Learning by Listening: Why It’s the Best Way to Do the CCSS in the Early Grades

by Alice Wiggins
January 29th, 2013

In my last post I drew attention to John Merrow’s visit to a school in Queens, N.Y., using the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program. Today I’d like to start with a chunk of the transcript from Merrow’s video:

JOHN MERROW: In balanced literacy, comprehension is a skill, something to be practiced, like a jump-shot or dance steps…. Not so here. In this reading program at a school in Queens, N.Y., the emphasis is on content, the knowledge kids acquire.

TEACHER: Pick your favorite planet. And you’re going to look back into your reading notebook and you’re going to have to write two facts about that planet.

JOHN MERROW: PS-96 uses a curriculum called Core Knowledge developed by a nonprofit organization led by education reformer E. D. Hirsch, Jr….

STUDENT: Saturn is the second biggest planet. Saturn has thousands of rings.

JOHN MERROW: Core Knowledge is an outlier used by just over 1 percent of elementary schools. That’s only 800 schools. Because it’s such a small program now, the final cost has not been determined. Organizers say it will be less than basal readers….

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER, Principal, Public School 96: When I initially came to PS-96, we were not a Core Knowledge school. We basically used basal readers and some sort of— and balanced literacy. Through the basal readers, it was a lot of fictional, fictional studies, fictional texts.

JOHN MERROW: But principal Barrett-Walker wasn’t a fan of basal readers and their emphasis on fiction. She felt her students needed to know the same things that children in affluent neighborhoods were learning.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: I felt that some of the students who were here didn’t have enough prior knowledge.

JOHN MERROW: Prior knowledge means?

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: Knowledge that they need to have to, I feel, function in society, to have conversation, just to help them exist and understanding who they are as far as their relationship to the rest of the world.

Core Knowledge can be challenging. So you do have to do a lot of training, because informational text is very complex. Now, how do you tear it down so that young children in kindergarten and first grade can understand about Egyptian civilizations?

JOHN MERROW: Content is king in the Core Knowledge approach. Books are organized by subjects like mythology, Mozart and the Westward Expansion, topics that some say are over the heads of the young readers…. Apparently, nobody told these first-graders.

STUDENT: My favorite book is solar system—actually, a nature book, “The Skeleton.”

JOHN MERROW: Oh, “The Skeleton.”

And how about you?

STUDENT: An archaeologist book because it’s teaching me more than archaeology.

JOHN MERROW: The arrival of the Common Core doesn’t faze principal Barrett-Walker.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: When I look at what the expectations are coming in with the Common Core learning standards, it seems that we’re where we need to be right now.

P.S. 96 is where it needs to be, and its young students are on the path to college. Schools using the Core Knowledge Sequence: Content and Skill Guidelines for PreK–8, and especially those that adopt the new CKLA program, will address all of the CCSS. Core Knowledge is very closely aligned to the CCSS in mathematics and English language arts & literacy. In English language arts & literacy especially, the CCSS and Core Knowledge call for many of the same practices. Other programs could be written to align just as well, but they would have to start from the same shared foundation that supports both Core Knowledge and the CCSS: cognitive science research on reading comprehension.

In my last post I briefly described some of that research, focusing the importance of knowledge for reading comprehension. Now I’d like to mention one more research finding that is critical for the early grades: Until the end of middle school (on average), students’ have better listening comprehension than reading comprehension. In the very early grades this is obvious—children are just learning to read. But the fact that reading comprehension takes so many years to outstrip listening comprehension is not obvious at all. Typical 5th, 6th, and 7th graders read well: Why would they still learn more from listening than reading? Because they still do not have enough prior knowledge to draw the full meaning from the text. In class, when teachers are reading aloud, they support comprehension. They pause to define new vocabulary, to explain an idea or event, to ask questions that gauge students’ understanding, or to answer questions as needed. They also read with good fluency and proper intonation, which also aid comprehension.

I have worked with hundreds of teachers on reading aloud in class, especially in the very early grades when listening, looking, and talking are students’ main tools for learning. Very often teachers have an initial concern that the read-aloud will make students passive (and will quickly lead to behavior problems). But a read-aloud should be quite the opposite. Fiction or nonfiction, a high-quality text offers many words and ideas that students are curious about.  And wonderful conversations, and even short research projects, ensue. (Even so, I have to admit that I also value the listening skills children develop over time when their teachers do lots of read-alouds from engaging texts. Really listening to another person, attending to another’s point of view and feelings—isn’t that terrifically valuable in and of itself?)

Don’t take it from me. Here’s an excerpt of a communication that arrived in my inbox last week from some educators in New York who are now using the CKLA Listening and Learning program. A network support team member in the Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida BOCES (those not familiar with New York can think of BOCES as consortia of school districts) emailed me the following reflections on their early experiences using CKLA:

Teachers expressed amazement at the content knowledge their students have been developing. One teacher shared an anecdote in which one of her second graders wondered aloud if Marian Anderson had ever met Rosa Parks, since Rosa would probably have stood up for Marian when she was denied hotel accommodations after a performance.

Teachers expressed great satisfaction with the degree to which students have begun answering in complete sentences and offering support for their thinking. Because this is explicitly requested by the teachers as part of the read alouds, students have come to understand and prepare to meet this expectation on their own….Several teachers shared anecdotes of very young children using very sophisticated vocabulary correctly. There were smiles around the room.

Every educator who finds the time to study both the CCSS and the underlying research; who comes to understand the importance of content knowledge in history, civics, science, and the arts; and who experiments in class with reading aloud interesting fiction and nonfiction texts so as to spark conversations and investigations can experience that same satisfaction.

We’re celebrating each CCSS victory and are happy to have created materials that generate responses such as this and provide a means of leveraging developmentally-appropriate best practices to implement Common Core in the early grades.

Through decades of hard work, cognitive scientists have assembled a new understanding of how listening and reading comprehension work: they depend on prior knowledge. It’s time for all of us in education to embrace that research, and adopt new educational programs that build students’ knowledge.

Stay tuned: Later this week, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., will take a deeper look at the research on learning by listening.


  1. My fourth grade teacher read Robert A. Heinlein’s “Red Planet” aloud in the ’50′s. We learned huge amounts about the solar system and concepts related to what it means to be a living organism, all through a fascinating story. You could have heard a pin drop.

    Comment by EB — January 29, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

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