A wealth of words

Vocabulary is (academic and economic) destiny, writes Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in City Journal.  Teaching “a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts” enables students to build a large vocabulary, while “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”

Countries that use a “coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language” show the highest verbal achievement and narrow the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, Hirsch argues. Korea, Finland, Japan and Canada combine excellence with equity.

In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

France slipped on the equity index when its elementary schools abandoned a specific sequential curriculum to follow the American roll-your-own model, Hirsch writes. But French preschools remain excellent.

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects.

U.S. schools have adopted “how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge,” writes Hirsch. “These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.”

 In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Hirsch recommends French-style preschools, classroom instruction based on immersing students in a field of knowledge and “a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.” He hopes Common Core State Standards for language arts will move U.S. schools in this direction.

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