At our last tutoring session, my formerly slow reading first grader zipped through a book about ocean creatures. The child of college-educated parents, he’d visited an aquarium and gone fishing. In short, this is a kid with a lot of background knowledge.  When we read about “crustaceans,” he told me his father had caught a crab in a tide pool.

I thought of a sixth grader I tutored years ago at a high-poverty, all-minority school. We read a story involving a rowboat. He said he didn’t know what that was. I drew a picture. I acted out rowing. I asked if he’d seen boats on the bay. “No,” he said. We could have walked from the school to the bay in two minutes and seen sailboats, if not rowboats.

Now I’m tutoring at a middle-class school. It’s a different story. Still, I thought the first grader would need help with “mammal” when we got to whales and dolphins. He read the word easily.  “I know about mammals,” he said. “We learned it yesterday in science.” He explained how whales filter out food from sea water. Then he asked me a poser: “What do you call an animal that produces eggs?”

“A bird?” I said.  “The Easter Bunny?” I thought.

“Oviparous!” he said joyfully.

When I was in school, we didn’t learn about mammals till fifth grade. We never got to “oviparous.”

I guess “oviparous” is the sort of knowledge a person can look up on the Internet if he needs to know — and knows it’s out there. But it’s fun to know things.

I explained that ova is Latin for egg and some of our language comes from Latin. Now he knows.

My brother’s family is visiting. My almost three-year-old niece was thrilled to see rabbits nibbling our grass. She ran out on the lawn. “Where’s the eggs?” she asked.

Oviparous bunnies,” I thought.

About Joanne


  1. But is it genuinely likely that a low income kid wouldn’t know what a rowboat was unless there was something seriously wrong with his intellect? why assume it was a lack of experience that led to the lack of content knowledge?

    That boy probably watched hours of TV every day, and at some point in his life–more than once–he saw a rowboat. So his failure to know what it is speaks more about his intelligence level than his experience.

    The ability to build content knowledge out of indirect experience is intelligence-based.

    More important than “middle class” is the fact that your current student has two college-educated parents, which suggests at least a moderate level of intelligence.

  2. I recall an argument over a question in standardized tests used in Wisconsin. I was in 3rd grade, growing up on a landlocked low-income farm in the middle of the state. The contested test question was about a regatta. The argument was whether low income (meaning black) children in Milwaukee could be expected to be as familiar with the term regatta as rich (white) kids. I (a low-income white kid) knew what a regatta was, even though I had never seen a sailboat or a lake large enough to handle one, because I had built content knowledge out of indirect experience (I read about a regatta somewhere).

    Milwaukee, on the other hand, is next to a lake. A huge lake. Some might even say a Great Lake! The opportunities to hear about or even observe regattas in Milwaukee are numerous. That any child in that city had never heard of one seemed unbelievable to me.

  3. I think you are seriously underestimating the ability to ignore that which has no meaning to you, especially kids.

  4. That complaint about the regatta question has been around for a long time. The funny thing is, only about 1% of all children (if that many) have ever actually seen a regatta, or been close enough to one to have it spoken of. So it was a bad question for almost all kids, unless they happened to read about one, and even that subset of kids must be very small.

  5. “oviparous”


    One thing I’ve noticed about some kids: if they get into science, they TOTALLY get into the vocabulary. Dinosaur names, stuff about volcanoes, weather terms…

    I think it’s also true about sports for some kids.

  6. The regatta question was an example from The Big Test–and there’s no evidence that low income or minority kids did worse on that question than others. But everyone loves to cite it.

  7. I did bias vetting one time for a state test. The only item we got rid of was one on the “Beautiful Beaver” — we thought it might distract the sophomore boys who were the intended audience. The testing companies are pretty good about this stuff, but haven’t quite the experience of a room full of seasoned high school teachers.

    Though last year some were quite upset about an AP Lit prompt based on a quotation by Edward Said.

  8. Candlepick says:

    Don’t underestimate the possibility the kid’s recently read Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones, Ruth Heller’s non-fiction picture book about the world’s egg layers. It’s where I learned the word oviparous when I was an adult.