Core Knowledge nonfiction curriculum proves better than ‘balanced literacy’

by Grace

Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools that used methods that have been encouraged since the Bloomberg administration’s early days, according to a new study to be released Monday….

The less-effective curriculum, used in most public schools today, is called “balanced literacy”.  The approach that proved more effective in this study is part of the Core Knowledge program, designed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

Under the balanced literacy approach, which was used by seven of the comparison schools and remains the most popular method of teaching reading in the city’s schools, children are encouraged to develop a love of reading by choosing books that are of interest to them. Teachers spend less time directing instruction, and more time overseeing students as they work together.

Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts. While the curriculum allows children to read fiction, it also calls on them to knowledgeably discuss weather patterns, the solar system, and how ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia compare.

This principal still prefers balanced literacy for higher income students, believing Core Knowledge is only better for poor children.

“I like balanced literacy, I do; I think that it works well, especially for children who are coming into school having been read to every single day,” said Katie Grady, principal … “For my children, who are economically disadvantaged, they needed something more, and the Core Knowledge pilot had it,” Ms. Grady said….

A friend from a nearby school district pointed out that many middle- and upper-class parents would also prefer Core Knowledge for their own children.  She understands, as a college instructor married to a college professor, that even well-educated parents want their public schools to maintain high standards. Core Knowledge’s emphasis on nonfiction, historical fiction and classic literature is in contrast to balanced literacy’s focus on contemporary literature that is considered more “relevant” to students.  The young adult (YA) sections of libraries are well stocked with this genre, typified by stories of teen anguish and social injustice.

One example of such YA literature is The Outsiders, a young adult novel with a 5.1 reading level that has become a standard assignment in many middle schools. It doesn’t hurt that showing the movie version in class is an ideal way for teachers to fulfill mandated multimedia “21st century” skills instruction.  It sounds like a good time for students, but I agree with my friend when she expresses what she would have preferred for her son who attended public school out here in the affluent suburbs.

If we’d had the Core Knowledge sequence, he could have read The Outsiders for fun here at home while reading Longfellow, Dickinson, and Langston Hughes with his teacher at school.

Rich or poor, highly educated or high school dropout, it seems parents must often do much of the heavy lifting in content instruction while the schools are doing the fun “relevant” projects in the classroom.

Related:  Schools will use tracking and more nonfiction reading to improve achievement

One Comment to “Core Knowledge nonfiction curriculum proves better than ‘balanced literacy’”

  1. Oh, that’s interesting about the “forbidden” aspect. I think some other kids actually welcome it when forbidden literature is brought into the classroom.


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