Three Voices for English Knowledge: Hirsch, Willingham, and the AFT

Six months ago, E. D. Hirsch had an op-ed in the New York Times that cited a 1988 study that has become something of a touchstone in English Language Arts discussions.

“Experimenters separated seventh- and eighth-grade students into two groups—strong and weak readers as measured by standard reading tests,” Hirsch wrote. “The students in each group were subdivided according to their baseball knowledge. Then they were all given a reading test with passages about baseball.  Low-level readers with high baseball knowledge significantly outperformed strong readers with little background knowledge. Hirsch continued

The experiment confirmed what language researchers have long maintained: the key to comprehension is familiarity with the relevant subject. For a student with a basic ability to decode print, a reading-comprehension test is not chiefly a test of formal techniques but a test of background knowledge.

Dan Willingham has a nice summary of the implications in a recent blog post at the Washington Post:

We tend to teach comprehension as a series of ‘reading strategies’ that can be practiced and mastered. Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way. The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.

Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information. For example, suppose you read ‘He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.’ You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them) and landlords (they are protective of their property.)

The writer could have included all that information. The writer gambled that the reader would know about puppies, carpets and landlords. A writer who doesn’t assume some prior knowledge on the part of her readers will write very boring prose.

What happens if the reader doesn’t have the prior knowledge the writer assumed she had? The reader will be confused and comprehension breaks down.

What this means is that even if a student has mastered “reading strategies” such as identifying the thesis and how it is argued, without any background knowledge in the subject matter, those strategies don’t carry the student very far. Readers without it can’t fill in blanks and pick up subtexts and discern points of view.

This is why, when the American Federation of Teachers issued its Setting Strong Standards report in 2003, it emphasized repeatedly the importance of knowledge in all the disciplines, including English. Some statements are worth repeating here:

—–“a set of standards must embody the knowledge essential to each of the core subjects, and this cannot be accomplished by trying to fit disciplinary knowledge into broad over-arching, non disciplinary categories such as ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving.’”

—–“Strong standards must provide clear guidance to teachers, curriculum and assessment developers, textbook publishers, and others so that one person’s interpretation of the core knowledge and skills students should learn in a particular grade level or education level—elementary, middle, or high school—will be fairly similar to someone else’s.”

—–“English: The basic skills and knowledge that are the foundations of learning how to read (e.g., letter/sound recognition, decoding skills, vocabulary), reading comprehension (e.g., exposure to a variety of literary genres), writing conventions (e.g., spelling, writing mechanics), and writing forms (e.g., narrative, persuasive, expository).”

—–“It is not enough for standards to emphasize the skills students should learn but leave the content to local discretion.”

Hirsch, Willingham, and the AFT are powerful voices arguing against one of the sorriest trends in English Language Arts over the years, namely, the attempt to convert it into a skills discipline that emphasizes cross-disciplinary capacities (critical thinking, “media literacy,” reading comprehension strategies, etc.) and downplays English knowledge.

And what is “English knowledge”? Three things: philology (history and development of the English language); literary history (major periods and movements, major authors and works); criticism (theories of, approaches to, and great examples of interpretation).

In the committee room, however, those knowledges are fraught with tension. English literary history bears exclusions that people don’t like, philology asks for competences that people just don’t have, and criticism seems beyond the level of high school students.

But, counter Hirsch, Willingham, and AFT, without them, we can expect reading scores for high school students to continue as they have since NAEP started tracking them 40 years ago: a more or less flat line.

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