Reading, writing and knowing

Core Knowledge got its start from E.D. Hirsch’s years teaching literary theory as an English professor, he writes in How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement in The Atlantic. He discovered the importance of background knowledge when he looked at ways to improve college students’ writing.

When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

At a Richmond community college, students couldn’t read or write clearly because they lacked a base of knowledge, Hirsch writes.

These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

Researchers have found that “relevant prior knowledge — information already stored in one’s long-term memory — is the single most important factor in reading comprehension,” Hirsch writes.

Schools talk about “grade level” reading skills. This makes sense for decoding skills, but not reading comprehension, Hirsch argues. Students can comprehend a reading passage if the content is familiar, but struggle if it’s unfamiliar. ”

For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot,” Hirsch concludes.

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  1. Bostonian says:

    What are the IQs or SAT scores of the community college students? Low-IQ students were taught about the Civil War in social studies class during K-12, but the information presented did not stick with them.

    • J. D. Salinger says:

      And there were no high IQ students for whom the info didn’t stick either?

  2. GoogleMaster says:

    I grew up in Richmond, rather, a few hundred feet across the county line in a county that borders Richmond City (in VA, the incorporated cities are not part of any town).

    Throughout your school years, every year you are presented with historical material that has a Richmond spin on it.
    – Colonial period, check: field trips to Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Berkeley and Shirley Plantations (claiming to be the site of the first Thanksgiving, a year before the one at Plymouth); special presentation days where you dress up as colonial characters; history and geography of the area (first coal mine in the US was in Midlothian, VA).
    – Civil War history, check: White House of the Confederacy; Monument Avenue; Mechanicsville battefields (one of my childhood friends had a Civil War cannon in his yard); Appomattox is nearby; many things named Robert E. Lee this or Jefferson Davis that (or even Lee-Davis High School).

    I know we revisited the Civil War year after year after year, but that was back in the ancient pre-cellphone, pre-iPad times of ability tracking and a paddle in the principal’s office and respect for the teachers. Maybe it was just the upper groups and maybe the kids in the slow group back then didn’t learn this stuff either.

    I still think you’d have to be blind, deaf, dumb, and stupid to grow up in Richmond or its surrounding counties and not know anything about the Civil War.

  3. Any academic who has ever had to read/review papers in a different field would agree. Even for smart people, the lack of background knowledge makes for very slow going. We use the core knowledge books as homeschool subject guides, and as we finish first grade I’m already seeing my child get excited when he knows something about a subject that comes up somewhere else.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    The more you know, the more and faster you can learn. I am finding this out tutoring Nepali refugees. A tutor who has to stop to explain coal–mining, burning, its symbolic value in a climate where being without it can be miserable or lethal–is a ten-minute deduction from the objective of the lesson. Then the concept of north and south–Google Earth the globe. This is the north pole, this is the south pole. Which way does the road run outside the house?
    Well, anyway, it’s a deposit on future learning.
    So what do we do about the, for example, lack of knowledge about the Civil War? Did they get it in school? Did they retain it? If they were exposed to it, were they tested to see if they got some of it?
    My denomination removed the Battle Hymn of The Republic from the hymnal because it was too bellicose. “The Civil War mystique.” Passing over what might be wrong with the Civil War Mystique, is it possible the ed profession has a number of folks taking the same view? Start with slavery, end by explaining how the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free the Union slaves and so Lincoln is a vile person? And Reconstruction!
    It is nearly impossible for me to recall what I knew about the Civil War at age, say, nineteen as opppsed to what I have since learned. But something, anyway.
    Connection with parents who talk to their kids, or don’t?
    My granddaughter is precocious, but you can’t do anything with precocity unless there’s knowledge. Example. We were driving along and she asked what a big mushroom-topped tower was. “It’s the water tower for the city.”
    “Oh,” she said, “they get it from the lake and clean it up.”
    She was four at the time and her parents had taken care to explain things all the time. So she made the connection. By definition, you can’t connect that which you do not know.

  5. Foobarista says:

    I’m not sure if there’s some sort of metric that measures the “information density” of reading material, but there should be. It would also need an additional axis of the reader’s existing knowledge about the subject.

    When I was an undergrad, I took history and advanced math classes at the same time. The history prof routinely assigned 100+ pages per night, which I could finish in about an hour. The math prof, who was teaching a 3rd-year course for math majors, would assign five pages. They were mathematical proofs and related discussion, and I’d go at maybe 20 minutes per page at best.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      IMO, if you were to treat the history pages as you were required to treat the math pages, you’d never finish. If the book referred to the Marborough fighting in Tunisia as a young officer, you’d stop to find out what the hell anybody was doing fighting in Tunisia at the time,and learn all about it. Maybe every paragraph something like this would come up.
      But you don’t need to, unless the question is what the hell Marlborough was doing in Tunisia, which it probably wasn’t.
      WRT the original point, if somebody reading this doesn’t know where Tunisia is, why an impecunious young officer whose family had been on the wrong side of the English Civil War might seek employment abroad, and what it meant when he returned to court, it wouldn’t mean anything.
      And, back to the original point, if all a kid knows about the Civil War is Sumter, Gettysburg, and not too certain about the sequence, and slavery, writing about it would indeed be difficult.
      The question is where all the knowledge was when he passed the history class.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        The knowledge was where most high school knowledge goes, to relatively short term memory, to “I have to remember this until the test and then I can forget it” memory. It’s not all gone after the test but within a year, well, yeah, most all of it is gone.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          That’s depressing.
          Isn’t there some kind of minimum time in the short term memory where, if exceeded, the info goes into the long term memory, to be called forth if properly stimulated.
          i.e. Write about the surrender at Appomatox. Clickclickclick….I remember..something. Yeah. And this other thing.
          Not happening, huh?
          Well, we certainly don’t have time to “refresh” everything we’re supposed to recall.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            You probably want to read the articles I list at the end.

            The short version is that our current schools are structured such that most of the things that kids learn is forgotten fairly quickly.

            From the first link:

            Studies show that if material is studied for one semester or one year, it will be retained adequately for perhaps a year after the last practice, but most of it will be forgotten by the end of three or four years in the absence of further practice. If material is studied for three or four years, however, the learning may be retained for as long as 50 years after the last practice. There is some forgetting over the first five years, but after that, forgetting stops and the remainder will not be forgotten even if it is not practiced again.

            So … we’d need to use and review the Civil War stuff over a number of years, not just during 10th grade “US History” (or whatever).




            And, a relevant Guido Sarducci skit:

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Richard, I second Mark’s suggestion to read the Willingham articles. They’re all fairly short. One thing I would add to his post (the middle article is partly about this) is that remembering something isn’t just a “how much time did I study it?” thing. It is also a “how much do I care about this?” and “how much did I actually think about this? thing.

            A kid who can’t remember anything about the Civil War except “Lincoln freed the slaves” may be able to remember every game that the local professional football team played in the last five seasons–and to talk about them at a Bloom 6 level. Because he cares.

            The Guido Sarducci clip make me think of this:

      • You know, if I were reading it, I’d have to (no choice – it’s a compulsion!) stop reading and Google that for the background info. (In fact, I’m Googling ‘Marborough fighting in Tunisia’ in a seperate window now.) Because of simple curiosity. And I think that’s the core of the problem – why are these people not curious… about anything? Does nothing make them go, “Huh?”

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          They are curious about lots of things. They are curious about sports and music and clothes. They are curious about, “Do those kids like me?” and, “What will happen if I try to be more than a friend with ______?” They are interested in money and how to make a living. They are interested in the things money can buy. Many are interested in things that are illegal for them to buy.

          However, school is pretty much NOT about those things.