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2nd May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 2, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Why do poor children have so much trouble learning to read? One of our nation’s great educational theorists, E.D. Hirsch Jr., and a number of other researchers, writing in the current edition of American Educator, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, have an answer. They present a compelling argument that the primary reason these children fall behind is a huge vocabulary deficit. This deficit puts them at an increasing disadvantage as they get older and the material they must read becomes more complex. Mr. Hirsch is the author of “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them,” the book I generously purchased for the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, when he assumed his job last summer. Unfortunately, Mr. Klein seems to have lost his copy. None of the educational decisions he has made so far reflect an understanding of Mr. Hirsch’s sound ideas.

According to Mr. Hirsch, “A 12 thgrade student who scores well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into a selective college knows between 60,000 and 100,000 words.” If we average this out to 80,000 words, and assume that the period of vocabulary acquisition of our high school senior is the 15 years between age 2 and 17, our student needs to learn an average of fifteen words a day. This is not going to happen in school alone. “Most vocabulary words,” Mr. Hirsch argues, result “incidentally, from massive immersion in the world of language and knowledge.”
The shortfall in vocabulary is easy enough to explain. A study by well-regarded researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, which also appears in the current issue of American Educator, concludes that the number of words children hear addressed to them increases dramatically with family income. A child of professionals is likely to hear as many as 50 million words by age 4. The child of a welfare parent may be exposed to just a quarter of that number.

This is an oversimplification, though. The situation is actually worse. Children in higher-income homes hear words of higher quality, and many more of those words are designed to give encouragement. By age 3, a child from a poor household can face a 30 million word gap compared to children from better-off homes. This deficit severely hampers poor children’s potential for academic success.

Unfortunately, the reading programs in place and those being implemented later this year in New York City don’t address the issue of vocabulary. So, what can be done to remedy the situation? A number of strategies are discussed by Mr. Hirsch and his colleagues, but the most promising is a return to content in the classroom.

In many American schools, two or more hours are devoted each day to “literacy.” Most of this time goes to waste. Children are taught “reading strategies,” such as “inferencing,” predicting, classifying, and “looking for the main idea.” These are devices designed not to increase specific knowledge, but to increase test scores, independent of real knowledge.

Mr. Hirsch advises that most of this period be devoted to activities that “foster vocabulary, domain knowledge and fluency.” He writes, “Such knowledge could be conveyed through read-alouds, well-conceived vocabulary instruction, and a variety of cumulative activities that immerse children in word and world knowledge.”

“Domain knowledge” is the threshold level of knowledge needed to understand a topic. Mr. Hirsch uses the example of a newspaper article on baseball. If you know nothing of the game, you can’t comprehend a sentence such as: “Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.” The more domain knowledge acquired, the easier it becomes to read and understand a wider variety of material.

The central thesis of Mr. Hirsch’s philosophy is that in today’s schools, the teaching of the kind of specific knowledge you need to become a fully literate individual is woefully inadequate. The texts and literature used in most American elementary schools are, for the most part, of a trivial nature. There is no shortage of material on topics like pets and sharing, but little on history, geography, and science.

One solution is to vastly increase the amount of non-fiction reading material available to children in our classrooms. There is no reason why content knowledge can’t be integrated into the language-arts curriculum. Putting content back into the classroom just might bring an end to the horror stories of children who can’t locate the Pacific Ocean on a map or identify the combatants in World War II.

Unfortunately, we have heard nothing from Mr. Klein, the deputy chancellor for instruction, Diana Lam, the 10 regional superintendents, or anyone else in the new Tweed Ring, about restoring content-based curriculum.

It is significant that this dialogue is emanating from the AFT. Exploring these issues is in the best tradition of the former head of the AFT, the late Albert Shanker, a union leader who took the task of advancing his profession as seriously as protecting the interests of his members. Mr. Shanker was an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Hirsch, and served on the board of directors of Mr. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The current AFT president, Sandra Feldman, occupies that seat today. Any organization that has room on its board for Ms. Feldman and the astute educational historian Diane Ravitch must be on the right track.
That a teachers union is willing to challenge the progressive orthodoxy that currently drives instruction is a hopeful sign. Those who view the unions as implacable defenders of the status quo ought to carefully study the contents of American Edu
cator, which is available online, at the AFT’s Web site.This could well be the middle ground on which to base the movement for real reform of our schools — from the classroom on up, rather than from the Tweed Courthouse on down.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.


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