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.


  1. This entire column seems as if it came out of some Dead Sea scroll. Vocabulary is contextual, and counting the number of words needed for some magical minimum of 25,000 is … frankly absurd, unless, that is, the entire degree program is to be in crossword puzzles. Experts in explicit word study probably don’t use the kind of technology an average 4th grader finds culturally common, just as both the experts and that 4th grader rarely use many of tier 3, or even tier 2 out of context. Unless, again, it is to prepare for a test (or to grade a test, now probably an automated task for most of those – former – linguists).

    And, since when do we read Moby Dick to learn about whaling? Or, for that matter, who travels the Mississippi by boat for other than history? Mark Twain was a great, great uncle of mine, and he would be appalled at how your approach denigrates and implicitly denies the heart of his story. Unfortunately, Melville had to spend too much of his greatest work in establishing that context, but that was a very long time ago indeed. Reading Melville about whaling or Twain to know the Mississippi waters is like reading Homer for recipes that use olives – oblique at best, and very, very much disdainful of the best of their writing. We read Moby Dick to explore loneliness and fear, isolation and trust, just as we read Twain to discover growing up or Homer to see our world today in a very different light.

    It is profoundly sad that your vision of “core knowledge” is so limited to numbers of words and contexts of ideas while ignoring the ideas behind the words and the settings that make words interesting for themselves and their own history, vitality and “relevance.” One of the reasons test scores have dropped in 50 years is that nobody studies Latin or Greek any more. Words come from…other words, and entomology and derivations highlight those words with the richest significance and the widest range of meaning. We – and those 4th graders – can now do that in the course of keying a paper or googling a sailing term. We don’t read such books because of obscure and largely irrelevant studies (now that any word can be checked on a computer) of linguistic trivia. The real reason for linguistics – how words frame ideas that transcend time, context, and culture – is so much more interesting than your counting of crosswords that it is hard to imagine such a compulsive approach has ANY followers, let alone the many you’ve influenced in such narrow and ignorant byways. Wake up. The reason kids test well or poorly has more to do with their curiosity than the vocabulary quiz week after week after miserable week. And those who focus only on that quiz do it at the cost of a lot of curiosity and, even more, at the expense of thousands of kids.

    Comment by Joseph Beckmann — February 25, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

  2. Joe,
    I don’t think you understood the point that E.D Hirsch was trying to make. If I understand him correctly he is not advocating teaching vocabulary in isolation as in “Here is our daily vocabulary” but rather is making the point that in order to have a sufficient vocabulary children need to learn about a lot of stuff. Sure you can look words up on the computer (in the olden days we used a dictionary) however how often do you stop in the middle of a TV show, book, or even a blog to look up a word because you have never heard it before. Even if you do, let me tell you I know very few children that will do that. I do not think anyone is suggesting that we read Moby Dick so that we can learn all about whaling. Rather the idea being put forth is that in addition to all the wonderful reasons you might want to read Moby Dick you might also learn a little bit about historical whaling practices. This might not be critical information to know but it may link to other topics later on. That is why well-read people usually have larger vocabularies. They know a little about lots of things and have encountered more words. E.D. Hirsch’s point if I understand him correctly is that if we want to have better educated children we need to expose them to variety information both directly and indirectly. That means we cannot discontinue teaching science, history, and the arts. As well as exposing children to rich literature and higher level math.

    Comment by Mary S. — February 25, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

  3. Thanks, Mary. I probably should have mentioned in my blog that all over the country right now many ELA teachers have been instructed to teach Tier 2 words explicitly, and are doing so. I wanted to help diminish the unfruitful practice, which takes time away from learning about science, literature, history, and the arts — knowledge of which requires chiefly knowledge of Tier 3 words. It’s not possible to understand much chemistry without the word “valence,” a Tier 3 word. Helping students understand words like that is critical to educational improvement, while the time we are taking on explicit domain-general word study carries great opportunity costs and diminishes
    overall educational effectiveness.

    Comment by E D Hirsch — February 25, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

  4. Dr. Hirsch is right on. And yes, Joe, you completely missed the point. As a librarian I bristle at the “five-finger rule” many teach our kids. It used to be that if a student was reading and came across a new word, he would get the dictionary and look it up (just as we can do now online). Now teachers tell kids if they count five words they don’t know, then they should choose another book that is easier to read. Heaven help us that we actually expect kids to stretch their abilities.

    Comment by Kathy — February 26, 2013 @ 8:30 am

  5. It’s ironic that Joe chooses Moby Dick to make his point, because according to Carl Zimmer, it actually *is* more about whales than many English teachers care to admit:

    “I’ve read Moby Dick several times since graduating college and becoming a science writer. I look back now at the way I was taught the book, and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.”

    Comment by Hainish — February 26, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

  6. I fail to see how Professor Hirsch was denigrating Mark Twain. Would Twain have objected to a reader picking up some facts about geography or river boats from his novel? Was he against knowledge? Although I am not related to Mr. Twain, I am going to take a guess he would not have objected.

    Comment by George — February 26, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

  7. And the truth about Moby Dick and whaling is that, when Melville wrote it, whales were the primary energy source for light and power. Today it might be about solar, and 50 years ago about oil (unless, of course, you mean fracking).

    I’m glad to be wrong – if wrong I was – about Common Core obsession with “explicit instruction,” but I don’t think I was – or am. The value of teaching Moby Dick, and much of literature, is what it could, should, or might provoke, including a critical reader who finds whaling boring and irrelevant. Critics often search for better words to make their case, and, in the course of such searches, broaden vocabulary much more than the curses with which we are all familiar.

    The value of literature is why many Common Core adherents are responsible for dropping so much of it in their new core standards: oblique thought takes more time, and does more to change things than “explicit instruction,” and so much of the didacticism of the current administration is impatient with thinking and wants “to get to the point.” Too bad. The point is in the process, not the test.

    And that is why the chasm between Ravitch and so many Common Core adherents is so sad. Certainly it is useful for Americans to share some common educational experiences, but it is never useful if that excludes new ideas, exploration, or creativity. Again, if I misunderstand Hirsch I am very pleased, but I don’t think I do. I think most of the Common Core advocates are displaced didactics pretending to be liberated. A “core” should/could be summarized on one page, with all sorts of options left for student-teacher discovery.

    Comment by Joseph Beckmann — February 26, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

  8. Joseph Beckman is correct. Restore Latin, Greek, and French as college entrance requirements and presto — vocabulary knowledge will skyrocket.

    Comment by Harold — February 26, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

  9. To me, the points of confusion and disagreement are largely caused by dealing with two topics simultaneously – learning objectives and learning methods. Taken one at a time, there seems to be a simple conclusion. First, discard prior word categorizations and simply make a list of words all students need to know by graduation. Second, develop a curriculum that integrates the learning of these words across all the grades and subjects.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — February 26, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

  10. There is an even easier way to build vocabulary – through spelling bees. Converting any drill & practice into a game reduces both the fear and loathing, and improves the memorability of the winner’s game. Shift the language to English from “pedagese” and many more will understand it.

    Comment by Joseph Beckmann — February 26, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

  11. To even remotely suggest that the Core Knowledge philosophy focuses on a compulsive approach to learning only serves to demonstrate your ignorance of the concept. You, and your assertion that you’re some long lost relative of Mark Twain is the one who needs to wake up.

    While I appreciate your difference of opinion, your attempt to take Don Hirsch to the woodshed for all the good he has done for education over the past three decades is totally uncalled for and I for one resent your pontifications.

    The many he has influenced in such narrow and ignorant byways, as you term them, have essentially saved education from falling into an abyss of ignorant, unarmed critical thinkers and problem solvers, shooting blanks because they know Jack %$#@ about the world.

    You take your accentuation of “curiosity” and spout it to anyone foolish enough to listen. In and of itself, curiosity will get you nowhere. Don’t forget, it was the cat’s downfall. One must first possess knowledge to be curious about what comes next.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 26, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

  12. I answer to a good vocabulary lies in reading widely. Words must be learned in context. In my daughter’s 4th grade class they have spelling lists each week + a wordly wise workbook with 12-20 words/week and 30-min nightly reading. The only words she ever asks me at the dinner table are from books she has read. The words she does not know do seem to stay with her.
    Also, teaching vocabulary in science and math, history and art etc. is equally important. I find that children are often confused by the fact that in math and science words take on a specific meaning and cannot be replaced or exchanged by similar meaning, but not exact terms. There is a certain way in which science and math use words that is different from ELA and that difference takes a few grades to get.
    Sorry but spelling bee just does not appeal to me. Words out of context, even though you may learn the root meanings or origins. Context is everything.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — February 26, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

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