To stop the verbal drop, teach gist

The new low in SAT verbal scores reflects a sharp drop in high school students’ language competence that started in the 1970s, writes E.D. Hirsch. We can stop the drop in verbal ability by teaching knowledge that will enable children to understand what they read, Hirsch argues.

In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.

Children who’ve developed strong language skills at home can learn easily, while the language-poor fall further and further behind.

The more words you already know, the faster you acquire new words. This sounds like an invitation to vocabulary study for tots, but that’s been tried and it’s not effective. Most of the word meanings we know are acquired indirectly, by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.

. . . Clearly the key is to make sure that from kindergarten on, every student, from the start, understands the gist of what is heard or read. If preschoolers and kindergartners are offered substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds, then the results show up five years or so later in significantly improved verbal scores.

. . . By staying on a subject long enough to make all young children familiar with it (say, two weeks or so), the gist becomes understood by all and word learning speeds up. This is especially important for low-income children, who come to school with smaller vocabularies and rely on school to impart the knowledge base affluent children take for granted.

Current reform strategies aren’t enough, argues Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge movement and author of The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools.

Core Knowledge Blog has a longer version of Hirsch’s argument.


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  1. It all sounds like subject based approach to vocabulary study, actually. It’s not clear to me how this differs from vocabulary study, except, perhaps that is better done. A related result comes to mind–I think from Project Follow Through–that systematically teaching and reinforcing vocabulary beat out everything else for long term benefits except having a teacher who talked to the children a lot and with an appropriately large vocabulary. Is this plan: “substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds” basically a way of having the teacher broaden the vocabulary used in the classroom?

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Yeah, it’s hard to beat having a smart, articulate person up at the front of the classroom.

    The kids don’t care about their silly and annoying vocabulary tests.

    But they do care what the teacher is saying (generally speaking). After all, she’s saying something TO THEM. It’s about them — they want to hear it!

    And so they’ll remember it if they have to stop her and ask, “What’s that mean?”

    Of course, that all goes down the tubes if you get someone who talks to kids like they’re idiots. (I saw more of that than I would have liked when I was an elementary school librarian; kids are generally ignorant, not stupid.)

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    “The more words you already know, the faster you acquire new words”

    This is a titanium-alloy-shackled grasp of the obvious. Also likely a threat to a number of “programs”.
    Problem is, it puts responsibility–or its inverse, blame–on parents. With all the PC load that means.
    Years ago, I noted a report that said HS kids had a passive vocabulary of, iirc, 25,000 words in the Fifties, and 10,000 then. My wife, a HS teacher of some years thought that sounded about right.
    A difference of 15,000 words in your passive vocabulary is beyond the ability of school to either achieve, fail to achieve, or cure.

  4. Many teens aren’t reading outside of school. They may be texting, playing Halo, working at part-time jobs, playing sports, doing homework, performing community service, or just hanging out, but they aren’t reading for pleasure. The Kaiser Family Foundation study, Generation M2, is sobering reading.

    Efforts to make classroom materials more “accessible,” more image-rich, more video-based, more electronic, are decreasing student literacy. I do not think the downward trend in verbal scores has reached a bottom yet.

    I am more worried about the drop in scores on the writing section of the exam. Much of the exam tests grammar knowledge. Given how feverishly certain groups cram for the SAT, six years after its introduction, scores should have risen. Instead, male and female scores have decreased every single year:

    The decline could have been caused by excessive focus on the writing requirements for state tests. It’s very worrying.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I wonder if some of the inability to grasp gist comes from starting kids on “early chapter books” instead of going through a transitional period of reading picture books and folk tales.

    Many Early chapter books use the same vocabulary and sentence structure as I can read books–they’re not HARDER, they’re just longer. But parents and teachers snap them up because it looks impressive when their first grader is reading chapters.

    Meanwhile, many picture books and folktales are written at the 5th-8 grade level, but the pictures and familiar story lines give clues to what the tough words mean. If “The prince, clothed in luxurious robes, dismounted his noble steed and strode toward the humble cottage” is accompanied by a silken-clad prince getting off his horse and a peasant house in the background, the child learns the gist of the words.

    It’s easy to see how reading levels have declined– check out accelerated reader online. Who on earth reads the Oz books as a junior high student? They used to be second or third grade fare!

  6. I looked at Accelerated Reader online. The book level seems to be determined by an analysis of the difficulty of the prose. As the _Wonderful Wizard of Oz_ was first published more than a century ago, the prose may be more difficult for contemporary children than for its original audience.

    I’ve heard the theory that picture books should be preferred to chapter books for early elementary readers. The trouble is, once children really start reading, the ratio of weight-to-printed-word becomes too high, not to mention the $-to-printed-word ratio. It’s lovely to spend an afternoon hanging out in the library reading picture books, but the transition to chapter books happens for good reason.

    Picture books also don’t have the length to develop much plot. I’m not advocating that children should hang out in _Henry and Mudge_ land too long. Jumping to stories and fairy tales makes more sense. We very much enjoyed Rootabaga Stories, and the Jamie and Angus stories. Many young readers jump from easy chapter books to Harry Potter.

  7. It really does take years to learn grammar, which used to start immediately on school entry (my school had no K and there no private Ks). We started to learn grammar by copying correct work from the board (ex. Friday, October 30, 1955. It is sunny. Tomorrow is Halloween) We thereby learned the structure of a correct sentence, what words are capitalized and how to punctuate. We then progressed to dictation, and then to composing sentences. EVERY paper was corrected for grammar and spelling. Today’s insistence on journaling and storywriting, in “authentic language” (meaning the teacher doesn’t correct it) just doesn’t teach kids either grammar or composition. Even the kids who hear proper English and a rich vocabulary at home don’t learn either well (per SAT scores) and the kids who don’t hear either are really @#$%$. Even MS is too late to make up for a lack of foundation in ES – how often have I said that?

  8. PS: There’s no argument about the need for good content and rich language. Exposing kids to old-fashioned and British verbiage ( the Beatrix Potter stories, for instance) is also good, because they will reappear in MS-HS literature. My just 3 and just 5 yo grandkids have learned macintosh, waistcoat, galoshes, hedgerows etc.; it’s all grist for the vocabulary mill.

  9. There are exceptions to the no-grammar rule. For all the abuse heaped on Latin as a “dead language,” students who take the SAT II Latin subject matter test do very well in comparison to the SAT on critical reading and writing. They’re a select group of kids, but I do think it’s possible to teach children grammar.

  10. I certainly agree that it is possible to teach kids grammar (it used to be unquestioned), BUT the likelihood that kids taking the SAT II Latin exam are anything other than very strong students is pretty much nonexistent. The possible exception would be kids in Catholic high schools that prepare kids to enter the seminary or a religious order, but many /most of those schools have pretty competitive admission standards. I remember when the MS next to ours added Latin (probably late 80s) added Latin, in response to the study that found that kids who had taken Latin did better on their SATs. Of course they did; only the top students took Latin. It was correlation, not causation (again). Any of the commonly-offered foreign languages (Russian, Arabic, Asian languages excepted) can be helpful with grammar and vocab, but every kid should learn grammar and composition, whether they take a foreign language or not.

  11. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I use something called An Allusion a Day — it explains common allusions like “pound of flesh” and that sort of thing. The kids have started noticing them on TV, etc. They still know a lot of the mythology, but for most of them the biblical allusions are great mysteries — even the kids who attend church. It’s a short cut, but it works OK.

    My sophomores sometimes complain about my vocabulary in the beginning, but then they get used to it…. which is the point :).

  12. The Ed School orthodoxy says that _teacher talk_ is one of the worst forms of pedagogy. But teacher talk is exactly what kids need to hear. TELLING kids about the world is more efficient at imparting core knowledge than having them read about it, especially when their comprehension skills are so weak. Reading comprehension skills will strengthen after years of listening to such talk. But this concept is too counter-intuitive for most people to grasp: they think that the only way to improve reading is by reading.