Empty pails don’t catch fire

Reading discriminates, writes Robert Pondiscio in City Journal. “A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary.” If schools teach ignore the gaps in knowledge and language, disadvantaged kids will fall even farther behind.

Most reading curricula try to develop comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge, he writes. In theory, students can apply these all-purpose “reading strategies” to anything.

Education is “not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” goes a popular teacher adage. Empty buckets seldom burst into flames.

Children who don’t know enough to understand what they read will not “catch” a love of reading, Pondiscio concludes.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial,” writes Mark Bauerlein. Yet reading instruction still favors “comprehension strategies” (“identify the main idea,” etc.) over “acquisition of general knowledge.”

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  1. I like the analogy I read recently; vocab is the tip of the iceberg which shows above the surface and the general knowledge represented by that vocab is the (vastly larger) part of the iceberg which is below the surface.

    Certainly Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge are much better than the curricula given to the vast majority of kids (including the advantaged in both “high-performing” publics and privates), and would be significant improvements but I don’t know if closing the gap entirely is possible, or even likely, on a large scale. My grandkids were using compound sentences, 5-syllable words and various subordinate clauses by the time they turned 3 – with no instruction; just exposure to that kind of language.

    • wahoofive says:

      Any metaphor is an improvement over buckets catching on fire. What’s supposed to be in the bucket? Gasoline?

      • Well, an empty bucket of gasoline can catch fire.

        But a bucket of water or rocks cannot.

  2. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    Here’s a metaphor for education:

    “Education is the teaching of stuff to people who don’t know it.”

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      Wait…aren’t I supposed to be a guide on the side now?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Education is attempted when people are taught something they don’t know. Education is achieved when they actually learn it.

      Schools are filled with the first. The second, not so much.

  3. Charles R. Williams says:

    It is not only the difference in background knowledge. There is also the gap between written language and spoken language – a gap which is very small in professional families and very wide in lower S/E/S families. I run into students all the time who can decode text but who cannot understand what they are able to read. These are native speakers of English but they are functionally illiterate.

    • Even for professional families, their spoken language is different from academic and literary language. Kids who don’t learn that (in addition to the spoken) gradually, in k-12 (mostly in HS) will have difficulty reading (real) college-level academic and literary works and textbooks. . It’s also necessary to understand long sentences with multiple clauses, subordination, subjective mood etc – which they often can’t comprehend because the teaching of grammar and composition has been abandoned. It happened so long ago that many, if not most k-12 English teachers didn’t have it in k-12.

      I wonder what fraction of today’s students would be able and willing to to a week’s worth of my college freshman assignments? (1) Read a play (from Greeks up to modern) for English lit and comp and write an essay – maybe in-class – about some aspect of it, (2) read a 20th century play in French and write an essay in French, (3) (4) read a unit each of chem and physiology, with lab assignments, and do/write up labs for each, (5) read a unit of psych, soc or anthro, and (6) read a unit in Euro Civ and supplemental readings from other sources, including original. Also, back then (60s), full-time meant 15+ semester credits and STEM and other challenging majors often required 18, in order to graduate in 4 years.

  4. >>Reading discriminates

    Uh, yeah. That’s why the included classroom avoids print material. My district doesn’t even bother issuing books to Algebra students, now that we’re fully included.

  5. PhillipMarlowe says:

    From education realist:
    But amazingly, empty buckets do burst into flames. People do learn without “essential” content knowledge. Even people from less than privileged backgrounds.

    Here’s the hard part, the part too many flinch from: Smart people do. All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect. For much of history educated people had to be smart and interested. Over time, we’ve done a great job at extending the reach of education into the less smart and less interested. But the Great Unspoken Truth of all education policy and reform, be it progressive, critical pedagogy, “reform” or curricular, is that we don’t know how to educate the not-smart and not-interested.