Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song

by Lisa Hansel
March 21st, 2013

Three decades ago, in the spring of 1983, E. D. Hirsch published an essay titled “Cultural Literacy” in the American Scholar. He also turned 55. At an age when most people are getting serious about their retirement planning, Hirsch was embarking on a new career. He didn’t know it at the time; he thought the research on the need for background knowledge for skilled communication was so clear that all schools would rapidly revise their curricula and his job would be done. The research was clear, but the resistance to new ideas and evidence was not. Today, the siren song that elevates skills above content remains strong. Here is an excerpt from “Cultural Literacy” in which Hirsch explains how he broke free.

The received and dominant view of educational specialists is that the specific materials of reading and writing instruction are interchangeable so long as they are “appropriate,” and of “high quality.”…

I call this the doctrine of educational formalism….

During most of the time that I was pursuing research in literacy I was, like others in the field, a confirmed formalist. In 1977 I came out with a book on the subject, The Philosophy of Composition, that was entirely formalistic in outlook. One of my arguments, for instance, was that the effectiveness of English prose as an instrument of communication gradually increased, after the invention of printing, through a trial-and-error process that slowly uncovered some of the psycholinguistic principles of efficient communication in prose. I suggested that freshman could learn in a semester what earlier writers had taken centuries to achieve, if they were directly taught those underlying psycholinguistic principles….

So intent was I upon this idea that I undertook some arduous research…. For about two years I was deeply engaged in this work. It was this detailed engagement with the realities of reading and writing under controlled conditions that caused me finally to abandon my formalistic assumptions….

[My colleagues and I] devised a way of comparing the effects of well-written and badly written versions of the same paper…. To our delight, we discovered that good style did make an appreciable difference, and that the degree of difference was replicable and predictable. So far so good. But what became very disconcerting about these results was that they came out properly only when the subjects of the papers were highly familiar to our audiences…. What we discovered was that good writing makes very little difference when the subject is unfamiliar. We English teachers tend to believe that a good style is all the more helpful when the content is difficult, but it turns out that we are wrong….

While the variability of reading skills within the same person was making itself disconcertingly known to me, I learned that similar variability was showing up in formal writing skills—and for the same reasons. Researchers at the City University of New York were finding that when a topic is unfamiliar, writing skill declines in all of its dimensions—including grammar and spelling—not to mention sentence structure, parallelism, unity, focus, and other skills taught in writing courses. One part of the explanation for such results is that we all have limited attention space, and cannot pay much heed to form when we are devoting a lot of our attention to unfamiliar content. But another part of the explanation is more interesting. Part of our skill in reading and in writing is skill not just with linguistic structures but with words. Words are not purely formal counters of language; they represent large domains of content….

It would be useful … to have guidance about the words that high school graduates ought to know—a lexicon of cultural literacy. I am thinking of a special sort of lexicon that would include not just some ordinary dictionary words, but would also include proper names, important phrases, and conventions. Nobody likes word lists as objects of instruction; for one thing, they don’t work. But I am not thinking of such a lexicon as an object of instruction. I am thinking of it rather as a guide to objects of instruction. Take the phrase “First Amendment,” for instance. That is a lexical item that can hardly be used without bringing in a lot of associated information. Just what are the words and phrases that our high school graduates should know?

So began E. D. Hirsch’s 30-year struggle to close the achievement gap by giving all children the skills and the broad knowledge that enable strong reading and writing. In the years following his American Scholar essay, Hirsch wrote a bestselling book version, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and developed a lexicon of what high school graduates should know: the Core Knowledge Sequence. To find out how the Sequence came about, we turn to The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Pages 74 – 77 answer the question “Which Knowledge Do We Need?”*

What exactly does that enabling knowledge consist of? That is the nuts-and-bolts question….

It is assumed by the American educational community that any “representative” knowledge will do. My colleagues Joseph Kett and James Trefil and I set out to develop more useful guidance for schools than this imprecise and inaccurate notion back in the 1980s. We asked ourselves, “In the American context, what knowledge is taken for granted in the classroom, in public orations, in serious radio and TV, in books and magazines and newspapers addressed to a general audience?” We considered various scholarly approaches to this problem. One was to look at word frequencies. If a word appeared in print quite often, then it was probably a word whose meaning was not going to be explained by the speaker or writer. We looked at a frequency analysis of the Brown Corpus, a collection of passages from very diverse kinds of publications that was lodged at Brown University, but we found that this purely mechanical approach, while partially valid, did not yield altogether accurate or intelligent results. For example, because the Brown Corpus was compiled in the 1950s, “Nikita Khrushchev” was a more frequent vocabulary item than “George Washington.”…

A much better way of finding out what knowledge speakers and writers take for granted is to ask these people themselves whether they assume specific items of knowledge in what they read and write. This direct approach proved to be a sounder way of determining the tacit knowledge, because what we must teach students is the knowledge that proficient readers and writers actually use. From people in every region of the country we found a reassuring amount of agreement on the substance of this taken-for-granted knowledge….

Several years after our compilation of such knowledge was published, independent researchers investigated whether reading comprehension ability did in fact depend on knowledge of the topics we had set forth. The studies showed an unambiguous correlation between knowledge of these topics and reading comprehension scores, school grades, and other indexes of reading skill. One researcher investigated whether the topics we set forth as taken-for-granted items are in fact taken for granted in newspaper texts addressed to a general reader. He examined the [New York] Times by computer over a period of 101 months and found that “any given day’s issue of the Times contained approximately 2,700 occurrences” of these unexplained terms, which “play a part in the daily commerce of the published language.”

An inventory of the tacit knowledge shared by good readers and writers cannot, of course, be fixed at a single point in time. The knowledge that writers and radio and TV personalities take for granted is constantly changing at the edges, especially on topical issues. But inside the edges, at the core, the body of assumed knowledge in American public discourse has remained stable for many decades…. If we want to bring all students to reading proficiency, this stable core is the enabling knowledge that we must teach.

That’s more easily said than done. One essential, preliminary question that we faced was, how can this necessary knowledge be sequenced in a practical way for use in schools? We asked teachers how to present the topics grade by grade and created working groups of experienced teachers in every region of the country to produce a sequence independently of the others. There proved to be less agreement on how to present the material grade by grade than there had been in identifying what the critical topics are…. The sequencing of many topics is inherently arbitrary. While it’s plausible in math that addition needs to come before multiplication and that in history Greece probably ought to come before Rome, maybe it’s not plausible that Greece should come before George Washington.

We collected the accumulated wisdom of these independent groups of teachers, made a provisional draft sequence, and in 1990 held a conference where 145 people from every region, scholarly discipline, and racial and ethnic group got together to work extremely hard for two and a half days to agree on an intelligent way to teach this knowledge sequentially. Over time, the Core Knowledge Sequence has been refined and adjusted, based on actual classroom experience. It is now used in several hundred schools (with positive effects on reading scores), and it is distinguished among content standards not only for its interest and richness, but also because of the carefully-thought-out scientific foundations that underlie the selection of topics.

 

* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.

 

Do you have a birthday message for E. D. Hirsch or favorite quote from him? Please share it with all of us in the comments.

You may also be interested in other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

Part 4: Passing the Test

 

 

An Interesting Place to Spend Your Life

by Lisa Hansel
March 9th, 2013

“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” That marvelous quote is meant to explain the purpose of college. It’s from Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard, but it comes to me from Diana Senechal, my go-to person for the beauty of an intellectual life. Just three months ago, I had the privilege of publishing Senechal (and that quote) in American Educator, the quarterly journal of educational research and ideas from the American Federation of Teachers. As the editor, I had a terrific job: I listened to teachers and did my best to express their questions, concerns, and ideas to some of the nation’s top scholars. Most of those scholars then agreed to write for American Educator—and what a wonderful array of generous people they were.

But one stood out: E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

So it is with great pleasure—along with admiration and awe every time I see Hirsch in person—that I’m now the director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Could there be a better way to make my mind a fascinating place to spend the rest of my life?

The expertise in the Core Knowledge community is extraordinary, and the challenge before us is great: We must ensure that all children’s minds are interesting places. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a huge step in the right direction, but they are just the first step.

Not long ago, at a forum on the CCSS, a well-known superintendent lauded for her reform initiatives inadvertently diagnosed one of our greatest hurdles. She told a story of a young boy who had not done well on a writing prompt. Her district is relatively wealthy, so it was no surprise when the boy’s mother came in to complain: Her son would have done well if he had been allowed to write about BMX bikes instead of being required to write about butterflies.

No doubt he would have.

The superintendent found this compelling. She is now pushing for more student choice in schoolwork.

This is a perfect example of where many educators are today. The necessity of relevant background knowledge has sunk in. Our little boy loves BMX bikes. He probably has expert-level knowledge of BMX racing, equipment, and star athletes. He probably can do an impressive set of tricks on his own BMX bike. I love a similar sport, mountain biking, and I’ve ridden a couple BMX tracks (though not well). I would have enjoyed reading this boy’s BMX essay. But I don’t want him to write it for school.

At school, for his sake, I want him to acquire the type of broad background knowledge that will open the rest of the world to him. Butterflies are a small slice of the scientific world, and many superb lessons with geography, ecology, history, current events, and art have been created by following the monarchs from Maine to Mexico. BMX provides a healthy hobby for many young people—and a rewarding career for a handful of adults. But BMX alone won’t prepare our young student to comprehend the New York Times. If he is the rare boy who ends up with a career in BMX, great. But how will he decide to vote, or be a responsible juror, or communicate with his neighbors? And what will he do if BMX loses its allure? A content-rich, broad education provides a path to multiple higher-learning and career opportunities, the ability to communicate with others, and more varied leisure-time options.

The only way to squeeze a content-rich, broad education into K–12 is through a specific, grade-by-grade curriculum. Is there room for some choice? Sure. Maybe our young student would have found locusts more compelling than butterflies. If the unit he just completed covered both, then maybe he should get to choose which one to write about.

The well-meaning superintendent grasps half of the equation. Relevant background knowledge is essential to writing (and reading, listening, and speaking) well. Broad background knowledge—broad enough to provide something relevant to virtually any situation—is essential to learning and communicating with ease throughout one’s life.

I hope superintendent reads Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit. It’ll help her ensure that all of her students’ minds become interesting places to spend the rest of their lives.

P.S. I’ve been told more than a few times that Robert Pondiscio’s shoes are too big to fill. It’s true! If his quips ever inspired you to write a few clever lines, please send them to me (lhansel@coreknowledge.org)—I’m going to need all the help I can get.

It’s Time to Abandon the Status Quo

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 4th, 2013

Fully implementing the Common Core in the early grades is our best hope for closing achievement gaps

Last week on The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss posted “A tough critique of Common Core on early childhood education” by Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige. Soon thereafter, she posted the following response (presented in full below) by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Reading both the critique and response is useful for understanding ways the Common Core could be misunderstood—or could become a vehicle for bringing systematic knowledge development into the early grades.

Earlier this week Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige raised some thought-provoking critiques of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While I don’t know whether early childhood educators were involved in the standards writing process, I do know that many early educators are pleased with the result. As someone who has studied how to best use the early years to close achievement gaps and give all children an opportunity to live happy, productive, engaged lives, I am also a supporter of the CCSS.

I don’t argue that the CCSS are perfect  (I would not even argue that about the Core Knowledge Sequence). And I agree with Miller and Carlsson-Paige that we should all be open to improving the Common Core standards once we have done our best to implement them well. I’ve seen more than a few sets of standards come and go; I will safely bet that the interpretation, the implementation, and most especially the assessments of the CCSS matter far more than the standards themselves. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the critiques Miller and Carlsson-Paige put forth.

The biggest problem with their criticism of CCSS is that they don’t offer anything different or better than what we have now. They call for a rejection of the CCSS because of various perceived faults. But then they call for what, exactly? As far as I can see, they want more of the pre-CCSS status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo isn’t working.  The reading scores of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress constitute the single most accurate indicator of the effectiveness of our schooling, and as we look at the low reading scores of 17-year-olds over the past few decades of reform, we see no real movement.

Of course, much more goes into reading at age 17 than early childhood education, and there has been some recent improvement among 9-year-olds in reading, especially among our lowest-performing students. Why hasn’t this improvement carried into later grades? As I have argued many, many, many times, the fundamental problem is that American schools, including preschools, typically delay systematic efforts to build students’ vocabulary and knowledge until far too late (usually the end of elementary school or even later).

Building word and world knowledge must begin in preschool if we are to have any hope of closing the enormous language gaps identified by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, or of enabling children to listen and read with comprehension. That’s why the Core Knowledge Foundation has spent the past several years developing a new preschool–5th grade language arts program (grades pre-K–3 will be online, for free download, by summer 2013). Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is radically different from the most widely used elementary-grades reading programs. Through high-quality fiction and nonfiction, CKLA systematically provides students the broad background knowledge they need to do well in middle and high school. It was developed by researchers and teachers working together. In short, it takes the best of current practice and updates it with solid research: it is nothing like the status quo (and has the results to prove it).

With the troubling results of the status quo in mind, let’s consider the end of Miller and Carlsson-Paige’s critique. They close with this: “Our first task as a society is to protect our children. The imposition of these standards endangers them. To learn more about how early childhood educators are working to defend young children, see Defending the Early Years.”Following that link, I arrived at a website with an open letter to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).  The central point of the open letter is that NAEYC is no longer a strong supporter of it’s mid-1980’s statement on developmentally appropriate practice. The open letter states:

NAEYC has long played a valuable role in identifying and supporting best practices in early childhood education. The strong position NAEYC took with its 1986 publication, Developmentally Appropriate Practice, focused attention on respectful, child centered ways of working with young children…. NAEYC appears to have gradually retreated from its strong defense of DAP. The voices of its leadership have not been heard vigorously protesting the proliferation of standards and assessments or offering meaningful alternatives to them.

To NAEYC’s current leadership, I say “Bravo!” NAEYC has recognized that research does not stand still, and the best practices from almost 30 years ago are not considered best practices today. NAEYC has consistently been dedicated to updating its advice on DAP; it issued major revisions in 1996 and 2008. I had the good fortune in the mid-nineties to meet and talk with the authors of NAEYC’s guides on DAP, Sue Bredekamp and Carol Copple (Bredekamp has worked on each of NAEYC’s DAP papers; Copple joined her in the 1990s). At the time, the Core Knowledge Foundation was creating a preschool program. I found them well versed in recent cognitive science, with a deep understanding of how preschool could enhance children’s oral language development, which is critically important for all future learning.

Daniel Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology, has explained that many long-held, widely shared beliefs about children’s cognitive development—such as Jean Piaget’s notion that it proceeds in discrete stages—have not been supported by newer, more sophisticated studies. Cognitive development is continuous, and a child’s performance will vary day to day and task to task. (Even very young children can engage in critical thinking if they have been taught the necessary background knowledge.) In an article for teachers on DAP, Willingham asks them to “recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate.” He then explains as follows:

Without trivializing them, complex ideas can be introduced by making them concrete and through reference to children’s experience.

Of course, as teachers, you must also consider the cost if students do not fully understand a concept the way you had intended. The cost may be minimal, and the content may be worth knowing—even if in an incomplete way. For example, suppose your preschool students have learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., but you are having a hard time getting them to understand that he was a real person who is no longer here, and that fictional characters such as Mary Poppins are not here and never were. If it’s hard for a 4-year-old to conceive of people living in different times and places, does that mean that history should not be taught until the child is older? Such an argument would not make much sense to a developmental psychologist. For children and adults, understanding of any new concept is inevitably incomplete. The preschoolers can still learn something about who King was and what he stood for. Their mistaken belief that they might encounter him at a local store, or that he lives at a school that bears his name, will be corrected in time. Indeed, how do children learn that some people are fictional and some are not? Not by a magical process of brain maturation. Children learn this principle as they learn any other—in fits and starts, sometimes showing that they understand and other times not. If you wait until you are certain that the children will understand every nuance of a lesson, you will likely wait too long to present it. If they understand every nuance, you’re probably presenting content that they’ve already learned elsewhere.

I’ll add that if they do not understand anything at all, you’re probably presenting a concept that is entirely new to them. Don’t wait for them to happen to learn it elsewhere; revamp your lesson plan to include the most basic of introductions and then extend your plan so that the children have time to think, explore, ask questions, and absorb related vocabulary.

In addition to their out-of-date concept of what is developmentally appropriate, Miller and Carlsson-Paige have an unfounded fear that under the CCSS, the early grades will be dominated by direct instruction. I would also be upset to see a classroom in any grade that never departs from direct instruction—as I would be sad to see a classroom entirely devoted to discovery learning, project-based instruction, or free play. Decades ago, Project Follow Through clearly demonstrated that direct instruction works well with young children.

Children have a lot to learn about the world, past and present. They need to learn some things as efficiently as possible—through direct instruction. But they also need opportunities to explore—through well-constructed spaces and activities that invite creative problem solving and role playing. There is nothing inherent in the CCSS that discourages early childhood educators from offering rich educational experiences using a variety of pedagogies.

As NAEYC has noted, the CCSS indicate what should be taught in ELA/literacy and mathematics. They do not dictate pedagogy or prevent teachers from offering a well-rounded curriculum, including the arts and social-emotional learning. In its recent paper on the CCSS, which highlighted benefits of and support for the CCSS while also pointing out potential problems with implementation, NAEYC wrote:

Learning standards, or content standards, provide the “what” of education, but they do not describe the “how” of education. The content standards set the goal toward which teaching and learning opportunities are directed for young children.

The “how” of learning should be aligned to the content standard through our understanding of best practices to increase the chances of attaining the goal, even as the goal itself needs to be aligned with our knowledge of children’s learning processes…. Especially critical is maintaining methods of instruction that include a range of approaches—including the use of play as well as both small- and large-group instruction—that are considered to be developmentally appropriate for young children.

While Miller and Carlsson-Paige seem to think that academic content—gap-closing word and world knowledge—can’t be delivered in a developmentally appropriate way, solid research shows us that it can. For example, the distinguished psychologist Robert Siegler has found that numerical board games (like Chutes and Ladders) can help preschoolers from low-income families increase their numerical skills and concepts. Would a classroom that spends 20 minutes playing Chutes and Ladders and another 10 minutes in a direct math lesson really be such a terrible “drill and grill” place (as Miller and Carlsson-Paige wrote)?

The CCSS do leave room for great teaching, but that does not mean that all interpretations of the CCSS have been either accurate or helpful. A New York Post article stated that “the city Department of Education now wants 4- and 5-year-olds to write ‘informative/explanatory reports’ and demonstrate ‘algebraic thinking.’ Children who barely know how to write the alphabet or add 2 and 2 are expected to write topic sentences and use diagrams to illustrate math equations.” This is a misinterpretation of the CCSS. I am grateful to everyone who is trying to correct such errors. For young children, the focus of the CCSS is—appropriately—oral language.

Such misunderstanding of the CCSS brings me to a final point. All standards, even the CCSS, are goal statements that can be interpreted many ways. If the idea of all children sharing some core content is to come to fruition, somebody needs to come up with a model curriculum along with validated, curriculum-based tests. That curriculum need not say how to teach, but it does need to say what limited core to teach, grade by grade. (That core is  all the more important, since teachers will still need time to address students’ weaknesses and encourage them to pursue their interests.) Without a specific curriculum, and without tests that are drawn exclusively from that curriculum, word and world knowledge will continue to be taught haphazardly and incoherently, and our achievement gaps will not be closed.

I believe Core Knowledge Language Arts is an important step toward such a curriculum, and I would warmly welcome any funder interested in developing a curriculum-based test for CKLA. If we as a nation developed something of equally high quality for the middle grades, then dramatically more students would be able to take AP’s and IB’s curriculum-based courses and exams in high school.

The future of American education hinges on whether CCSS can be made to work. The alternative, despite the protestations of the critics, is more of the same ineffective and unjust practices that have placed the nation and its middle class at risk.

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.”

John Merrow’s Crystal Ball

by Alice Wiggins
January 24th, 2013

Last year, John Merrow showed us what early grades classrooms will look like once teachers become experts in the new Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. He’s long been known as an insightful journalist, so maybe it should not be a surprise that he so quickly grasped the most essential difference between business as usual and the Common Core.

Unlike ELA practices typically used in the early grades today (which our nation’s hard-working teachers have been taught in their preparation programs and required by their school districts to use), the practices that will become typical in the Common Core era are actually based on cognitive science. The first hint is in the standards’ long title: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. It’s ridiculously long for a title—but it’s incredibly short as a summary of all the most critical points.

Common: shared, as in shared by enough educators for them to be able to collaborate in developing and refining lesson plans—and shared across schools so those unlucky students who must change schools often are not always lost in class.

Core: essential yet also expandable; states can add a bit (if they must) and teachers will have time to go deeper in response to students’ needs and interests.

State: not federal.

Standards: not curriculum (though for the sake of teacher training, materials development, assessment, and mobile students, states should consider developing curricula too).

English Language Arts: artful use of the English language will become far easier to find once the new writing, speaking, listening, and language standards are honored in spirit and practice.

Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects: broad literacy, true literacy; a literate adult has wide-ranging knowledge of these subjects and is therefore able to read any text intended for the public.

This lengthy title will take on even more meaning with a quick review of two amazing findings from cognitive science. Both relate to literacy, and they really explain why the new standards emphasize literacy in specific subjects. The first finding is that, once students are fluent decoders, reading comprehension strategies do help—but students don’t need to spend much time learning or practicing them. Some research shows that just 6 lessons in comprehension strategies (like answering questions and summarizing) are as effective as 50 such lessons. This is great news: we have something effective to build on and it does not need to take much  instructional time. That means we have plenty of time to devote to something that helps more, which brings me to the second finding: knowledge matters. A lot.

One way to study this that has been replicated several times is to take a topic, say baseball, and then get a group of kids, say 12-year-olds, and assess them to find out (1) who is and is not a strong reader, and (2) who does and does not know much about baseball. Then make four groups: strong reader, high knowledge of baseball; strong reader, low knowledge of baseball; weak reader, high knowledge of baseball; weak reader, low knowledge of baseball. Now we’re ready to find out how much knowledge matters: give the kids a text about a baseball game and give them a miniature replica of the diamond, players, etc. Then see who really understands the text by having them show you what happened in the game. Which group does best? The strong readers with a high knowledge of baseball, of course. But the real question is between the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball and the weak readers with high knowledge of baseball. Okay, I gave away the answer at the beginning: it’s the knowledge that really matters. Weak readers with high knowledge of baseball comprehend the baseball text better than the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball. This is spectacular because it gives us a clear path to high achievement: to increase reading comprehension, we need to increase knowledge—and that can be done orally and visually, as well as through text.

Back to the future. Fortunately, when Merrow looked into his crystal ball he had his camera crew standing by to capture the astounding scene: 6-year-olds talking about their favorite books on the solar system and archeology. Take a look (or read the transcript). The first part of the video captures the reading classroom of today. But then, about 6 minutes in, the future is there for all to see in an elementary school in Queens, NY. This is one of 10 NYC schools that piloted the new Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Grades K–3 of that program will be available—for free—this summer, and samples will be available in February. We’ll be sure to let you know when the future arrives.

A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads

by Robert Pondiscio
January 7th, 2013

After over 5 years and 1500 posts, this will be my final blog entry as host of the Core Knowledge Blog.

The good news – no, great news – is that the blog will continue to host an ongoing conversation on curriculum, literacy, teaching and learning.  It will continue to make the case for a content-rich education as the indispensable key to language proficiency, vocabulary growth, critical thinking, problem solving and nearly all of the big picture goals we prize in education.   A guy named E.D. Hirsch will be taking over this space for now.  I believe you’ve heard of him.

K-12 education looked very different when this blog launched in December 2007.   The education reform discussion largely revolved around structural concerns—teacher quality, testing, charter schools, school choice, and the like.  This blog expressed frustration early and often at the blithe lack of concern among policymakers and reform advocates with the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.  All of these structural issues struck me, then and still, as important but insufficient if we wish to see not merely incremental change, but a watershed improvement in student outcomes, especially for low-income and disadvantaged students.

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.   Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.  Not for nothing has Hirsch been referred to as the intellectual forefather of Common Core.  All of this was nearly unthinkable a mere five years ago.

The fight is not over.  It will never be over.  Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.  Is there any field that is as broadly ignorant of its own history as education?

Which brings me to what’s next for your humble blogger.  Effective this month, I will be continuing to make the case for content, but in a slightly different form and venue.  I will be leading an effort, along with some of the leading thinkers in education and public policy, to launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.  You will find me here shortly, and for now you can also follow me on Twitter here and Facebook here.  You can also email me at rpondiscio@aol.com.

To be sure, I don’t view this as a departure from the work of Core Knowledge, but as an extension of it.  Another voice in the happily growing chorus of those who understand and advocate for a content-rich education, and seek to rescue our kids from the joyless, skills-happy, prep-and-test drudgery to which schools too often descend.  We have a larger mission to serve in education.  One that transcends the unlovely if earnest end of “college and career readiness.”  The public purpose of education is citizenship first.  Don’s last book was titled, The Making of Americans for a reason.

In closing, I am immensely grateful to have been associated with Core Knowledge for the last five years, and to have had this forum to make the common sense case for a content-rich education.  I walked in the door a true believer in the Core Knowledge vision.  I walk out the door doubly so.

I owe debts that can never be repaid to my Core Knowledge colleagues, in particular Linda Bevilacqua and Alice Wiggins.  To Dan Willingham for his wise counsel, friendship and assistance.  And most of all to Don Hirsch.  It has been the singular privilege of my adult life to be associated with him and his deeply democratic and egalitarian vision of education.

How to Get a Big Vocabulary

by Robert Pondiscio
December 20th, 2012

Many of us remember studying word lists to prepare for SAT tests.  But if you have a big vocabulary, it is highly unlikely you developed it through memorization.  Consider that a 12th-grade student who scored well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into a selective college has a vocabulary somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words.  Do the math:  acquiring such a sizable vocabulary by rote would mean learning 10-20 new words every day until freshman orientation, assuming you came home from the delivery room having learned your first few dozen words.

Clearly that’s not what happens.  If you are verbally dexterous, the odds are good that you grew up in a language-rich home with parents who talked and read to you a lot. Over the years, you also probably learned and read a lot across a wide variety of subjects.

With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.  Words are the new black.  E.D. Hirsch entered the fray with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the other day noting that NAEP confirms that “students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.” He points out for the 24,587th time in a public forum (plus or minus 4) what should have years ago become a hardcore, non-negotiable, fundamental understanding among every person drawing breath and a paycheck in education:  the content kids learn in school matters.  A lot.  Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth. Says Hirsch:

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

The key word there is “intuit.”  Therein lies the secret to building verbal kids.  You hear an unfamiliar word, intuit what it means, and confirm and refine your understanding with each future encounter with the word until you eventually own it and it becomes part of your working vocabulary. That’s how it works.  Not by memorizing lots of words, but by being exposed to increasingly complex words in context, and coming to understand through repeated exposure what those words mean.  It’s not complicated, but it’s very, very time consuming.  It is the work of years and years of exposure to rich language and text.  But if you don’t know the context, you don’t learn the new words.  In Hirsch’s example, “annual” and “fertile” are just two more bits of stuff that go over your head if you know nothing of Egypt, the Nile, farming, etc.  Without the common knowledge, everything grinds to a screeching halt.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

The idea that verbal proficiency, reading comprehension, and a broad, content-rich curriculum are inextricably linked is at the very heart of the Core Knowledge movement—an awareness that has gradually sunk in over decades and been enshrined in Common Core State Standards.  In an upcoming article in City Journal, on which his Journal op-ed was based, Hirsch notes the stakes for vocabulary acquisition couldn’t be any higher.  There is “a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income.”  The correlation between vocabulary size and life chances are “as firm as any correlations in educational research,” Hirsch writes.

Connect the dots:  Reading comprehension correlates with vocabulary level.  Vocabulary level correlates with life outcomes.  Those old Reader’s Digest quizzes had it right: It really does pay to increase your word power.  Vocabulary is destiny.  Ed reformers, heed Hirsch:

“The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: ‘Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?’ When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it’s fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.”

So how do we get kids where we need them to be?  There is no substitute for reading widely.  We are unlikely to build a strong vocabulary without regular exposure to the sophisticated language of print.  And not just any print, but print of increasing complexity and breadth across subject matter.  This is really no longer “nice to do” but essential.  Job One.

All I want for Christmas is for Common Core critics, rather that retailing scare stories that CCSS will replace literature with readings of government reports on agriculture and insulation regulations in English class, to temper their criticism even a little bit with an acknowledgement that maybe a coherent, content-rich curriculum (which CCSS does not, cannot mandate but strongly recommends) might not be the worst thing to happen to our schools.

 

 

 

All In

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

A lot has been made this year of the value of marshmallow tests, grit, and character in building a quality education. Every time I open my laptop, someone has forwarded an article or tagged me in a post about about the value of character in schools. When I closed the lid on my laptop this weekend, and finally got around to catching up on my NPR podcast listening, there it was again. Paul Tough, talking about his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character with Ira Glass on This American Life.” Tom Ashbrook, talking about the fact that schools are adding workouts, not for fitness, but for “Attention, Grit, and Emotional Control.” I had to retreat to a Freakonomics podcast about how to maximize my kids’ (read: my) Halloween candy haul (research for next year).

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not tired of the discussion; I think this focus on character in education is a fantastic turn of events. I’m thrilled. As more and more people come around to the value of character education, I sound less and less like the preachy schoolmarm on a weekend pass from the Big Woods.

For the past five years, I have been teaching at Crossroads Academy, a school that combines the Core Knowledge curriculum with a core virtues curriculum. I have to admit, I was not totally sure what I’d gotten myself into when I signed the contract for my first year. I figured I’d smile and nod, support the character education teachers in their efforts, and reap the benefits of teaching kids who attend a weekly character education class. It’s not as if this is my first brush with Aristotle’s Golden Mean, on the contrary – I’m one of the A-man’s biggest fans – and I can hold my own in a conversation about prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.

But about six months into that first year, I noticed all that “character stuff” was leaking out of character education class and saturating every other subject. It was my students’ fault; they opened the floodgates. They talked about Atticus’ sense of justice in English class, Achilles’ lack of temperance in Latin class, Ghandi’s incredible fortitude in history class. This weekend, I was helping my third grade son study for his history test, and he told me that “the conspirators killed Caesar because he was not a good steward of Rome.”

Today, Core Knowledge drives my content, but character education and the core virtues drive my teaching, and my relationships with my students.

Well, most of the time. Like anyone who has been teaching the same classes for a while, I am apt to get lulled into a routine, particularly in November. The clocks have just changed, that certain slant of light has descended on New Hampshire, and it’s tempting to coast while I put my energy into writing report cards and recovering from the middle-school super-virus my students gave me last week. After all, it would be easy; my class materials have all those helpful notes and Post-Its in the margins, accumulated over years of discussion, the teacher’s manual of my Latin textbook sings its siren call…but drat. Just when I have checked out until after the holidays, my students foil my plans.

This week, I was hacking away at the huge pile of grading I have to get through before I can actually being to write grade reports, and I was getting sleepy. In my defense, Latin translations are a huge time suck because my students like to take full and creative advantage of Latin’s  relatively flexible word order. Nouns and verbs are never where I expect them to be, and the grading is slow going. Halfway through what felt like the bajillionth Latin test, I came across an incorrect answer, with an arrow pointing to a note in the margin:

Dear Mrs. Lahey. I know the answer to #4 is incorrect, but I accidentally saw the answer on your answer key, and I did not want to cheat. But I know the answer is “vobis” because “you” is plural, not singular.”

Needless to say, I gave her the two points, and promptly checked back in.

I am not naive enough to believe that character education alone can save America’s educational crisis, but I do know that this week’s headlines are full of bright, well-educated people who have sold virtue to purchase wealth. If character education manages to score some column inches on the front page between Jill Kelley and Lance Armstrong, and authors such as PaulTough and Diane Ravitch are brave enough to champion the cause of character in education, I’m all in.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

Squishiness Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2012

A “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled for release next month.  If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.

“Social studies specialists have been working with state department of education officials and others to create standards in that subject,” Gewertz notes.  That means expert guidance on the history and geography subject matter children should learn in each grade–the seven continents and oceans of the world in kindergarten; Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in first grade; the U.S. Constitution in second grade–right?  I mean that is the point of this exercise, isn’t it?   Gewertz’s blog post indicates those looking for specificity might be disappointed.

“Early signs suggest that you shouldn’t expect something that prescribes the specific issues, trends, or events that students should study, but rather describes the structure, tools, and habits of mind they need in order to undertake an exploration of the discipline, and offers states a frame for the content they choose.”

Just asking: If the “framework” for social studies takes a pass on detailing what’s worth knowing and contents itself instead with a squishy and unsatisfying description of the “structure, tools and habits of mind,” how–how exactly, please–will that be anything than redundant with the CCSS ELA standards?

The ELA standards strike a hammer blow for a content-rich vision of literacy in U.S. classrooms without detailing the content.  It’s a step in the wrong direction if social studies specialists are unwilling to begin to detail at least some of what that content should include.

Perhaps the authors of the draft framework would like to help themselves to the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade.  It’s free for your downloading.  Take it.  Steal it.  Call it your own.

 

Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2012

There’s a must-read piece in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante about language, poverty and academic achievement.  The article is ostensibly about the controversy over admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science.  But Bellafante wisely traces the problem back to its origins and the systemic advantage of growing up in a hyper-verbal upscale Manhattan home.

“It is difficult to overstate the advantages arrogated to a child whose parent proceeds in a near constant mode of annotation. Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate. The child, in essence, exists in continuous receipt of dictation.”

Low-income homes?  Not so much.  Bellafante describes a conversation with the founder of the Ascend Learning Charter School network, which serves largely low-income black children in Brooklyn.  “I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year,” Bellafante writes.  “He answered, without a second’s hesitation: ‘Word deficit.’”  She cites the now-familiar (hopefully) Hart and Risley study that demonstrated profound deficits in the number of words heard by children growing up in poverty in the first years of life.  She also cites E.D. Hirsch’s observation that “there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success” [my emphasis].

In short, demographics is not destiny.  But vocabulary just might be.

Note that Hirsch cited “general knowledge AND vocabulary.”  Before we convert early childhood education into extended vocabulary enhancement exercises with word lists to be memorized, it’s essential to understand how big vocabularies are created.  We don’t learn words through memorization, but by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context, and general knowledge is context. My Core Knowledge colleague Alice Wiggins uses the example of the unfamiliar word “excrescence.”   You probably don’t know what it means, so here it is in a sentence:

 “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of plane’s cabin.”

Not helping?  Here’s another:

“Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.”

After two exposures, you might have a vague understanding of the word.  Another sentence enables you to check your understanding, or refine your definition.

 “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.”

By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of what an excrescence is.  One more sentence should verify it.

 “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.

I never gave you the definition, or asked you to look it up.  But you figured the word excrescence means an abnormal projection or outgrowth.

This is an accelerated example of how we acquire new words:  by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.  But critically, think of all the words and knowledge you already had that enabled you to learn the new word.  You know about engineers and strokes and warts.  You didn’t have to stop and wonder what “fuel efficiency” and “aerospace” and “self-conscious” mean.  You’re already rich in knowledge and vocabulary and you just got a little richer.  A child without that background knowledge hearing the same sentences would not learn the knew word and would fall a little further behind his more verbal peers.  Thank or blame the insidious “Matthew Effect.”  Bellafante’s excellent piece makes the same point implicitly with its description of the three-year-old child who understands what an upholsterer does and that the piece of furniture in his apartment is called an “ottoman.”

“All of this would seem to argue for a system in which we spent ever more of our energies and money on early, preschool education rather than less,” concludes Bellafante.

Yes, but let’s be VERY clear:  What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool.  Not even “high quality” preschool.  What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.