Why Is There So Much Listening in the Core Knowledge’s Reading Program?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 31st, 2013

Earlier this week my colleague Alice Wiggins noted the strong alignment between the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program and the Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy. Drawing on decades of cognitive science research, I made the case for a totally new approach to reading instruction in The Knowledge Deficit. It is heartening not only to see CKLA come to life, but for it to do so just as the nation is ushering new standards that support stronger, more research-based reading instruction.

I would hazard the guess that, because of its deep foundations in linguistic and cognitive science, CKLA has no peer among early literacy programs. Whenever students in CKLA have been accurately paired with a control group using another program, the CKLA students came out ahead on reading tests. The CKLA program is designed to optimize the use of time by students and teachers alike.

There is every reason to expect the superiority of CKLA to become more pronounced as students stay in the program and continue on through the elementary grades. Why? Because with each passing year, CKLA students will know more, have larger vocabularies, and be able to comprehend better what they read.

To explain the science behind Core Knowledge’s generous use of listening in its reading program, it’s necessary to distinguish decoding from reading.  Let’s call decoding the sounding out of words from written marks, and let’s strictly reserve the term “reading” for understanding what those words mean.  Using the term “reading” to mean comprehension is common usage anyway.  The whole education field, and much of the general public, has been mired in the overlap between these two senses of the word “reading”—decoding and comprehension. But “comprehension” is just too cumbersome a term to keep inserting. We really need only two distinct terms: “decoding” and “reading,” where the second term always means “understanding what one has decoded.” Please tolerate this preliminary defining of terms. It’s essential for gaining clarity about what’s needed in a good literacy program.

The proof that decoding is not comprehension is easy:  One of the best ways of testing decoding fluency and accuracy is to present nonsense words, such as those Lewis Carroll famously wrote:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

A second grader should be able to sound that out acceptably, but none should be able to say confidently what it means.

What about the connection between listening and reading? Shouldn’t we make a careful distinction there? Less distinction than one might think. If decoding goes with sounding out and therefore with “hearing,” then “reading” goes with “listening.” Let’s take the term “listening” to mean comprehension too.

And this brings us to the nub: in the early grades, when the immensely difficult task of learning to decode is paramount, there is not much time left in the language arts block to improve general knowledge and verbal comprehension—especially for disadvantaged students who enter school with subpar knowledge and vocabulary. That’s why CKLA divides decoding and knowledge building into separate segments of the school day. CKLA is comprised of two strands: a Skills strand that teaches all the skills and mechanics of decoding and writing (or encoding), and a Listening and Learning strand that builds background knowledge, especially in history, science, and the arts. It’s the Listening and Learning strand that is really unique. Most reading programs are aware of the research showing that background knowledge is essential to comprehension, but then—misunderstanding the implications of that research—they think texts must stick with familiar topics like friends and pets. CKLA is carefully designed to expand students’ background knowledge, enabling them to read about their world, past and present, fiction and nonfiction.

CKLA’s main vehicle for building knowledge, as you may have guessed from “Listening and Learning,” is read-alouds. Why? Many years ago, the researcher Thomas Sticht discovered the important fact that reading does not catch up with listening until late middle school or early high school.

Source: T. G. Sticht and J. James, “Listening and reading,” in P. Pearson, ed., Handbook of Research on Reading. New York: Longmans, 1984. (1984)

It would be quite remarkable if this were not the case. In the early grades, so much of the “channel capacity” of the mind is taken up with the arduous process of learning and applying decoding that there is little mental space left over to process new or difficult meanings. Decoding in the early years is a barrier to progress through the written word. Hence the ideal structure for an early literacy program is to foster progress in decoding by the most efficient means, and to foster knowledge and vocabulary by the most efficient means. For knowledge, the most efficient means is through listening (along with heavy doses of watching, questioning, etc. as described in Alice’s post). Another finding of Sticht and his colleagues is that early listening ability predicts reading ability many years later. Learning to listen at a high level is closely connected to learning to read at a high level.

Some educators may think that listening is too passive an activity. It can be physically passive, but it is anything but mentally passive, as shown by brain scans that Dr. Bennett Shaywitz of Yale (and others) have done while people are listening. These scans prove that listening is very active indeed—which is unsurprising, since all language comprehension is a highly active process involving active predictions, inferences, and guesses. Listening can be downright tiring.

Another connection between listening and reading is the now-established fact that reading is itself a form of listening. The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading. And since in the early years students learn through listening much faster and more extensively than through reading, systematic listening is the fastest route to progress in reading during the early years.

Want still more information on listening, reading, and learning? See “Why Listening and Learning Are Critical to Reading Comprehension.”


  1. I would add an obvious point: that when students are able to listen, they take in a great deal more than when they are not able to do so. Many students lack the practice of listening. Give them this practice early on, and they probably won’t become the kids who bang on their desks and talk loudly to their neighbors while the teacher is addressing the class.

    I have often pointed out (in my writing and teaching) that listening is not “passive”–that it involves intense mental activity. Unfortunately, many students don’t know how to do it. They think that if they have not been given a “task” to perform, they have nothing to do. Students need to learn how to engage in mental activity without doing something physical or tangible at every moment. I have hope that CKLA will show some of the possibilities here.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 31, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

  2. I teach 12 and 13 year olds, so according to the research, their reading ability has finally caught up to their listening ability. Unfortunately, their listening ability –on average –is weak. Today my students were exposed to the words “fern” “swine” and “shepherd” both in print and orally. Several kids did not know “fern” (!) and most did not know “swine” or “shepherd” (most thought it was a kind of dog, as in “German shepherd”). I need to order another copy of the Core Knowledge sequence and push it on our superintendent!

    Comment by Ponderosa — January 31, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

  3. While I’m very concerned with CCSS and their allegiance to a greater emphasis of non-fiction, I’m even more concerned with the apparent dumbing down of Massachusetts standards to comply with CCSS.

    Beyond that, I’m more than mildly concerned with what appears to be the dumbification of the new math standards as evidenced by this article Robert referenced (at least indirectly) this morning on Facebook:

    First, my apologies to Don’s outstanding post on listening as related to the excellent (as usual) CKLA program. NOT my intent to sidestep and/or sabotage your post from yesterday in the least. I simply did not know if people were aware of this apparent absurdity.

    Student, if you’re out there…

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 1, 2013 @ 10:37 am

  4. Paul,

    You’re right it’s a little off subject, but that’s OK. It’s blogdom.

    I keep hearing from my friends about the dumbing down of schooling in Massachusetts under the name of Common Core. I have a theory about that, having attended a meeting of the state board a couple of years ago. Everyone was being sold the idea of 21st century skills. The addition of informational text is being interpreted as a way into that brave new world of “skills”.

    The real trouble is not in the wording or the intentions of the Common Core Standards. The problem is the destined-to-fail utilitarian approach to college readiness by the skills movement which advocates: “communication skills,” “people skills,” “critical thinking skills,” and so on. The advocates of this brave-new-world approach in Massachusetts obviously haven’t consulted the distinguished cognitive psychologists in your great universities who would inform the governor and board that these formal skills don’t exist as such, but are constituted by specific domain knowledge. General skills actually depend upon a wide range of specific knowledge, and a good vocabulary reflecting that knowledge.

    The proof that it’s these wrong-headed assumptions rather than the Common Core document itself which is to blame for the dumbing down is the fact that Core Knowledge fulfills the requirements of the Common Core Standards, and nobody has yet called it a dumbed down curriculum, including my friends in Massachusetts who are attacking the Common Core. Surely it’s the misguided way the education world is responding to the CCSS that is at fault. Those teachers in New York State who are fulfilling the new CCSS requirements through Core Knowledge are arguably following the spirit of the new standards better than a skills approach can possibly do.

    Comment by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. — February 1, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  5. This brings together a lot of what I’ve been thinking about over several years. I’m not a trained educator or anything; I’m a librarian and homeschooling mom. As I’ve worked at teaching my own children, I’ve learned a tremendous amount myself, and I’ve gotten very into the classical style of homeschooling.

    I’ve started to understand that we have been neglecting the very important practice of reading aloud to young children. Most of us do it when the kids are young and can’t read yet, but then we stop by the time the kids are 7 or 8, assuming that it’s their turn now. We should be reading aloud a lot more, and a lot longer. The benefits are many-sided and can hardly be listed here.

    I’ve also seen how much kids who are learning to read love easy chapter books–the series like Magic Tree House, A to Z Mystery, and so on. Some people call them twaddle and want more variety and sophistication for children, but IMO that should be saved for reading aloud at this stage. Very small children love repetition and want to hear one simple story over and over–well, easy chapter books are the same thing, but one step up. A child can use most of his energy on practicing the mechanics of reading, and meanwhile he gets a story that is reassuringly repetitive, but with variation. He doesn’t have to worry about sudden surprises; the plot will remain just about the same every time. The books don’t have a whole lot of content– they’re pretty simple stories–but they’re perfect for practicing reading skills, and I’m grateful that they exist in such huge quantities.

    Although I did not know the science behind CK’s emphasis on listening, my own experience has taught me much of what you say here–so I’ve been reading difficult content aloud to my kids for a long time.

    Comment by dangermom — February 1, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

  6. [...] sent me a link to Why Is There So Much Listening in the Core Knowledge’s Reading Program? The article is an interesting read–albeit quite promotional of the Core Knowledge Language Arts [...]

    Pingback by Reading Is Listening: Research Confirms Sonlight’s Model | Sonlight Blog — February 1, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

  7. If you look at lots of the “old-fashioned” excellent children’s lit that was designed for young kids, it is almost designed as read-alouds: poetry by Eugene Fields and Robert Lewis Stevenson, fables by Aesop and LaFontaine, Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm, D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, Beatrix Potter – all accessible for preschoolers, if read aloud. I was reading Beatrix Potter to my g’kids (oldest about 3 at the time) and they enjoyed the stories and also learned lots of new vocab (waistcoat, macintosh, hedgerows etc)

    Comment by momof4 — February 1, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

  8. I have a child that has had numerous reading difficulties, one of the few things that has helped her has been all the books on CD and read alouds we have done. Essentially tests have shown she has a 3 grade gap in her verbal and reading vocabulary. When we read about all the challenges of kids with learning disabilities we have missed how much verbal information can be imparted to keep a kid on base with their knowledge even as you work on those the disability.

    One of the things teachers have said to me over and over is that they are being discouraged from doing read alouds because it makes them in the terms of one teacher the “sage on the stage.” Instead they are supposed to be promoting group learning. It worries me that teacher’s skills and curation of this shared knowledge is being so discouraged.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 1, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

  9. Overall, I think high-quality read-alouds are a great way to increase general knowledge and vocab. However, I would love to see opt-out provisions for kids who are able to read and understand the materials on their own and who would prefer to do so. I was an early reader and strongly disliked being read to, even when I started first grade. (no k) All of my 1-4 teachers read a chapter of a new library book aloud to the class every day, after lunch. I hated it so much that the teachers gave me permission to read my own book. I would take the class book home the first day, read it on my own and return it the next day.

    Comment by momof4 — February 2, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

  10. [...] http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/01/31/why-is-there-so-much-listening-in-the-core-knowledges-readi… [...]

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  11. Ha, I can sympathize with that, momof4–I was the same way! To this day I can’t listen to audiobooks, just lectures and podcasts. It’s so dang slow. But I think I am the odd one, and most kids benefit from more reading aloud. I’d agree, though, that an opt-out would be nice.

    Comment by dangermom — February 2, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

  12. In response to momof4, I’d say that instead of an opt-out (or in addition to it), there should be more emphasis, throughout the grades, on recitation of poetry, so that students develop a sense of the cadences of language.

    The times I, as a child, would have wanted to opt out of a read-aloud were when the teacher read in a condescending tone with exaggerated expression and without a sense of cadence. (This did happen more than once, especially in elementary school.) I was mesmerized by “read-alouds” in high school, college and graduate school; I can still hear one of my high school English teachers reading passages of Faulkner, or my English and Russian professors reading Frost or Blok.

    I realize that this is a bit different from nonfiction read-alouds–but a sense of cadence is essential for nonfiction as well. Last week, before introducing my students to Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, I spent some time practicing the opening paragraph, so that I would know its rhythms when the time came.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 3, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  13. I’m fine with poetry recitation; I still have lots of poems memorized. It’s fun and it’s good memory training. Just don’t give me any audiobooks.

    Comment by momof4 — February 3, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

  14. I definitely agree with my statement that “listening” is not a passive skill. Maybe you do not “produce” here anything but still you must understand the speech, that is transform the sounds into the data you will categorize, organize, interprete, etc. A good listener can catch many more from any utterance than an ordinary listener. The point is whether your are “a passive listener” or not. Listeninng will be always an “activity” so it’s active.

    Comment by English-Polish military — February 19, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  15. [...] to read and write successfully. Indeed, reading itself is a form of listening – described here by E. D. Hirsch: “Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” [...]

    Pingback by Why Authentic Assessment Matters: Assessing Speaking and Listening | huntingenglish — March 2, 2013 @ 3:23 am

  16. [...] catch up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that are too hard to [...]

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  17. [...] up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that aretoo hard to [...]

    Pingback by Why Reading Aloud to Older Children Is Valuable – The International Educator — May 15, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

  18. [...] up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that aretoo hard to [...]

    Pingback by Why Reading Aloud to Older Children Is Valuable | CSH Greenwich Middle School Faculty Blog — May 16, 2013 @ 11:02 am

  19. [...] up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that are too hard to [...]

    Pingback by The Power of a Read Aloud | Inquire Within — May 20, 2013 @ 1:34 am

  20. [...] up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that aretoo hard to [...]

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  21. [...] catch up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that are too hard to [...]

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  22. […] catch up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that are too hard to […]

    Pingback by Why Reading Aloud to Older Children Is Valuable - — May 19, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

  23. Altogether, I really like what you’re really expressing.
    School really doesn’t help every person.

    At times they may become so miserable that they
    will lose all interest in things they would once

    They need to be permitted to drop out and try to get a much happier
    education elsewhere. Really, they ought to just be allowed to quit.

    It is genuinely merciless – If only way more mothers and fathers could fully grasp it!

    Comment by escapeschool.webs.com — December 18, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

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