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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  1. That makes a lot of sense.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with this; so much of reading comprehension is prior knowledge that is well based in history, science, the arts, literature, and math. Strategies work to a point, but they can’t exist in a vacuum of knowledge about the world around us.

    That’s also why I feel that teachers in every discipline need students to be reading more in order to broaden their base of foundational knowledge.

  3. Agree that content is critical to comprehension, but strategies instruction to access that content is important as well. for example, English-language arts teachers and reading experts certainly agree that “into” activities help facilitate reading comprehension. Additionally, teachers need to use “through” activities to assist students in reading “between the lines.” However, at the “beyond” stage many English-language arts teachers and reading experts will part ways.
    Into, Through, but Not Beyond


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