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”.


6 Responses to “Schools can raise achievement levels by assigning more nonfiction reading”

  1. Yes, yes, yes, and quadruple yes. The increased emphasis on nonfiction may be the single most important component of Common Core. It is so disheartening to see college students struggle with their assigned readings because they have so little experience with nonfiction. They have trouble with vocabulary, they have trouble with close reading strategies, and they especially have trouble with technical material. I spend a class period now with my introductory students on strategies for reading their computer science textbook. They need to understand that they will have to read key paragraphs more than once, and that they should read actively, preferably with a computer next to them so they can try out the examples and play with them. Unfortunately, I can’t really afford to give up that class period, and at the same time, it isn’t really enough.

    We are now also seeing calls (usually from the administration) on “adapting to today’s students” by abandoning books and giving them video instead. The problem is, video is not an effective way to communicate difficult technical information. Also, in my field, the textbook serves as a reference, a place to look things up quickly, and video in not effective for that.


  2. College professors teaching reading to their students–it seems strange. But I can see this in a particular technical field. Maybe.


  3. If you google “techincal reading” you’ll find lots of University professors having to teach it to their students. Few high schools teach how to read technical material. One of the best blog posts on it I’ve seen is


  4. Very interesting link, and in this passage the author seems to confirm the point that reading comprehension is strongly linked with background knowledge.

    “Here’s what I mean by technical reading. When I’m reading a newspaper article about the recent election, I may not know who won, but I already know what an election is. In a textbook, I am asking students to think about new concepts, in addition to new ways of connecting old concepts. Mortimer Adler’s book How To Read a Book calls this “analytical reading” [corrected — M] and distinguishes its strategies from basic reading.”

    (The post was difficult for me to comprehend, since I don’t have the background knowledge to even know what a “constructor” is.)


  5. Somewhat related to this topic is this Facebook status I saw on Overheard at UChicago:

    Overheard during physics pset:

    ”I hate it when humanities people complain about how much reading they have.

    At least they know how to read”



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