Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader?

by Guest Blogger
March 25th, 2013

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

11. Ecology

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.



  1. Congratulations and thanks to the CK folks for developing this great curriculum. A few years ago, both my kids went through the CK third grade sequence, which was already terrific. Question for Lisa: how is the new sequence different?

    So much about the CK philosophy has struck me as common sense that has been verified by cognitive science. But the biggest mind-changers for me have been the importance of read-alouds and listening, and the concept that reading comprehension doesn’t catch up to listening comprehension until around eighth grade. I had always been heavily biased toward the printed word, and I disdained listening to lectures, sermons, and read-alouds as merely entertaining and less effective than reading. The cognitive scientists proved me wrong.

    A final note: the CK U.S. History is so good that 8th graders at CK schools really ARE smarter than most adults in that area, including most college graduates.

    Comment by John Webster — March 25, 2013 @ 9:50 am

  2. Hi John,

    Just a quick clarification: the Core Knowledge Language Arts program is not another sequence. It is a complete early grades reading/ELA program that is based on the Core Knowledge Sequence. Whereas the Sequence lists what should be taught, CKLA is a complete curriculum for teaching early grades reading and writing, as well as building knowledge and vocabulary in science, history, literature, and the arts. CKLA is not a scripted curriculum, but it does have the supports that new teachers often need. You might find the FAQ helpful:

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — March 25, 2013 @ 10:04 am

  3. Will the parent guides be revised? I have tried to use them to supplement my child’s education. I just wish there was a CK school in DC. Have you thought of setting up a charter here?

    Comment by DC Parent — March 25, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

  4. I hope CK makes a homeschool version of the LA program available. I’ve looked at the kindergarten LA program in the past but it was geared towards classroom use and priced accordingly.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 25, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

  5. Dear DC Parent,

    Core Knowledge is revising the What Your First Grader Need to Know, What Your Second Grader Need to Know, etc. series. The current plan is for one to be revised and released each summer, starting with kindergarten in summer 2013.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — March 26, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

  6. Does Core Knowledge have speakers available for Professional Development? Our school has a full day for teachers at the beginning of each year, and I would love to be able to suggest someone from your organization to give a presentation.

    Comment by Kathy — March 26, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

  7. Dear Kathy: The Core Knowledge Foundation offers an entire series of professional development workshops and consultation opportunities based on specific school needs. Schools are encouraged to call the Foundation (800-238-3233) to speak with a representative from the Schools Department to discuss the best match for the school. Our professional development experiences are described on our website:

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — April 3, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

  8. [...] when I helped with the final edits of CKLA’s Listening & Learning strand for third grade, I wrote about how carefully constructed the domains are: In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. [...]

    Pingback by What’s the Difference Between Great Lessons and a Great Education? « The Core Knowledge Blog — July 11, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

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