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.