Mere Facts, Mere Knowledge, Mere College Readiness

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 25th, 2013

Is teaching many domains in English language arts more important to college and career readiness than teaching many words?

Research on teaching vocabulary has determined better and worse ways of conducting explicit instruction.  Word lists and isolated definitions, while they may seem efficient, are among the least effective methods, while explicit explanations of words in context are the most effective. Ideally, according to one distinguished researcher, students can learn up to 400 new words in a school year by explicit methods (2+ words a day for 180 days under ideal circumstances). Others offer a more modest estimate, around 200 words per school year.

Yet the minimal count of words you need to be college and career ready is estimated to be 12,000 to 30,000, depending on the mode of counting. The explicit method of instruction at its best yields 5,200 words between kindergarten and 12th grade. Yet even marginal high school students need to know twice that many—meaning that most of their word learning must occur incidentally in the course of understanding the gist of spoken and written language.

Nonetheless, I would agree with advocates of explicit word study that, done strategically as an integrated and not-very-time-consuming part of a lesson, explicit instruction can help unlock enough of the gist of a passage to speed up the incidental learning of words. But then the question arises: what sort of words should we pause over in order to make the best use of class time and help the student make the fastest progress?

Experts in explicit word study have identified three main categories of words called Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3, in order of frequency of occurrence in written English. The current expert view is that teachers should focus on Tier 2 words. Tier 1 words are so usual that students are likely to learn them on their own. Tier 3 words, on the other hand, are so rare that focusing on them does not offer much advancement for general reading ability. So under current thinking, the following sorts of Tier 2 words are the ones teachers should spend most class time on:  reputation, disruption, hovers, stifling, obstacle, descendants, maximum, standards, barren, desolate—words that are moderately frequent, because used in multiple written contexts. That’s not true of domain-specific Tier 3 words like, valence, bildungsroman, Renaissance, metabolism, Gettysburg, photosynthesis,  stochastic, ionic, simile, dew point, polygon, Madison, monotheism, kinetic, Dalton, Fourier, Magna Carta, Impressionism, helium, fiscal, TR, and Shiite. 

But I’m not persuaded by this rationale. Although Tier 2 words are to be found in multiple contexts, they do not constitute a big percentage of the totality of different words in the English vocabulary. That distinction belongs to the words of Tier 3, which are domain specific. If you want to reach the magic number of 25,000 thousand or so, it’s best to spend your time learning domain-specific Tier 3 words. After all, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the expert advice to teachers to spend most of students’ explicit-word-study time on Tier 2 words after having said that Tier 1 words can be ignored on the grounds that they are used so frequently that most people have learned them incidentally. That sensible principle recedes when it comes to their doctrine about Tier 2 words, which we are advised to focus on precisely because they are relatively frequent and are used in multiple written contexts. Some serious research needs to be undertaken to determine whether, in a good, coherent knowledge-based curriculum most Tier 2 words aren’t also learned incidentally as a matter of course, just like most Tier 1 words, as the overall math would suggest. (This research has not been conducted, despite the confident advice about studying domain-general Tier 2 words. Indeed there is some counter evidence in the studies by John Guthrie indicating the superiority of domain-specific instruction in ELA.)

To support the emphasis on Tier 2 words many educators assume that there exists such a thing as general “reading skill,” which will be the key to college and career readiness. But cognitive scientists instruct us that it’s an oversimplification to suppose that there is such a thing as a domain-general reading skill that can be fostered by the explicit study of domain-general, Tier 2 words. On the contrary, the latest cognitive science tells us that reading skills, like most skills, are “domain specific.”  Granted, there are important domain-general aspects of reading that include automatic, unconscious procedures like decoding skill, eye movements, strategic meaning searches, and knowledge of domain-general words. It is reasonable, indeed essential, to ensure that students gain such domain-general knowledge. But few experts advise that students be explicitly trained in eye-movement patterns, at least not very extensively. For most students that skill develops unconsciously without continuous instruction.  The same is true of most domain-general word learning—which occurs unconsciously, bit by bit, through multiple exposures to a word in different contexts. Domain general skills like decoding, once mastered, are continually practiced and unconsciously improved precisely because, being domain general, they occur frequently.

There’s a clear analogy with skill in sports. Most sports demand domain-general athletic abilities like hand-eye coordination.  Nonetheless being skilled specifically in golf does not directly transfer to being skilled in tennis or even in croquet. Each sport has domain-specific skills that must be explicitly mastered. Similarly, being skilled in reading about golf does not readily transfer to being skilled in reading about tennis. The golf passages will of course contain domain-general words like but, however, pretty, and willing, but the critical words will be birdie, bogie, and par, and knowing them won’t help you read a tennis story with set point, fault, and ace.

Why do you suppose school reading tests typically offer ten or so passages? If reading were a domain-general skill, one passage would suffice. (If I want to know if you can ride a bike, I won’t bring ten bikes for you to ride. One will suffice.) But reading tests always contain several passages because a reliable reading test has to sample your ability to read in several different domains. Reading tests are essentially tests of how many different domains you have knowledge of and vocabulary for. To be a literate adult—one who could read a newspaper front to back—you must have knowledge in a very broad range of domains.

If we wish our students to perform well on a reading test, we ought to abandon the disparagement of “mere facts.”  Nothing contributes more to a student’s reading abilities than wide knowledge of multiple domains, automatically accompanied by knowledge of many domain-specific, Tier 3 words. In sum, nothing contributes more to college and career readiness than broad general knowledge over multiple domains.

The best way to teach “English language arts” then is systematically to teach substantive domains of knowledge along with their inherently related vocabularies. In fact the whole issue needs to be broadened by a return to real classes in history, science, and the arts in elementary grades, as the best way to gain proficiency in reading. This larger principle transcends the currently debated topic of fictional vs. non-fictional genres. Much good fiction is a repository of domain knowledge—not just of human nature and ethical principles, but also of historical and factual knowledge, including such things as Mississippi river-boating in Huckleberry Finn, and whaling in Moby Dick, as well as the forms and techniques of literature, like simile and metaphor, prefixes and suffixes, which are just as “informational” as chemical valences. What is needed for college and career readiness is extensive general knowledge over multiple domains, coherently delivered—with lots of Tier 3 words.

When this is done well, with gradually increasing sophistication grade by grade, Tiers 1 and 2 will mostly take care of themselves.