are myriad problems for students. Enough said?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 18, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

  8. The point of trying to implement content rich curriculum is so that schools would need to do less grouping/tracking/leveling. I can’t imagine that it would eliminate skill levels in classes but it if it works, it would hopefully decrease the number of children that multiple grades behind relative to their peers. I would hope it might also have the potential of decreasing some of the behavioral problems as kids might be more engaged because they are not being left behind in the knowledge stakes so early in life. Many poor kids are very acutely aware of how behind they are and they do resent it. May put up a tough act about it, but they know.

    Mr. Hirsch- you seem to imply that what is needed is very early intervention and that starting in middle school is too late. Magic wand your program is implemented – what if any would you say to help that generation of kids in middle and high schools?

    Comment by DC Parent — January 19, 2013 @ 7:37 am

  9. Mr. Hirsch- you seem to imply that what is needed is very early intervention and that starting in middle school is too late. Magic wand your program is implemented – what if any would you say to help that generation of kids in
    middle and high schools?

    Dear DC Parent: Starting in preschool (in the right way) holds the potential of almost fully overcoming the disadvantages of poverty, including knowledge poverty and language poverty. (In my City Journal piece I mentioned some extensive research that demonstrated the point.) But we also have some less extensive data showing that a lot of ground can be made up gained later by using the same optimal principles that apply throughout elementary schooling, that is, a coherent, cumulative imparting of knowledge over several years. Domain immersion in a topic for at least two weeks is the optimal way of doing that in earlier grades – longer immersion in later grades. The evidence (and theory) says that in high school gaining much ground against disadvantage is rare and immensely difficult. At every stage one does one’s best. Even in high school, I think domain immersion is the way to go. Let’s hope that domain immersion catches on, and in the service of a well-planned multi-year sequence of domains.

    Comment by E D Hirsch — January 19, 2013 @ 9:44 am

  10. “I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential: better preschools; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.”

    I’d like to suggest one more practical recommendation: development of and support of interdisciplinary programs. Coordination between disciplines is difficult, regardless of the quality of curriculum articulation; an interdisciplinary classroom setting maximizes the opportunity to reinforce the type of instruction that Dr. Hirsch promotes.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking argument. Many of my students will be reading the paragraphs about “excrescence” in the upcoming weeks….

    Comment by Carl Rosin — January 19, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

  11. (re: #7) I meant to say “one additional practical recommendation”, not to suggest that mine is “more practical” than Dr. Hirsch’s! Sorry for the ambiguous phrasing.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — January 19, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

  12. I don’t quite understand the “excrescence” example and the vocab acquisition method explained. I think what is missing in student’s for the most part is a disciplined mind that understands or values a process of inquiry in the first place: one that even has a desire to learn a word for reasons other than a means to an end like an assignment or a test. ( I am a middle/high LA teacher) This kind of desire would come before any “strategy” such as repeated exposure to a word it seems to me. I think memorizing vocab. words is fine. Maybe I am cognitively challenged, but I can’t learn a word by sporadic and contextual exposure to it, especially a word like “excrescence.” A word that resembles more a concept like Romanticism or Modernism can be continually added to, but not such specific and narrowly-defined words like excrescence. At least for me.

    Comment by Jim — January 19, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

  13. “So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.”

    I may be misunderstanding, but it seems to me that there is a “cart before the horse” problem here. Just increasing students’ vocab wouldn’t seem to be helpful in bridging gaps in different learners. Having a good vocabulary is, it seems to me, the result not the cause of knowledge attainment.

    Comment by Jim — January 19, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

  14. Paul, I see tracking as complete and permanent separation of kids, while I would like to see more flexibility across subjects and also the ability to move kids ahead as needed, or to move them, perhaps temporarily, to a lower group for more work in an area where they are struggling. Kids would be re-evaluated each year and grouped accordingly. Unless the whole school population is quite homogeneous, heterogeneous grouping (particularly with mainstreaming) risks leaving the top unchallenged and losing the bottom. Differentiation sounds nice but I don’t believe it works very often. Some kids (varying by school) will be able to cover more material in less time and they should be allowed to do so. Some kids need more time and more practice and they should get it. We should get all non-disabled (and some of them) kids to decent literacy, numeracy and general knowledge, but individualize the pace as much as possible. I speak as one who attended a one-class-per-grade school where such opportunities were limited.

    However, I do support tracking at the HS level. Not all kids have the same talents or interests and should be able to choose the track that fits.

    Comment by momof4 — January 19, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

  15. It struck me attending the inauguration, without a background in history. The power of this portion of the speech would be lost.

    We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 21, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

  16. I am impressed by your writing. Actually, there is very little can write like you.I will back to read again .Carry on writing.

    Comment by car insurance — January 22, 2013 @ 7:54 am

  17. [...] I’ll add that if they do not understand anything at all, you’re probably presenting a concept that is entirely new to them. Don’t wait for them to happen to learn it elsewhere; revamp your lesson plan to include the most basic of introductions and then extend your plan so that the children have time to think, explore, ask questions, and absorb related vocabulary. [...]

    Pingback by A Common Core Standards defense — January 31, 2013 @ 5:00 am

  18. [...] I’ll add that if they do not understand anything at all, you’re probably presenting a concept that is entirely new to them. Don’t wait for them to happen to learn it elsewhere; revamp your lesson plan to include the most basic of introductions and then extend your plan so that the children have time to think, explore, ask questions, and absorb related vocabulary. [...]

    Pingback by It’s Time to Abandon the Status Quo « The Core Knowledge Blog — February 4, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

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