It’s all hands on deck right now at the Core Knowledge Foundation, where we are putting the final touches on the third-grade materials for the new Core Knowledge Language Arts program. So, I spent the weekend helping in the one way I can—last-minute proofing of the teacher read-alouds that are the heart of the Listening and Learning strand. (There are two strands in CKLA: Skills, with decoding, encoding, grammar, etc., and Listening and Learning, with knowledge- and vocabulary-building read-alouds, discussions, activities, etc.).
I learned about gills, Hernando de Soto, light waves, Mississippian Mound Builders, the cerebellum, Leif Eriksson, why Mr. Toad of Toad Hall really should not have a motorcar, and more.
That may sound like too much for third graders—and it was a bit much for the weekend. But the program is so well organized, with one idea building on another, that it clearly would not be too much for a school year. (You don’t have to trust me on that; pilots of CKLA went very well.)
You see, the read-alouds are grouped into domains, so I got to stay on a topic for a while. Third graders get about 10 to 15 days of instruction for each domain, and they enjoy a series of 10 or so read-alouds in each domain. Lesson by lesson, the read-alouds slowly become more complex. I only got about 2 to 3 hours to read each domain, which is not ideal for actually learning the material—but it was ideal for noticing the many, many ways that the read-alouds build on each other within and across domains.
Here’s the list of third-grade domains:
1. Classic Tales: The Wind in the Willows
2. Classification of Animals
3. The Human Body: Systems and Senses
4. The Ancient Roman Civilization
5. Light and Sound
6. The Viking Age
7. Astronomy: Our Solar System and Beyond
8. Native Americans: Regions and Cultures
9. European Exploration of North America
10. Colonial America
I won’t go through all the ways the read-alouds in these domains build on each other; that would take, well, days. But here’s an example. In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. In The Human Body, I also learned about vision and hearing, which then carried into Light and Sound. Light and Sound, in turn, prepared me for Astronomy by telling me a bit about the sun and light waves. I won’t get into the details, but as you can imagine, The Viking Age, Native Americans, and European Exploration wove together often.
The grouping of read-alouds into focused domains and the intentional sequencing of the domains are both really important for building knowledge and vocabulary. As E. D. Hirsch explained recently in City Journal, vocabulary (and the concepts the words represent) is best learned by inferring meanings through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. By staying focused on a domain for two to three weeks, students get the multiple exposures they need to grasp and start using new words. And then, by having later domains build on previous ones, students get additional exposures that reinforce and refine the words and concepts learned previously.
Kids really do have an extraordinary ability to learn—so please, let’s stop mistaking ignorant for incapable. In an article on developmentally appropriate practice, Daniel Willingham explained that even very young children can handle academic content—if it is presented in a way that respects where they are starting from and builds the knowledge they need. He wrote, “Recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate. If we accept that students’ failure to understand is not a matter of content, but either of presentation or a lack of background knowledge, then the natural extension is that no content should be off limits for school-age children.” In CKLA, no academic content is off limits—but it is very carefully broken down and sequenced so that children can absorb it.
So, are you smarter than a CKLA third grader? Probably. But does your (or your children’s) third-grade education compare favorably with the one offered by CKLA? Probably not. That’s why I’m so excited about this program becoming available this summer. It will be posted online for free, and those who want it professionally printed will be able to buy it.
As a final thought, I have to say that “smarter” is the right word in the question “Are you smarter than a third grader?” In my last issue of American Educator, I published an article by Richard Nisbett, a leading intelligence researcher, who explained that when you know more, you really are smarter. Wrapping up a summary of the research on increases in IQ scores over the past several decades, he wrote: “A child who can tell you why houses are numbered consecutively, or why doctors go back and get more education, is smarter than a child who can’t tell you these things. A child with a bigger vocabulary is a child with more concepts to work with—and therefore really is smarter.”
Glad to have spent my weekend growing smarter—and taking a step toward all children having the opportunity to do the same.