Writing for Understanding

by Lisa Hansel
November 17th, 2015

Back in 2003, Sam Wineburg, a history professor at Stanford, published a little essay (or quick rant) titled “Power Pointless.” I can’t find it online now, but it amounted to a plea to have students write papers instead of merely creating presentations. Bullet points can hide incomplete understandings; essays tend to reveal them.

Wineburg’s piece stuck with me because I’ve found it to be true even with well-developed presentations. I’ve attended the National History Day finals a few times, for example, and even at that high level I’ve found students who wrote papers to be much better prepared to answer questions. A focused essay with supporting details that are logically presented in well-connected paragraphs requires deep understanding and analysis, as well as writing skills.

And yet, especially with younger students, it can be difficult to determine the challenges underlying poorly written essays. Is the child still struggling with forming letters, spelling, punctuation, etc. such that she can’t express her understanding? Is she unfocused or unorganized? Or has she not developed much understanding?

Five teachers committed to improving students’ writing confronted those questions. In their classrooms, the widely used writing process is “significant, necessary, and vital,” but “not enough.” Through classroom R&D, they found that while students need to develop writing skills—from basic mechanics to sophisticated structures—problems are often grounded in a lack of understanding. Kids are asked to write before they’ve had a chance to learn much about their topic.

With over 130 years of teaching experience between them, these five teachers developed Writing for Understanding, an approach that emphasizes building and organizing knowledge as essential preparation for writing. They’ve written a terrific book that mixes cognitive science with their experiences as teachers and professional development providers. With everything from the rationale to explicit planning guidance to student writing samples, it’s a must read.

Here’s a small taste, drawn from the introduction and chapter 1:

Our work has convinced us that, even with a thoughtful question, many students fail when they write. This failure occurs … because they don’t have sufficient knowledge in the first place. No matter how thought-provoking the question is, one cannot reflect on knowledge one does not have. One cannot analyze information that is sketchy, inaccurate, or poorly understood. One cannot synthesize from nothing. It is up to teachers, then, to provide activities and experiences that give students knowledge and help them construct meaning from that knowledge….

It has long been a truism that one should write about what one knows; all writers know this, all teachers of writing or teachers who use writing in their classes know this. This truism has often led, however, to the idea that one should write about only what one already knows, or at the very least decide for oneself about what to learn and write.

One of the unintended consequences of this assumption has been that teachers have frequently not paid sufficient attention to how students actually acquired the knowledge about which they would write. In writing from personal experience, the knowledge could be assumed; after all, the knowledge was the writer’s own life events or ideas or reflections.

Because of this emphasis, the corollary to “write about what you know” has frequently not been articulated—that you should “know about what you write.” As a result, deliberate, intentional planning for knowledge building has not often been a part of the writing teacher’s approach….

Writing for Understanding is an approach that recognizes … that at the heart of effective writing, by any accepted definition, is the building of meaning and expression so that others can follow the writer’s thinking. Therefore, Writing for Understanding postulates that if students are to write effectively and with engagement—during testing, for their own personal growth, for school, for real life—they need to have certain elements in place. These elements are:

    • knowledge and understanding which can be articulated in spoken and written language
    • an appropriate focus for thinking about and synthesizing that knowledge and understanding
    • a structure through which to clearly develop and present that knowledge and understanding
    • control over conventions.

The rest of the book offers rich information for teachers on planning for understanding and supporting transfer of students’ writing ability—including the ability to learn about new topics to prepare for effective writing.

For a peek into a school that recently adopted Writing for Understanding—and some Listening & Learning domains from Core Knowledge Language Arts—take a look at these short videos:

ANet 1 (2)

ANet 2

AP Hunger Games

by Guest Blogger
November 10th, 2015

By Brooke Haycock

Brooke Haycock, senior playwright-researcher with The Education Trust, primarily develops and performs docudramas based on interviews with students and educators to deepen understanding of educational data and the equity debate. This post was originally published as part of Ed Trust’s Between the Echoes blog series, which offers glimpses of students’ experiences. As Ed Trust notes, “All stories are based on interviews or first-hand accounts, but are shared with respect for the privacy of students and the adults around them.”


“Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor.” – The Hunger Games

She walked onto the campus with confidence. Head high, stride purposeful, hair a shock of rebellious pink, and boots broadcasting that she was not to be messed with.

She’d been chosen to be there. One of just a few rising juniors from her high school across town. Crossing borders to join an elite group of mostly privileged private-school students for a summer Advanced Placement English enrichment/prep program on a prestigious college campus. She had come there the hard way. Had earned it.

She and her classmates were ready.

Or so she thought.

The teacher asked them to pull out the first book they’d be reading that fall in AP in their schools.

The private school students’ backpacks unfurled as they reached for their copies of The Odyssey and works by authors like Emerson and Goethe.

“And we pull out,” she paused for effect, “The Hunger Games.”

From there, it was one jolt after the next.

“Everything in this summer program, like, every single class is conversation. And just constantly, as you read, as you discuss, you’re taking deep notes. You’re constantly taking notes and learning.”

She described how different this was from instruction in her pre-AP English class and her AP world history class the year before. “I feel like we spent too much time learning to take the test and not enough time on content. And all of the content that we got was either straight lecture, like the teacher talking completely, totally on her own the whole time. Or, um, from the text. We read two chapters every week of the text.” And the text she described was a far cry from the ones she was encountering in this summer program.

“In this summer program, we read only original authors. So you’re reading Lucretius, you’re reading, um, Aristotle. Those are the ones we read in our one week there. Um, Metamorphosis of Plants by Goethe. And, to me, it was just so crazy, like, how many of those kids knew those things already and had been exposed to them.”

“It just really struck me as unfair. We’re going to be taking the same AP test. The same exact test. We need to know the same exact things.”

Despite her and her schoolmates’ hunger for it, that’s not the exposure and preparation they were getting. As if they’d been offered the wrapper but real AP content and rigor was somehow determined a bite bigger than they could chew.

Now back in her regular school, she sits in class and opens her worn copy of Hunger Games to the dog-eared page in chapter seven, and continues to read as the main character, Katniss, realizes she must fight a battle for which she was underprepared.

There’s nothing I can do but continue with the plan. I walk to my archery station… Bows made of wood and plastic and metal and materials I can’t even name. Arrows with feathers cut in flawless uniform lines. I choose a bow, string it, and sling the matching quiver of arrows over my shoulder… I walk to the center of the gymnasium and pick my first target. Even as I pull back on the bow I know something is wrong. The string’s tighter than the one I use at home. The arrow’s more rigid. I miss by a couple of inches and lose what little attention I had been commanding. For a moment, I’m humiliated, then I head back to the bull’s-eye. I shoot again and again until I get the feel of these new weapons.

She dog-ears the page, closes the book, and reaches into her book bag. She pulls out a copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis on loan from the library. If her school won’t prepare her, she’ll have to prepare herself.


How many more students are ready to fly? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Learn more about the experiences of low-income students and students of color at the high end of the achievement spectrum in Ed Trust’s “Falling Out of the Lead.” 


“Putting Real Food on the Plate”

by Lisa Hansel
September 2nd, 2015

“I am in the medical field and while I ‘hated’ learning anatomy, I am not sure you would want me to treat you unless I had it memorized,” writes LSC from Seattle. That’s just one of the hundreds of comments in response to a terrific op-ed by Natalie Wexler in the New York Times.

Wexler begins by addressing a growing blame-the-tests myth:

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, 25 years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about 50 minutes a day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects — but only by about 10 minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills — strategies like “finding the main idea” — rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

While I found the supportive comments by professionals in medicine, higher education, and other fields heartening, what really grabbed me were the comments from teachers. The vast majority see the futility of trying to cultivate skills with “a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next,” as Wexler writes—and they’re hungry for a more balanced, substantive approach.


Wexler’s article generated over 200 online comments, most of which showed strong support for teaching skills as a facet of teaching essential academic knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Here are some of the comments that jumped out:

You see this in much science teaching, too, where a great deal of time is spent on “the scientific method” – a simplified version, and often taught in a rote manner with mantras of “hypothesis, experiment, conclusion” — but little time is spent mastering the great systematic body of knowledge about how the material world works. Geology — evolution of our earth, recognizing different types of rocks, reading the landscape. Biology — a basic knowledge of the different categories and types of living things, evolution, anatomy, genetics. I could go on — but the point is, knowing how the world works, in and of itself, is important. Ignorance can lead to disaster, as voters and as individuals.

Yes, teach us HOW we learn — but also teach us WHAT we’ve learned, and what we still don’t know. Otherwise, it’s like teaching us how to use a knife and fork — but never putting any real food on the plate.
— Kathy Wendorff, Wisconsin

Thank you! This might be the best column about education that I have ever read in the NY Times. As a public school teacher for almost 15 years, it is obvious that knowledge is the key ingredient. In theory, the Common Core places greater importance on knowledge- which is good. Unfortunately, everything else that most teachers, students, and parents encounter sends a very different message. In NYS, the state tests, teacher evaluation rubrics, and talking points of school administrators (as well as politicians and most media reports- including those in the Times) almost always emphasize the need for skills (especially so-called “21st Century skills”) and downplay, or even openly belittle knowledge as outdated, boring facts that require “rote memorization”. As a liberal who believes that improving educational achievement for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is one of the most important issues facing our nation, I am truly thankful for this column which will hopefully help chip away at the skills over knowledge myth that prevents us from really making progress in achieving better education for all.
—J. Adams, Upstate NY

I was at a staff meeting about 5 years ago when the English K-12 Coordinator pronounced: “Facts are dead. There’s NO reason to learn facts.” At another curriculum planning session … another supervisor peered over my shoulder as I was typing & said, “Why do they need to learn Shakespeare anyway?” … This may surprise ‘reformers,’ but many teachers have been teaching based on their own expertise, despite all the mindless manic ‘solutions.’ I teach Shakespeare & facts no matter what. And main idea too.
—dcl, New Jersey

As a teacher who has been struggling to teach abstract concepts like “Find the Main Idea” to fourth graders, I really appreciate this essay…. Standard reading textbooks, as the article points out, flit from one unrelated subject to another, and for many children, it all feels like so many abstract and irrelevant exercises. A thoughtfully crafted sequence of readings on a related theme of interest to children would not only give students a mastery over a body of knowledge, but also make learning skills like “find the main idea” much more relevant and meaningful.
—Ann, Kempton, PA

As a teacher of 5 years, I was told to only teach skills and was reprimanded for not doing so. This is a bigger conversation that needs to enlighten how entire districts and states see curriculum.
—Samantha, DC

Yes, the problem is that no amount of skill based learning can replace content and background information…. Students need historical and cultural knowledge (actual content) to be able to fully understand what they are reading. How can they get “the main idea” if they don’t understand what the ideas are in the first place because they don’t know the meaning of words or the allusion to a particular mythical or historical event? Content must come first! As a teacher with over 30 years of experience, I am amused by the many “innovative” skills and methodologies: KWL chars, TPCAST, SOAPSTONE, Essential questions and more “exciting” ways of teaching and learning, yet what good are these if you don’t know what you’re reading, writing, and speaking about?
—Sara, Cincinnati

As a teacher in Florida, I can verify the accuracy of this. My students spend two whole months taking tests in a school year of 180 days. There are huge gaps in their content knowledge — and they have no context for the little knowledge they do have.
—L Owen, Florida

It cheered me to read this article. Next week, I head back to school to work with a faculty which is half vehemently against the Core, half more or less just going with the flow. A 3rd grade teacher last May was heard by anyone with ears to hear that “those tests are so unfair! I never taught my kids ANY of that stuff that was on that test!” Well, unwittingly, she hit the nail on the head. She didn’t teach knowledge: she is a skills enthusiast.
— Emmett Hoops, Saranac Lake, NY

In Defense of Facts

by Lisa Hansel
July 16th, 2015

One of my favorite blogs is by Katie Ashford, the director of inclusion at Michaela Community School in London (where another favorite blogger, Joe Kirby, is head of English). Ashford believes all children are capable of tackling rigorous content, and she mixes a strong research base with practical advice. In a recent post, she does the unthinkable: she defends rote memorization.

As much as I disliked memorizing in school, now I’m glad I put in the effort. Math facts, historical dates, poems, quotes—these things rattling around in my head actually make my day-to-day life easier and more interesting. But in talking about education, I rarely admit that I value memorization. I fear feeding those who wrongly assume that the Core Knowledge Sequence really is a list of facts to be memorized, rather than a scaffold for building a rich, engaging curriculum.

So I’m delighted to see Ashford making the case, and Michaela’s students proving the point:

Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge-rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school….

Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, … rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with … one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs….

In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was….

My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Ramses II stone head. British Museum, London, UK

Ramses II, in the British Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

From Dull to Vibrant: How Core Knowledge Provided an Excellent Platform for Student Writing

by Guest Blogger
April 30th, 2015

By Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds has been teaching for over ten years in grades K-2; she currently teaches second grade at Diedrichsen Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada. Diedrichsen is located in a middle- to lower-socioeconomic neighborhood, with 44% of students being of low-SES background. The student exemplars presented in this article are from a student that is in the lower 30% of Reynolds’s class. All of her students, except two special education students, are able to accomplish these writing tasks with very similar outcomes.

Not long ago, I dreaded my second grade students’ writing. I agonized over helping them have something meaningful to say, elaborating on their ideas, and adding information and details. Despite my best efforts, their writings were often flat, repetitive, and rigid.

Today, I truly look forward to my students’ writing activities—especially their final products.

Here are three excerpts from a recent assignment in which my students wrote as if they were participants in early America’s Westward Expansion:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

My students’ writing changed when I began teaching Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA). At first, I did not see the potential for their writing, but as I tried different strategies and organizational tools, their writing transformed, becoming reflective and thorough. When students are given an opportunity to build knowledge and a way to organize what they’ve learned, their writing thrives. They are motivated to share their newly formed thoughts and ideas. Having taught second grade for six years, I’ve found some of their finished projects quite amazing.

In my class, we use a four-step process to produce great writing:

1. Build Background Knowledge. First, I begin our writing projects by building my students’ knowledge and vocabulary through listening to and discussing CKLA’s read-alouds. The read-alouds are grouped by topic; each topic takes two to three weeks and has ten or so read-alouds. My students have learned about fascinating domains like Greek Myths, Cycles in Nature, and Immigration. At the conclusion of each read-aloud, my students answer comprehension questions and discuss key details from the story with their peers, as CKLA suggests. We use this time to clarify misconceptions and deepen understanding. Listening and speaking about the content really helps them gain knowledge and grasp concepts.

2. Transition Oral to Written: Students then participate in some sort of writing exercise, such as whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea—anything that helps them take the content they’ve heard and write it out. This helps them solidify their understanding. We do this with almost every read-aloud. Sometimes it’s independent, sometimes it’s in small cooperative groups, and sometimes it’s whole group.

3. Organize Information: Once we finished all or most of the read-alouds for a given topic, I provide my students with a graphic organizer to help them organize and build their writing piece. Throughout CKLA’s domains, we use a variety of different forms of writing such as narrative, informational, argumentative/opinion, reflective, or a friendly letter.

4. Publish: Once the graphic organized is filled out, they begin a rough draft. What they bring to each part of their story is truly amazing and individualized. Although you will see some of the same ideas, no two stories are alike. They each carry their own voice and their own selection of details. After completing a draft, they edit their writing independently for mechanics and grammar, and have a peer edit it for a second time. After self-editing and peer-editing is complete, I conference with them individually to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing. At long last, they rewrite their rough draft into a final copy and finish with an illustration.

For the domain on Westward Expansion, which has nine read-alouds, I chose to use the CKLA activity of creating quilt squares and ultimately a final quilt. This engaged the students in writing every day about key ideas. After each read-aloud, I began by having them brainstorm a list of key ideas and details from the read-aloud. Then they filled in their individual quilt square template (which is provided in the CKLA Westward Expansion Anthology’s workbook pages).


Here’s a sample from one of my students. The front of the quilt square has key details and phrases, as well as an illustration of the story.


The back of the quilt square has a summary of the story’s main ideas and details.


Once they are assembled, student’s individual quilt squares help them create a writing piece that conceptualizes their leaning.


Here is the final quilt that I made alongside my students. (It’s much easier to read because I did mine in black ink instead of pencil.) As they completed their squares, I did the same. We enjoyed sharing our pieces as we completed them. Once all squares were completed, I put my quilt together as an example for them to follow. We glued them onto a 24” X 24” colored piece of chart paper, and we talked about making a 3 X 3 array on each side being careful to line up the right fronts and backs.



For this particular domain on Westward Expansion, I chose to have them write a narrative piece about traveling west with their families and what they may encounter on their journey.  The graphic organizer I used, shown below, breaks down each part of their story into smaller pieces, so that students are not overwhelmed by the breadth of the information they need to cover or hindered in trying to organize all of it. I give my students one prompt and topic sentence a day to work on from “sloppy copy” to final copy. The activity takes about 30-45 minutes a day as I have them use their new knowledge (and often background knowledge developed in prior domains) to develop each part of the story. Since they’ve also been writing and summarizing information every day on the same topic, they have a nice repertoire of information to pull from.

DR Directions for journey west Narrative


Voilà! A beautiful and meaningful masterpiece…written by a second grader!







An appraisal of Core Knowledge Language Arts

by Guest Blogger
April 21st, 2015

By Ilene Shafran

Ilene Shafran is a 2nd-grade teacher at PS 34 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This appraisal was originally published as a Teacher to Teacher column in the New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers, and was posted on the UFT website. The opinion expressed in the column is the author’s own and should not be construed as an endorsement by the union.

As a 24-year veteran of teaching in elementary school, I have seen literacy programs come and go. Each new program that claims to be “Common Core-aligned” always seems to fall short of experienced teachers’ expectations. So when I finally had the opportunity to try out and pilot a Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum that I felt had potential, I jumped at the chance.

The program, which is called Core Knowledge Language Arts, is the recommended New York State ELA curriculum for elementary schools. All the materials are available on the EngageNY website. I admit that when you first look at this program, it seems overwhelming and daunting. But I have found that the advantages of getting to know this curriculum on an intimate level far outweigh the risks of being lost in a sea of learning objectives.

Any longtime teacher will tell you that there is no magic, all-encompassing curriculum that is perfect right out of the box. As educators, we know that ELA curriculum needs to be adapted to meet the needs and demands of our students, whether they are struggling readers or high-achieving students. Good teaching means we adapt and differentiate the best that we can with the resources we have available to us.

When I piloted Core Knowledge Language Arts at my school last year, I was generally familiar with the components and basic premise of this program from my work as a New York City Common Core Fellows member, who for two years evaluated different types of Common Core-aligned curriculum options.

The program has two main components: First, there are 10 to 12 domains, or units, depending on the grade, that are heavily content-based (in social studies, history and science) and focus on vast academic vocabulary, background knowledge, critical thinking skills and class discussions. Then, there is a second component that focuses on reading skills, allowing teachers to meet reading foundational standards. Students have their own readers and skill workbooks to practice these important skills. The program is designed to meet students where they are and help them grow as readers.

So far, teachers at my school see our students engaged in the content as well as the vocabulary. Students participate in turn-and-talk discussions about real-world events and form opinions about real-world learning.

There are a few challenges with the program. Each lesson begins with a list of core content objectives as well as language arts objectives. Teacher teams need to come together and make instructional decisions on which ones to focus on in the classroom. Collaboration and sharing of ideas are essential for getting through these extensive lesson plans. Individual teachers also need to determine the needs of their students and choose the objectives that will be most effective in meeting their needs.

The lessons are rigorous, and questioning is extensive. Lessons are delivered in 60-minute blocks of time (60 minutes for listening and learning and 60 minutes for skills). In addition, teachers need to plan for independent reading and guided reading times. There is a lot of oral discussion, which is good for developing critical thinking and lends itself well to developing writing activities; however, the writing extensions included in the daily lessons are hit-or-miss. Some activities have perfect writing activities and some lack writing tie-ins altogether, so teachers will need to develop their own writing activities.

The listening-and-learning strand is primarily focused on teacher read-aloud and questioning, which means teachers will need to develop more interactive discussion through accountable talk. It is always a challenge to engage all of our students in discussions. This program lends itself to think/pair/share discussions with rich questioning and discussion topics.

Because of the large volume of vocabulary taught in each lesson, teachers also need to provide additional instructional opportunities to reinforce the new vocabulary. The skills strand is designed to meet students at their current reading level and support their growth throughout the school year.

In my 2nd-grade classroom, my students are eager to learn and discuss some grown-up topics thanks to this curriculum. It is allowing me and my fellow teachers to meet the demands of the Common Core — not in terms of testing, but in terms of meeting the high expectations we have for all of our students.

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.


Nothing in Common

by Lisa Hansel
February 24th, 2015

According to a recent survey, fifty-five percent of Americans believe that the Common Core standards address “sex education, evolution, global warming and the American Revolution.” Pro or con, left-leaning or right-leaning, misperceptions were widespread. Sadly, the problem isn’t merely lack of information—it’s misinformation: there were more mistaken beliefs about what’s in the Common Core among those who say they are informed about the standards than those who say they are not.

I’m tempted to dismiss these results as yet another sad-but-funny commentary on American politics. We’ve got more passion than reason, but perhaps that’s the human condition.

And yet, I can’t dismiss them. I think they are a symptom of a systemic problem in education: We talk past each other. Pretty much nothing in education is well defined. Take “standards” and “curriculum.” Some people use them as synonyms; others (like me) see a huge gulf between the two (e.g., ELA standards rarely specify what to teach). We’ve got lots of jargon, but very little to help us understand each other. Coleridge captured our predicament: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a few opportunities to push past that jargon in long, detailed conversations with educators. Educators are so busy that such conversations are rare; I feel fortunate to have spent hours speaking with educators in California, Texas, and Georgia. Speaking with them essentially back to back, one thing became clear: each one had a different concept of what teaching is. They all used the same jargon, but fundamentally, what they meant by “teaching” was very different—and had very different implications for their students.

For one teacher, to “teach” a topic or skill just meant to cover it. She hadn’t considered the impact on the students. (I think this notion of teaching is pretty unusual these days—it has been many years since I last encountered it.)

Another teacher focused on students’ comprehension. He had “taught” only if his students understood all the essential concepts in the lesson. My best guess is that this notion of teaching is fairly widespread. If students don’t even grasp the lesson, most teachers will rethink their approach and try again. That sounds pretty good, but is it enough? Is comprehension the same thing as learning? Unfortunately, no.

Only one teacher conceived of “teaching” as a variety of activities that are intentionally designed for students to get something new into their long-term memories. This, to me, should be the definition of teaching. Likewise, the definition of learning should be adding something to your long-term memory.


Is it really useful to have many different ideas of what teaching is? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Even though plenty of teachers will say long-term retention is a goal, much of the instruction I’ve seen seems designed mainly for comprehension, not retention. Wanting to be sure students understand a text, for example, a teacher will lead a really interesting, well-planned, text-based discussion. So far, so good. But then, seeing that the students got it, the teacher moves on. New text, new topic, new concept to comprehend.

The teacher I spoke with who focuses on long-term memory argued that most teachers move on way too soon (usually because they feel like they have to). Comprehension is important, but not sufficient to support future learning. She had realized this after many years in the classroom, but there’s actually a body of research on it. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham has written about the difference between familiarity and recollection; it seems to me that familiarity is what you get is you teach for comprehension but move on before ensuring retention. Here’s Willingham in American Educator:

Psychologists distinguish between familiarity and recollection. Familiarity is the knowledge of having seen or otherwise experienced some stimulus before, but having little information associated with it in your memory. Recollection, on the other hand, is characterized by richer associations. For example, a young student might be familiar with George Washington (he knows he was a President and maybe that there’s a holiday named after him), whereas an older student could probably recollect a substantial narrative about him….

Although familiarity and recollection are different, an insidious effect of familiarity is that it can give you the feeling that you know something when you really don’t.

This “insidious effect” is something all teachers and students should know about. I’ll take a closer look at teaching for retention in my next post.

While I deeply appreciate the time all of these teachers gave me, my only regret is that we could not all speak at once. I’d love to hear how the “coverage” and “comprehension” teachers would react to the “retention” teacher. Perhaps, if teachers were given time to collaborate within and across schools (just as other professionals have time to engage each other), then eventually the education field would have common understandings and a shared path to improvement.