Uncommon curriculum

Closing the vocabulary gap would help close the opportunity gap, argues Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, a guest on the Bridging Differences blog. Children from low-income families start kindergarten with an enormous vocabulary deficit, he writes. Preschools and elementary schools can build children’s vocabulary by teaching them history, science, art, music, literature and geography.

Yes, to little kids. (You know, the ones who are curious about EVERYTHING. Who can learn a TON just by listening to a good read-aloud story.)

E.D. Hirsch has argued for 30 years that the key to building students’ vocabularies, and thus their ability to read and learn, is content knowledge. Once a child learns to decode, her “comprehension” ability mainly comes down to the store of knowledge she’s got in her head. If she can sound out words but can’t read a passage about dinosaurs, it’s not because she hasn’t been taught “comprehension skills”—it’s probably because she’s never been taught anything about dinosaurs.

Yet our preschools and elementary schools systematically reject this obvious approach because they deem it not “developmentally appropriate.” Furthermore, they say, why teach all those “facts” when kids can just Google them?

High-poverty schools make it worse if they delay teaching social studies and science — usually untested — until fourth or fifth grade to spend more time teaching reading in the early grades. This is “nuts,” writes Petrilli. “Teaching content is teaching reading.”

Building vocabulary doesn’t require a common curriculum, responds Deborah Meier. She’s all for teaching “stuff.” But there are many ways to do that, she writes.

As with our first language we need to rely on building vocabulary by: (1) having a more diverse student body (racial and class integration); (2) having a lot of adults around to interact with and smaller class sizes (like good private schools do); (3) engaging in studies that require collaboration between students and students, and students and adults—including adult-written texts; (4) encouraging reading in settings that are designed to naturally arouse interest—motivate—or that answer questions youngsters really want to know; and (5) remembering that vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and spelling are most efficiently learned the same way we learn everything else that matters.

We learn to drive by driving and to cook by cooking, which means allowing 6- to 12-year-olds to read (and listen to) repetitive and engaging books which do not present too much of a “cognitive” or empathy challenge.

Progressive preschools don’t think knowing facts is “developmentally inappropriate,” Meier writes. But they believe direct instruction isn’t needed to ”

kick in this love of reading, of hobbies, of facts, of curiosity, of indefatigable and repetitive practice in subjects and skills” kids are fascinated by. “Our job is to extend” kids’ curiosity, she concludes. Too often, schools kill it.

About Joanne


  1. Reading (1) – (5) below makes me want to bang my head against the nearest wall, probably while crying. As if more than a few kids in a million can learn grammar “naturally” and as if kids will actually acquire knowledge by “allowing 6-12 year olds to read and listen to repetitive…books which do not present too much of a cognitive or empathy challenge.” God forbid that they should be challenged or have their horizons widened. “There is no frigate like a book, To take us lands away” has been thrown on the trash heap.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Said it before: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has shipped over 45 million kid books–age appropriate–for free.
    An acquaintance of ours got the classic, “The Little Engine That Could” last month.
    Free. Just sign up.

    • The Little Blue Engine has had a sex change; he is now she. Maybe there are two versions now, but my local store had only the female one.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Oh. My. Aching. Back.

      • The change is kind of stupid, considering that boys typically are more interested in trains, but it came in handy when my sister was slogging through a difficult pregnancy; the revised version made a perfect “you can do it!” gift for her.

      • In the summer they do kid skits at Dollywood…the little engine is still a boy there, and in our classic version of the book.

  3. As with our first language we need to rely on building vocabulary by: (1) having a more diverse student body (racial and class integration)

    Holy non-sequitur, Batman!

    The more diverse the student body, the more that important vocabulary for one is beyond the comprehension of another due to lack of prerequisite vocabulary, and is old news and a waste of time for a third.  Diversity isn’t the solution to anything.  It’s both a religion, and a major problem in itself.

    • No child should ever be placed in a school or a class to benefit someone else in that school or class. Not to set a good example, not to provide diversity, not to peer tutor, not, not, not.