Archive for November 7th, 2013

November 7, 2013

Schools can raise achievement levels by assigning more nonfiction reading

by Grace

Reading ability is largely synonymous with content knowledge.

Once children learn to decode words and sentences, however, their reading ability becomes largely synonymous with their content knowledge. As Hirsch has shown, it’s knowledge about the world—history, geography, science, art, music, literature, and more—that allows students to make sense of what they are reading. Absent that capacity to “make sense” of those sentences and paragraphs—and articles, stories, and books—they will never be fluent readers and will never do well on assessments of English language arts.

Michael Petrilli makes this point that Knowledge is Power, recommending that if there were one thing New York City schools could do to shrink achievement gaps, it would be to “boost kids’ knowledge”.

New York City can be proud of the progress detailed in the new analysis by Douglas Ready, Thomas Hatch, et al., especially when it comes to big gains in its high school graduation rate. But stubborn achievement gaps—and sky-high failure rates—persist. What should Gotham’s next mayor do to attack these?

At the risk of sounding silver-bullet-ish, let me propose one obvious candidate: boost kids’ knowledge. While that may seem obvious, a focus on building students’ actual nuts-and-bolts, foundational knowledge, especially in the early grades, would be nothing short of revolutionary.

Knowledge is crucial to academic success.

As E.D. Hirsch Jr. has been explaining for thirty years, America’s education system has had an irrational allergy to knowledge at least since the days of John Dewey. Yet the careful, purposeful, systemic development of knowledge is almost surely the antidote to students’ reading failures—and the key to their future success.

The Core Knowledge Foundation has an English language arts curriculum that aligns with Common Core Standards, available for use by all New York schools.

What New York City needs, then, is an all-hands-on-deck crusade to infuse content into the elementary school curriculum. Thankfully, it need not start from scratch. Hirsch’s own Core Knowledge Foundation has been developing a top-notch English language arts curriculum that is showing tremendous results in a New York City pilot program. It is also being rolled out as part of New York State’s voluntary Common Core–aligned curriculum. This positions Gotham to be the epicenter of a new revolution in knowledge and, thereby, in reading—but only if educators seize the opportunity.

The recommended reading includes more “informational” texts and fewer “literary” ones.

A quick glance at the curriculum text list shows a higher percentage of nonfiction reading than that of my own children’s school experience.  It is consistent with new CCS guidelines that informational texts should comprise approximately 50-70% of assigned reading across all courses.  From the perspective of a parent with a child in high school, it is particularly interesting to contrast the 11th grade recommended texts with the all-fiction reading list from our local high school’s junior English class.  One English teacher has told parents she “allows” students in her class to select nonfiction for their independent reading requirements.

It’s not only the urban schools that would benefit from more informational reading.  I’ll be happy to see affluent suburban schools like mine make the move to more reading assignments that can “boost kids’ knowledge”.


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