Core standards get reading right

Core standards could revolutionize reading instruction, writes E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet.

The English Language Arts Standards include a call for “literacy in history/social students and science,” Hirsch points out. Standards writers explain that students need a “foundation of knowledge” to be “better readers in all content areas.” Hirsch could not agree more.

(The document) concedes explicitly that proficiency in reading and writing can only be achieved through a definite curriculum that is “coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Currently, reading comprehension is taught as a series of transferable strategies, Hirsch writes. It’s assumed that if children can “find the main idea” or “question the author,” they can understand anything. But comprehension is based on knowledge.

Several studies show that “poor” readers suddenly look quite strong when reading on subjects they know a lot about, and “strong” readers who have weak subject knowledge, suddenly look quite weak. Despite this finding, students are boringly and time-wastingly taught to practice formal strategies on trivial fictions as though these strategies will somehow replace the subject-matter knowledge needed to become broadly literate.

Publishers could replace trivial fiction with a random assortment of trivial non-fiction, Hirsch writes. But he hopes the message will get through: There must be a “coherent, specific and content-rich” curriculum.  Strategies aren’t enough.

Here’s an Ed Next debate on national standards.

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