Reading is NOT Fundamental: Knowledge Is

It is encouraging news, from Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute, that New York City’s three-year-old pilot project testing the content-rich Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum in ten low-income schools has proved so far, as the Daily News headline has it, “a brilliant experiment in reading.”

According to Stern,

On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group.

This is no surprise to fans of E.D. Hirsch, whose research over the last 25 years (from Cultural Literacy (1987) to The Making of Americans (2010)), has shown that teaching children a wide-ranging but comprehensive content heavy curriculum actually improves reading more than teaching reading skills does.  As Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Foundation explains it,

Two large (and largely overlooked) problems remain at the root of the reading crisis:  a lack of a coherent elementary school curriculum, and a stubborn insistence on teaching and testing reading comprehension as a how-to “skill.”  Comprehension is highly correlated with general knowledge—the more you know, the greater your ability to read, write, speak and listen with fluency and comprehension.  Thus an essential component of reading comprehension instruction must be a focused commitment to build broad background knowledge in a coherent manner from the earliest days of schools–precisely what CKLA seeks to do.

Stern emphasizes,

Among Hirsch’s insights is that disadvantaged kids quickly fall behind in reading because of inadequate background knowledge; therefore, imparting such knowledge in the early grades is even more important than conveying basic reading skills.

Coincidentally, Stern’s Daily News op-ed was published at the same time as a front-page story in Education Week reported a new push to improve P-2 reading. Unfortunately, though, according to Catherine Gewertz’s account, the increased efforts in these lower grades seem to emphasize the same skill-oriented approaches that have proven so unsuccessful in the higher grades. Indeed, despite Herculean efforts and many millions of dollars spent to improve reading skills (drill-and-kill phonics, etc.), the National Assessment of Educational Progress 4th– and 8th-grade reading scores have been flat for 30 years – flat at very low levels. As Gewertz points out, the latest NAEP (2009) showed that “only one-third of 4th graders scored at or above `proficient.’”

It is discouraging that our education system seems so blind to good ideas.  As Stern writes about the Gotham experiment, “Keeping this potential breakthrough alive would cost a mere $300,000 per year – which seems a far smarter investment than the $70 million paid in bonuses to teachers and principals who produced zero reading gains.”

Let’s hope that New York City will see the light.  More importantly, let’s hope that educators all over the country start to realize that planting healthy content seeds will a produce a bumper crop of good readers.

–Peter Meyer

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College