Sunday, March 29, 2009

Obsession: Reading requires knowledge

E.D. Hirsch started an important 2006 article this way:
Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

Typically, a literate British person would know all the words in the sentence yet wouldn’t comprehend it. (In fairness, most Americans would be equally baffled by a sentence about the sport of cricket.) To understand this sentence about Jones and his sacrifice, you need a wealth of relevant background knowledge that goes beyond vocabulary and syntax—relevant knowledge that is far broader than the words of the sentence.
Hirsch's big point is that, once students crack the basic code and can sound out words, the rest of reading is about understanding new text by connecting it to what they already know. He writes:
The point of this example is that knowledge of content and of the vocabulary acquired through learning about content are fundamental to successful reading comprehension; without broad knowledge, children’s reading comprehension will not improve and their scores on reading comprehension tests will not budge upwards either.
I think this idea is a huge part of how family advantages translate into school success: children of more educated parents get more of the helpful background knowledge at home.

I also think it's why middle school teachers always say kids aren't learning to read in elementary school: the students have good generic decoding skills but don't have the conceptual background to make sense of science and social studies texts.

Finally, this idea is why I'm obsessed with serious content from the earliest days of school. I want it taught anyway that works, from seeing plants grow to building models of the solar system, from acting out the Mayflower to sharing songs about Abraham Lincoln. That work helps students begin building a mental web of reading-and-science, and reading-and-history, and reading-and-economics. The stronger that web is early, the more prepared they will be to use books later in school to get more knowledge, with depth and detail, connected to the topics they understand early on.

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