Life Is a High-Stakes Reading Test

by Lisa Hansel
July 2nd, 2015

Life is a high-stakes reading test. Those who pass gain entry to the best humanity has to offer—great literature, active and effective citizenship, fascinating dinner debates, meaningful connections with people across time and space, jobs that are both interesting and high paying, genuine capacity for self-directed learning, etc.

The key to passing is broad knowledge.


Knowledge enables comprehension and creates opportunities (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

That fact is the driver behind the Common Core standards’ requirement that K–12 schooling include dramatically more nonfiction reading, reaching 70% by twelfth grade. I’ve never understood the backlash against this mandate. There is no call for 70% of the reading assigned in English courses to be nonfiction. If students are taking English, history, and science, then two-thirds of their reading should already be nonfiction. Add in some biographies of artists and musicians (in art and music classes) and the 70% requirement is easily met. High schools with solid electives would likely have most students reading 80% nonfiction.

Nonetheless, many English teachers seem to be trying to draw far more nonfiction into their courses. Why? Do they not know that the 70% requirement applies to the whole day? Do they know that their colleagues in other disciplines are not assigning enough reading, so they are trying to fill the gap? Do they fear that whatever their colleagues are doing, they must do more to prepare for the high-stakes tests (since accountability policies unfairly attribute reading scores to ELA teachers alone)? Do they simply not know what their colleagues are assigning because they don’t have time to collaborate?

If only schools would see the 70% mandate as a call for collaboration: English and history teachers could pair great novels and poetry with studies of particular time periods, giving students an understanding of the author’s worldview. English and science teachers could pair science-fiction stories with analyses of the accuracy and potential of the scientific ideas they contain.

If a recent New York Times article is at all representative, such pairings are rare. Working alone, some English teachers seem to be struggling to effectively incorporate nonfiction. One assigned the G.I. Bill along with The Odyssey, which might inspire an interesting discussion, but would likely be based more on opinion than expertise. Others have turned to short pieces on banal topics like cell phones and cheerleading. These anecdotes indicate that teachers are trying to build some set of nonfiction comprehension skills—under the mistaken belief that they could be applied to any nonfiction text—instead of building the knowledge that would make comprehension effortless.

Faith in comprehension strategies is so strong that some teachers don’t seem to have broadening students’ horizons as a goal at all. As the Times reported:

At Midwood High School in Brooklyn … some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.

But there was one glimmer of hope in the article:

At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.

The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.

These two examples are promising because they reveal a dedication to building knowledge of important topics. But they are not as coherent as I’d like. Refugees and women’s rights are very broad themes; there’s a risk of exposure to a great deal and retention of very little. Focusing on a narrower topic, such as the Vietnam War or Sojourner Truth, might give students a more meaningful opportunity to build vocabulary and knowledge. Indeed, the need for background knowledge is likely why students found the unit on women’s rights—a familiar topic anchored with a sports star—more interesting than the unit on Vietnam and refugees.

Knowledge increases curiosity, enables comprehension and other forms of critical thinking, and ensures students pass life’s most important high-stakes tests.

Tapas-Style Curriculum

by Lisa Hansel
June 29th, 2015

Education Week noted recently that there’s an increasing demand for bites of curriculum, as opposed to coherent programs: Instead of selecting one comprehensive program, “districts are asking to … mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.” That’s awesome—and a disaster.

It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curriculum. Teachers will have the curriculum as a scaffold, and they can search for materials on each topic that best meet their students’ needs. Assuming that scaffold is well developed, the topics will build on each other, giving all students an equal opportunity to acquire broad knowledge and skills.

It’s a disaster for schools that don’t have such a curriculum. In schools that aim to instill skills, without realizing that a broad body of knowledge is necessary to cultivate skills, a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition. Whether teachers or students are choosing the small plates, we’ll end up with some students getting mostly fried cheese and bacon-wrapped sausage, while others get mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.


This just isn’t what kids need (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

A well-rounded education is much like a well-balanced diet. Kids get plenty of fried cheese outside of school. In school, they need rigorous and rich academics—including history, art, geography, music, and science every year. And they need the topics they study in each of these domains to logically expand and deepen year to year.

In too many schools, the pursuit of personalized learning—with the end goal being each student learning to learn while pursuing individual interests—has caused some educators to lose sight of the bigger picture. As Marc Tucker wrote:

The phrase “learn how to learn” comes trippingly off the tongue these days.  But much less is usually said about what makes it possible to learn new things quickly.  We know that learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in.  The most important of those frameworks are the conceptual structures underpinning the disciplines.

And much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge.  But that knowledge will do you little good unless you first understand the disciplines themselves, not just superficially, but at a deep conceptual level.  As one builds up that kind of knowledge in multiple disciplines, it becomes possible to draw on the knowledge and concepts in those domains to see the connections among them.  Learning new things is much easier when you can build on this sort of foundation.

In short, cognitive science tells us that broad knowledge and topic-specific knowledge are necessary for learning and thinking. And both science and common sense tell us that shared knowledge is necessary for effective communication. A tapas-style education might get us there, but only if we remove the fried cheese from the menu and agree to a content-specific plan to guide and balance our selections.


DC: Embarking on a Knowledge Revolution

by Lisa Hansel
June 25th, 2015

Over the past few years, an increasing number of DC schools have been revamping their curricula to teach dramatically more knowledge. Frustrated by low reading scores and nudged by the Common Core standards’ explicit call for building knowledge across subjects, they’re now convinced that broad knowledge—not hour after hour of practicing comprehension strategies—is the key to better reading comprehension.

They’re right.

But the shift to developing broad academic knowledge is challenging for teachers, students, and parents, especially if they haven’t had a chance to learn why knowledge is so crucial for comprehension and critical thinking. Thanks to Natalie Wexler, a terrific DC-focused writer, DC’s knowledge revolution is being chronicled on Greater Greater Washington and DC Eduphile.

In a recent piece for The Washington Post, she captured the DC Public Schools’ effort to instigate this revolution:

Fundamentally, the achievement gap is a knowledge gap….

The Common Core State Standards tried to attack this problem by getting schools to build children’s knowledge from an early age. Unfortunately, that aspect of the Common Core has gotten lost in the noisy debate over the initiative’s merits….

Still, DCPS got the idea. Administrators began developing a curriculum rich in science, history and literature beginning in kindergarten. They created “units of study,” six- or seven-week modules on themes such as “Plants are Everywhere” in second grade and “Early Americans” in fourth….

These units of study should help DCPS ensure that all students have a common educational experience with the same minimum level of quality. Ideally, the curriculum should level the playing field for students who aren’t acquiring as much knowledge at home as others.

But DCPS doesn’t require teachers to follow the curriculum or use the units of study. Brian Pick, chief of teaching and learning for DCPS, says that 83 percent of teachers report that they use the curriculum. But there is significant variation among classrooms….

As Pick recognizes, a curriculum is an eternal work in progress.

“Curriculum-building is like if you were given a rock and told to turn it into a perfect sphere,” he says. “You’re always going to be polishing, refining, making it better, making it richer.”

As Wexler notes, teachers are being drawn into that polishing, so I have high hopes that it will continue to improve and be more fully implemented. Eventually, I’d love to see all DCPS schools embrace the curriculum, allowing teachers to learn from each other, equalizing students’ opportunity to learn, and smoothing the transitions for mobile students.

DCPS’s great strides seem to be rubbing off on DC charters—which is critical since 44% of DC students are in charters. Leading the knowledge revolution among charters is Center City, which has six P-8 schools. Wexler writes:

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called “ANet” (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

“Whatever ANet’s assessing in the next nine weeks, that’s what I’m teaching,” says Center City’s director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn’t collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they’ll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Combining rich curriculum with enthusiastic, skillful teaching, Center City is seeing immediate results:

In one 1st grade class at Center City’s Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

“Magma!” they chorused, drawing on knowledge they’d gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for “fire”—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

This revolution won’t lead to a new nation—but it is opening doors to a new life for DC’s neediest children.


Our universe is inherently interesting–and our curricula should be too (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Districts Could Do More for the Most Vulnerable Students

by Lisa Hansel
June 23rd, 2015

In my last post I highlighted two districts that are equalizing opportunity to learn and increasing teacher collaboration through districtwide curriculum and assessments. Across schools, the same knowledge and skills are being taught, and the same expectations are being met.

Imagine what it would be like to have to transfer schools mid-year in one of those districts. Making new friends, getting to know new teachers, and dealing with whatever family upheaval caused the move are hard enough. The one good thing about the transfer is that you would not be lost in class. Your new teachers would be teaching the same curriculum, and they would have detailed information on your prior performance.

It’s a shame this level of coordination is so rare—for schools transfers are not rare, especially in urban areas. A new report summarizes the available data, finding that two-thirds of elementary school students change schools, with 24% changing schools two or more times. The effects are devastating:

One paper … summarized the findings from 16 studies (9 of which were identified as methodologically strong) conducted since 1990. The study found that even one non-promotional school move both reduced elementary school achievement in reading and math and increased high school dropout rates, with the most pronounced effects for students who made three or more moves….

One study that tracked a cohort of preschool students in Chicago for 25 years found that students who made non-promotional school changes between kindergarten and 12th grade were less likely to complete high school on time, completed fewer years of school, had lower levels of occupational prestige in their jobs, experienced more symptoms of depression, and were more likely to be arrested as adults. The impacts of mobility were above and beyond the impacts of associated risks such as poverty and residential mobility, and were more severe for transfers between the fourth and eighth grades….

A high school student who participated in a comprehensive study of mobility in California commented:

Moving and changing schools really shattered my personality. I feel like there’s all these little things I picked up from all of the different schools and I feel all disoriented all the time. There’s no grounding. I always just feel like I’m floating.

And, … one study in Texas found that student turnover, especially during the school year, adversely affected student achievement not just of mobile students, but everyone in the school. Moreover, the effects were larger for poor and minority students.

Would a districtwide curriculum solve these problems? No. But it would certainly help with the intra-district transfers. A statewide instructional framework—which specifies certain topics for each subject and grade, but leaves room for discretion at the local level—would also help. Maybe that teenager from California would not feel so fragmented if he had the opportunity to read whole novels, conduct whole science experiments, and create whole art projects, even while changing schools. Maybe he would have more in common with his new classmates if they had some shared knowledge. Maybe his teachers would be better prepared to support him if they had some notion of what he had studied in his other schools.

Maybe someday more districts and states will realize that an education is not a collection of skills to be cultivated with any content. An education is a curated, systematic exploration of the best humanity has to offer, resulting in a broad body of knowledge and content-specific abilities that enrich life. At least, that’s what it should be.


A new school need not mean a new curriculum (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Collaborating on Curriculum and Assessment: Two Districts Lead the Way

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2015

“Educators and policymakers must avoid the trap of limiting their discussions to questions which the existing data can readily answer, a practice reminiscent of the old joke about looking for lost car keys under the streetlight because that is where the searcher can see, not where the keys were lost.” Chrys Dougherty, a principal research scientist with testing giant ACT, includes this little warning in his recent policy brief. He certainly isn’t stuck under the streetlight—he shows educators, district leaders, and state leaders how data could be used to ensure all children get a rich, well-rounded education and all teachers have meaningful opportunities to learn from each other.

While almost all states and many districts jump right from standards to assessments, Dougherty emphasizes the importance of “a content-rich district curriculum that states clearly what students are expected to learn in each grade and subject” including “science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts.” For all those leaders who have yet to grasp that standards are not curriculum, he offers a great synopsis of what a strong curriculum ought to provide, in addition to stating precisely which topics are to be taught:

By providing greater detail, the curriculum can align content across grade levels more precisely, so that what students learn in preceding grade levels prepares them to understand what is taught in subsequent grades. The curriculum can address the levels of student learning that are expected— for example, by the use of model student assignments and samples of student work. The curriculum can allocate learning time across topics in a given subject so that students are given enough time to learn each topic in sufficient depth and detail. The curriculum can also allocate learning time among subjects so that sufficient time is devoted to each subject in every grade. The curriculum can take advantage of connections across subjects, so that, for example, if the students are learning about volcanoes in science, they might read a story about Pompeii in language arts and perform computations about volcanic activity in math class.

Informing this policy brief is a case study of two districts that are focused on using data to enhance their curriculum and instruction. In both, the districtwide curriculum and curriculum-based assessments gave students a more equal opportunity to learn:

Educators in the two case study districts took special care to ensure [their benchmark] assessments matched what had been taught… School leaders in the case study sites also encouraged teachers in each grade level to administer common assessments every two or three weeks to provide even more up-to-date information on the students. The timeliness of these assessments make them particularly useful in identifying student needs, modifying instruction to meet those needs, placing students in short-term interventions, and setting and monitoring goals for students and teachers.

It takes a lot of care and flexibility to ensure that all teachers have the same goals and all assessments test what was taught, as a teacher explained with an example from Algebra I:

The district specialist writes the district benchmark and … all the Algebra I teachers get into a room with her. They all take the test together. That’s our way of vetting the test. They take the test so they can see what’s on the test. The test doesn’t leave the room. That way we’re not teaching the test. But they have an idea of where we’re trying to go. Then that happens at the beginning of each nine weeks. And then three weeks before we actually administer the test the teachers look at it again and they say to the district specialist … “That week we had homecoming and a parade and a pep rally … and we missed three days of instruction over this. And so we didn’t get that far. So that test item needs to come out.” So we’re working really hard to keep those benchmarks to be a true reflection of what we’ve taught.

Of course, collaboration like this doesn’t just happen; the districts created time and space for it:

The districts in our case study regularly convened teachers of the same course- or grade-specific content in different schools—for example, Biology 1 or third-grade social studies—to review curriculum and assessments and to share instructional ideas. The timing of these meetings was based on the six- or nine-week grading periods in the district curriculum so teachers could look at results from the latest benchmark assessment. Less frequently, district leaders convened vertical teams of teachers from different grade levels—for example, elementary, middle, and high school teachers of US history. Interviewees in the study expressed a desire for increasing the frequency of these vertical team meetings.

Students and teachers in these two districts are benefiting greatly from focusing on districtwide curriculum, assessment, and professional development. What a shame that such efforts are so rare!


A strong districtwide curriculum connects teachers across schools, grades, and subjects. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Knowledge Equalizer: Jeff Litt

by Lisa Hansel
June 15th, 2015

In my last post, I called for knowledge equality. My hope is all educators and concerned citizens—and policymakers with counter-productive, curriculum-narrowing mandates—will see that broad, shared knowledge is essential to equality of opportunity.

Today I have the great pleasure of highlighting an educator who truly is a knowledge equalizer: Jeff Litt. Litt spent over 30 years in the traditional public schools, but he’s far from a traditional leader. He transformed P.S. 67, the Mohegan School, in the South Bronx from a graffiti-covered nightmare into a loving, high-achieving community of learners. The Core Knowledge Sequence provided a platform for the change, but the heart of it was Litt’s vision for what all schools should be: rigorous and nurturing. As the Chicago Consortium on School Research showed years ago, the combination of high “academic press” with social support  yields striking gains in achievement among disadvantaged youth.

After his success at P.S. 67, Litt launched the Icahn Charter Schools, which is now the second-highest-achieving network in New York City—even though it welcomes new students in the upper grades who are far behind and has almost no suspensions. But neither Litt nor the Icahn schools are famous; they eschew the spotlight to stay focused on their students.

With a terrific video and article, Reason magazine gives us a rare look at Litt’s extraordinary work. Here are just a few highlights:

“These kids are like my flesh and blood, and I would do anything for them,” says Litt, who walks the halls of his schools reminding students with motherly consternation to take off their warm coats, tie their shoes, and not to come to school without socks to avoid blisters….

One reason Icahn gets so little attention in the press is that it has been overshadowed by Success Academy…. But while Icahn’s scores are not as good as Success’, the comparison between the two organizations gets hazier when you take into account what’s known as “backfilling.”

When students leave Success Academy schools for whatever reason, the administration stops replacing them with new students after the fourth grade, so the enrollment of each class dwindles over the years. Icahn, on the other hand, replaces the kids who leave with new students from the district schools. Generally, those students have a lot of catching up to do, and they bring down Icahn’s overall scores….

“I think it’s no fluke that they’re the two highest performing charter networks in New York City,” says Charles Sahm, who’s the education policy director at the Manhattan Institute. Sahm has been researching and writing about both Success Academy and Icahn, and he says the reason they’ve done so well is sort of a no-brainer: It’s their rich curricula. “Success and Icahn both focus like a laser beam on what kids are being taught and how,” says Sahm. “It sounds very simple, but actually doing it is quite difficult.”

Reason video

Don’t miss Reason’s terrific, 8-minute video, highlighting Litt’s dedication to finding successful, experienced leaders.

On Blooming

by EmmaEarnst
May 26th, 2015

As a member of the team of educators and editors developing Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), I’m continually proud of and impressed by the understandings, connections, and accomplishments that students reach when their incredible teachers use the CKLA program to guide instruction.

There’s Olivia, the darling girl on this Amplify Learning video, who discovers her ability, and love for, reading. There are the scores of children we see and hear during school visits who are using academic and domain vocabulary (tiers 2 and 3) as they make cross-curricular connections.

And then there are the writers. Being a writer myself, seeing students use writing as a means of expressing themselves is one of my favorite rewards.

Acting as “Kate,” I have the opportunity to see students blossom in just this way every year.

You see, every spring as the daffodils, tulips, and peonies lift their heads in succession to greet us, something else magical happens as well: Kate Skipper letters come pouring in!


As part of CKLA’s Skills strand, first graders read Kate’s Book during the fifth of seven units. Depending on various factors like school schedules and student progression, this typically falls between the months of March and May. After reading Kate’s Book and learning about opinion writing, students write a letter to Kate Skipper, the main character and “author” of their reader. Kate explains it best in her introductory letter to the book:

CKLA_G1_U5_Rdr_Engage 7


Students read the thirteen stories that make up Kate’s Book over the course of a 23-day unit. While reading the book, students simultaneously develop and then publish an opinion letter to Kate. At the end of the book and unit, students are offered the chance to send their letters to Kate Skipper care of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Hundreds of letters pour in and I, as Kate, write back. First-grade teachers: Keep them coming!

As explained in the recent post by Debbie Reynolds, a teacher in Nevada, CKLA develops writing ability by supporting students to use their background knowledge, build new knowledge orally, and organize their thoughts before tackling any larger writing project. First graders’ letter to Kate is the culmination of exposure and study throughout the year; students’ growth, enthusiasm, and attitudes are clearly reflected in their letters.


The most common response from students follows along these lines: “Loved your book, Kate! When will you write another?”


Notice Linsey’s opinion “I like Max” is backed up with reason: “because he has a hat.”



Likewise, Samuel explains that he likes the books because Kate and her friend, Max, find a T. rex bone.

This year, we got a special surprise as just before the letters to Kate Skipper began rolling in: We received a letter from Olivia (not the same Olivia in the Amplify video), a second grader, that reflects not just her heart-felt opinion, but also showcases her reasoning. Olivia, described by her teacher as “the premier animal lover and animal expert in [her] classroom,” disagreed with the portrayal of snakes and spiders in the CKLA book Sir Gus. Olivia’s teacher used this as an opportunity for enrichment, and suggested that Olivia write to us at the Foundation respectfully explaining her position.

Olivia took up on her teacher’s suggestion, and wrote us the following letter:

bear CKLA,

My name is Olivia and I am second grader….I am reading Sir Guse I like it but Sir Gus is a skardy cat. I noticed a big problem….You making a bad impreshen to make kids skarde of spiders and snakes you know you should relley study an animal before you guge it.



Olivia clearly displays the tenets of persuasive writing she learned from CKLA (argument, reasoning, and personal connection), and uses them to make her opinions known and potentially improve how CKLA represents animals. I am—we are—enormously proud of her!

By learning about and practicing persuasive writing in CKLA, and building a base of knowledge, Olivia was prepared for this unique opportunity to make her voice heard—and that will serve her well throughout her life.

Knowledge For Literacy

by Guest Blogger
May 18th, 2015

By Marilyn Jager Adams

Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University, is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post, which originally appeared on the Shanker Blogis adapted from Literacy Ladders, an anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.

Liteacy Ladders Cover

The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.

What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.

Comprehension Depends on Knowledge

The overarching theme of these essays is that if we wish to advance our students’ literacy, we must devote ourselves to increasing the breadth and depth of their domain knowledge.

Through language, novel concepts are communicated in the form of novel combinations of familiar concepts. That is, new concepts and the meanings of new words can be verbally explained only in terms of known words. Sometimes a new word can be adequately explained by comparing and contrasting it with familiar concepts (e.g., a mayfly looks like a giant mosquito but it is harmless). Otherwise, we must define the word by decomposing it into familiar concepts and then piecing together the whole. Either way, the usefulness of the effort depends on the familiarity of the supporting concepts we offer.

Yet the role of prior knowledge runs far deeper. The core definition of a word is only a tiny fragment of the meaning that makes it useful in understanding language. Neuroimaging confirms that the full meaning of a familiar word extends broadly through the mind, including associations to every trace that your experience with that word or its concept has left in your memory. For instance, your full knowledge of the word “apple” extends to the traces in your memory of the many apples in your life and how they have looked, felt, tasted, smelled, or sounded (e.g., when you bit into, dropped, or sliced them); of where you were and what else and who else was there with each apple; of picking apples, peeling apples, and bobbing for apples; of cider, apple pie, caramel apples, and Waldorf salads; of apple trees, teachers’ apples, and poison apples; of “rotten apples,” “apple-cheeked,” “apple a day,” and the “Big Apple;” of Adam and Eve, William Tell, George Washington, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, and so on. The more strongly or frequently any such association has been tied to the apples in your life, the more strongly it dominates your overall concept of an apple. But all of your experiences, be they direct or linguistic, are there — waiting to be activated and used in making sense of “apple” the next time you see or hear the word.

When you encounter “apple” in conversation or text, it will automatically activate its entire, extended complex of associations in your mind, and the same thing happens when you encounter each successive word in the sentence. As the associations tied to each ensuing word in the sentence become activated, subsets of knowledge from different words that overlap effectively become “superactivated.”*

Alternatively, consider what happens if — whether due to vocabulary or reading difficulties — you cannot recognize a word at all. What you lose is not just the meaning of that particular word, but also the work it was supposed to do in providing context and precise meanings for the other words around it. In between — to the extent that you recognize the word but have scant knowledge of its meaning and usage — your understanding is commensurately impoverished.

In other words, knowledge is the medium of understanding and therefore of reading with understanding.

Topical Units Can Help

Research demonstrates that, for comprehension, relevant knowledge is even more important than general reading ability. When high- and low-knowledge groups are divided into good and poor readers, those with little knowledge relevant to the text at hand perform relatively poorly, regardless of how well they read in general. In contrast — and this is important — the performance of the poor readers with higher background knowledge is generally better than that of the good readers with less background knowledge, and nearly as good as the good readers with lots of background knowledge.

Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro. The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension and propelling the reading process forward. In one study, scientists monitored readers’ eye movements while reading about topics that were more versus less familiar to them. Given texts about less familiar topics, people’s reading slowed down and the progress of their eye movements was marked with more pausing and rereading. In other words, not only do readers with less topic-relevant background knowledge gain less from reading about that topic, less-knowledgeable readers must also expend more time and effort to arrive at what limited understanding they do gain.**

What does information have to do with text complexity? They are closely related in two important ways. On one hand, texts that are more complex in vocabulary and syntax also tend to be more presumptuous of readers’ background knowledge. On the other, texts that strive to present more precise argument or more specific information on a topic are unavoidably more complex in vocabulary and syntax. In order for students to become comfortable and competent with these sorts of texts, they must first develop a supportive understanding of the broader topic under discussion. And that’s where topical units come in.

In a topical reading unit, all texts are about some aspect of a single main concept. Topical readings provide a natural and highly productive way of revisiting and extending learning. Across readings, as the books build interlaced networks of knowledge, the similarities, contrasts, and usages of the words gain clarity. In tandem, the stories gain plot and excitement, and the informational texts gain structure and provoke wonder. Further, as the knowledge network is enriched, the mind is ever better prepared to understand the language of each new sentence.***

The deeper domain knowledge that topical units help students acquire is of inestimable importance in itself, but topical units also bring a number of other benefits. Direct benefits include increases in reading fluency, accelerated vocabulary growth, and improvements in the spelling, style, organization, and ideas in students’ writing. Because topical units offer a means of scaffolding texts, they allow students to rapidly work their way up to engage productively with texts that would otherwise be beyond their reach. In turn, experience in understanding more sophisticated texts brings additional benefits. For example, an expert oceanographer can be expected to penetrate an advanced text in oceanography with ease. However, people who have engaged deeply with complex information in any scientific field —  experts in biogenetics, mineralogy, physics, or marine biology, for example — could be expected to be able to understand the same text far better than a person without any specialized knowledge (even if with significantly more effort than the oceanographer). The advantage of the oceanographer is due to the fact that knowledge is domain specific.****

The advantage of the other well-read scientists is due to the fact that the modes of thought and analysis that deep knowledge affords are part of the literate mind and can be applied across known andunknown domains.

Can advanced texts really be made accessible to less proficient readers in this way? Yes. As a concrete example, no text on dinosaurs would get through a readability formula for second-graders. However, having built up their vocabulary and domain knowledge in an area of interest, many second-graders are able to read and understand remarkably sophisticated texts about dinosaurs with great satisfaction. Gradually and seamlessly, students build the knowledge networks that prepare them to tackle texts of increasingly greater depth and complexity.


* For an educator-friendly review of the neural connections from letters to meaning, see: M. J. Adams, “The Relation between Alphabetic Basics, Word Recognition and Reading,” in What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction, 4th edition, eds. S. J. Samuels and A. E. Farstrup (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2011), 4–24.

** For a summary of the studies in the preceding two paragraphs, see Willingham’s “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” p. 42 in Literacy Ladders.

*** Be warned: Some reading programs mistake what might better be called “thematic units” for topical units. As a quick rule of thumb, if it is a topical unit, then the word or words naming the same core concept should appear frequently in every text. Note: Superficial treatments and texts about different concepts labeled with the same word don’t count.

**** E. D. Hirsch, “Beyond Comprehension: We Have yet to Adopt a Common Core Curriculum that Builds Knowledge Grade by Grade–But We Need To,” p. 54 in the Literacy Ladders.

A Successful Formula: Shared Curriculum + Shared Responsibility

by Lisa Hansel
May 12th, 2015

A shorter version of this post originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Like pretty much everyone who is passionate about closing the achievement gap, I’m interested in Success Academies. I’ve read Eva Moskowitz’s book, Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work in Any School, and watched the videos that come with it. But I’m still not sure what to think. The extraordinary results might be due to creaming motivated families or not backfilling after the early grades or too much test prep. These questions will likely be answered over the next several years.

Still, it seems clear that lots of students are getting a good education in Success Academies. If there were no test prep (or any manipulations of the student body), then I think the test scores would still be impressive, if not extraordinary.

So, what are they doing? Charles Sahm’s recent article in Education Next provides some answers. Having visited four Success Academies and interviewed staff, supporters, and critics, he presents a richer picture of the schools than previous accounts.

Without detracting from the complex array of supports needed to attain strong results, I think two of Success Academies’ focal points anchor the whole endeavor: a shared curriculum and a shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm reaches a very similar conclusion, “What separates Success, in my opinion, is a laser focus on what is being taught, and how.” But I’d like to highlight a small difference that, in my opinion, has a huge impact. It’s the sharing.

Curriculum itself matters, of course, shared or not. And Success Academies are driven to improve what they teach. I was overjoyed to read that they find Core Knowledge helpful:

This year, Success is piloting two additional two-week “mini Core Knowledge” project-based learning units. “We love [Core Knowledge founder] E. D. Hirsch,” says Michele Caracappa, Success’s director of literacy.

I hope that this endorsement gets more reformers thinking about content-specific, rich, cumulative curriculum. School choice and teacher evaluation might be sexier topics, but curriculum is a primary factor in opportunity to learn. Perhaps that fact that New York City’s top two charter networks look to E. D. Hirsch will get them thinking. As Sahm writes:

New York’s second-highest performing charter network, the seven Icahn schools in the Bronx, uses the content-rich Core Knowledge ELA curriculum, which is well aligned with the Common Core—further evidence that curriculum counts.

Many teachers outside these charter networks see the value of their school having a strong curriculum; Sahm quotes one, who says “What each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.”

That would be a step forward for the vast majority of schools. It worked well for PS 124, a neighborhood school in Queens that greatly increased student achievement over 15 years under the leadership of Valarie Lewis. Lewis, who is now a Core Knowledge Fellow, implemented the Core Knowledge Sequence starting in 1999. By 2007, she won a Dispelling the Myth Award from the Education Trust. To get there, she made tough choices, including forgoing two assistant principals to fund extra learning time. In 2014, when Lewis retired, PS 124’s economically disadvantaged students significantly outperformed the city; their percentage proficient was 8 points higher in reading and math. But I am convinced that PS 124 could have done even better if it had the support of a network of schools all using the same curriculum.

When several schools work together on a shared curriculum, great benefits become possible. Sahm offers a powerful example:

Shortly before a lesson is taught across the network, an experienced teacher delivers (and video-records) the lesson early to her students, and shares the recording with other teachers.

Here’s the result:

All the teachers I spoke with agree that Success prepares its teachers well. “You know the material at such a high level that it gives you a real confidence in the classroom,” one teacher stated.

And the kicker:

Even critical former teachers credited the network with having improved their craft.

Which brings me to the other focal point: shared responsibility for teaching quality. Once you have a shared curriculum, you have a platform for helping teachers improve. You have a reasonable basis for comparing performance and figuring out what’s more and less effective. Comparing one teacher’s lesson on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to another’s on Esperanza Rising really is comparing apples to oranges. In contrast, shared curriculum leads to shared knowledge and shared pedagogical content knowledge.

Of course, the curriculum alone does not do this; the system has to believe in shared responsibility for teaching quality. Sahm quotes Moskowitz as saying, “It really is the level of preparation of the teacher and the teacher really understanding the book, the poem, the read-aloud…how much feedback the teacher gets.” Novice teachers and principals are placed in apprenticeship-type positions and given lots of time and feedback to hone their craft. Expert teachers and leaders are responsible for supporting others.

In all, Sahm has given us a valuable look inside Success Academies. He remains duly skeptical, but impressed. The one spot where I think he stumbles is in wondering, “If tests are high quality and well aligned with a high-quality curriculum, is ‘teaching to the test’ necessarily bad?” He continues:

I visited a 4th-grade English class where a boy was asked to identify the main idea from a short story. He started to retell the story. The teacher corrected him, and, with gentle prodding, he identified the author’s central point. Some might call that “test prep” because there are main-idea questions on the state exam. But it’s also a skill that’ll make that boy a better reader and communicator.

The problem is that the test is not aligned to the curriculum. To be aligned, the test would have to sample the knowledge in the curriculum, not just the skills. In math, the tests are aligned—the Common Core standards clearly state what math knowledge and skills students must acquire each year, and the tests cover both. But in language arts and literacy, the Common Core standards only state the skills—they do not say what knowledge students must acquire. Finding the main idea is a skill—and it depends on having knowledge of the topic in the text.

The fact that the actual knowledge needed for the reading tests is unpredictable is the reason why Success Academies get much better results in math than in reading. In math, it is possible to fully prepare for the test by teaching all of the required knowledge and skills. But in reading, the best one can do is to have students practice the skills while acquiring broad knowledge. The broader the students’ knowledge, the higher the odds that they’ll have the knowledge needed for whatever passages are on the test. This is why there is such a strong correlation between reading scores and socioeconomic status. Kids with better-educated parents tend to have broader knowledge.

According to Sahm, Success Academies have a broad, rich, specific, shared curriculum. Their reading achievement leads me to believe that’s true. And, their professed love of E. D. Hirsch is a good sign too! Which leaves just one question: Will the Success Academy network release its curriculum? The Core Knowledge Sequence and Core Knowledge Language Arts are online for free. From the beginning, Hirsch has hoped for another Sequence—another specific, rich, broad approach to educating children. Success Academies seem to have it, so I hope they’ll share.

Reading Comprehension: There’s No Workaround for Knowledge

by Guest Blogger
April 13th, 2015

By Greg Ashman

Greg Ashman is a teacher in Australia. Supported by his school (but not necessarily representing its views), he has developed a love of educational research. Ashman is  now pursuing a PhD. This post originally appeared on his blog, Filling the Pail.

To mark the recent cricket world cup, I thought it might be a good idea to quote a section from a BBC report on the semi-final match between Australia and India:

“…Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.”

If you are reading this then you are probably an educated person. I suspect that you can decode all of the words in that quote with ease. However, I am uncertain as to whether you will have comprehended it. This will depend, I suggest, on how much you know about cricket.

What if you read through it slowly, asking yourself questions about the quote as you go along? If you struggled with the quote then try this. Does it help?


Watching a match or reading about it, knowledge is essential to comprehension (cricket photo courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Strategies such as self-questioning do clearly lead to greater comprehension. There is little doubt about this. And interestingly, the most effective way to teach such strategies appears to be with explicit instruction, even if they do seems to resolve down to just two strategies; questioning and summarising. However, if you don’t know what an “off-break” is then you may still struggle with the cricket quote, regardless of how many times you stop to ask yourself questions.

This might not matter a great deal. I am sure that many people pass through life knowing little of cricket and caring even less. But what if the passage was about a political situation; one that affected the reader? Perhaps the reader, if well-informed, would want to use her democratic rights to protest. Yet when she reads the relevant report in the New York Times, on the BBC website or after following a Twitter link, she finds that she cannot comprehend the relevant texts because they are full of the equivalents of ‘off-breaks’ and ‘back-of-a-length’ bowling.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Instead of simply teaching comprehension strategies, we could also ensure that students leave school in possession of the bodies of knowledge that are likely to be needed to understand common sources of information; knowledge that is historical, political, scientific and literary. This is the argument of E. D. Hirsch. It is difficult to fault scientifically or logically; background knowledge clearly does aid comprehension.

Hirsch goes further. He argues that children from the most deprived backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to move schools frequently. These children will suffer if they end up learning about the Ancient Egyptians three times but never hear of Apartheid. And so this leads to the logic of a common curriculum, shared across schools; not a particularly radical notion in those countries with a national curriculum like the UK or Australia. Unfortunately, the idea has created the opportunity for people to misunderstand Hirsch. The charge is that he is trying to impose his view of a white, middle-class, male, European, Judeo-Christian culture on diverse groups of people.

This is far from Hirsch’s aim. He references the New York Times and asks what knowledge is required in order to comprehend it. So Hirsch takes an empirical line. If you have a beef with anyone for trying to define culture then you need to take it up with the New York Times or BBC journalists. Hirsch is not the guilty party.

But what of relevance?

Is it appropriate to teach children from diverse backgrounds about Shakespeare? He is dead, white, male and European. Perhaps a different playwright might be more contemporary and relevant? Perhaps. But if the newspapers are full of inferences and allusions that require a passing familiarity with Shakespeare then these students will be disadvantaged. And such knowledge may serve the revolutionary and the subversive well. As Sun Tzu advises us; know your enemies and know yourself.

However, I think I can sympathise with Hirsch’s critics. It seems unfair that the inequities of the past would define what we teach our students today. Teachers tend to be idealists, after all. Perhaps we can get around the requirement for background knowledge if we teach transferable comprehensions strategies. This way, when our students don’t understand a text they can apply one of these strategies and thus understand it. We would then be free to reset the clock and select content that best suited our personal views about what is most relevant to our students. We would be free from the tyranny of culture as it actually exists.

And reading comprehension strategies are promising in this regard. They clearly have some effect. There is strong evidence for this.

Although they also seem a bit dull. Would your students rather learn about the Ancient Egyptians or a strategy for asking themselves questions whilst reading prose? And what if reading scores don’t improve much? Then we’ll need more of this strategy instruction and less of other things; music or art or science.

This would be an error. It seems that instruction in reading comprehension strategies provides a boost but it is a limited one. A short course will do as much good as a long one and so these strategies probably shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the curriculum. Rather, they should be perhaps revisited from time-to-time in the context of something else; a unit on government, perhaps.

The reality is that we cannot develop a workaround for background knowledge. Perhaps we need to embrace this reality and start to celebrate the beauty that lies in knowing about our world. This might have the added benefit of raising reading comprehension levels.