Building Knowledge

The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for all Children

I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.... Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

–J. M. Keynes
The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

Consider the following sentence, which is one that most literate Americans can understand, but most literate British people cannot, even when they have a wide vocabulary and know the conventions of the standard language:

Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

Typically, a literate British person would know all the words in the sentence yet wouldn't comprehend it. (In fairness, most Americans would be equally baffled by a sentence about the sport of cricket.) To understand this sentence about Jones and his sacrifice, you need a wealth of relevant background knowledge that goes beyond vocabulary and syntax—relevant knowledge that is far broader than the words of the sentence. Let's consider what we as writers would have to convey to an English person to make this sentence comprehensible.

First, we would have to explain that Jones was at bat. That would entail an explanation of the inning system and the three-outs system. It would entail an explanation of the size and shape of the baseball field (necessary to the concept of a sacrifice fly or bunt) and a digression on what a fly or a bunt is. The reader would also have to have some vague sense of the layout of the bases and what a run is. By the time our English reader had begun to assimilate all this relevant background knowledge, he or she may have lost track of the whole point of the explanation. What was the original sentence? It will have been submerged in a flurry of additional sentences branching out in different directions.

The point of this example is that knowledge of content and of the vocabulary acquired through learning about content are fundamental to successful reading comprehension; without broad knowledge, children's reading comprehension will not improve and their scores on reading comprehension tests will not budge upwards either. Yet, content is not adequately addressed in American schools, especially in the early grades. None of our current methods attempt to steadily build up children's knowledge; not the empty state and district language arts standards, which rarely mention a specific text or piece of information; not the reading textbooks, which jump from one trivial piece to another; and not the comprehension drills conducted in schools in the long periods of 90–120 minutes devoted to language arts. These all promote the view that comprehension depends on having formal skills rather than broad knowledge.

This may sound like an academic point. It is, in fact, an important argument about the science that underlies learning. I believe inadequate attention to building students' knowledge is the main reason why the reading scores of 13- and 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have not budged in years. I believe this neglect of knowledge is a major source of inequity, at the heart of the achievement gap between America's poor and non-poor. I also believe that if this idea about what is limiting students' comprehension isn't understood and aggressively addressed, reading scores won't move up, no matter how hard teachers try. And the public debate will wrongly continue to pillory teachers and public schools for stagnant achievement scores.

In the pages that follow, I want to make the following argument: First, that the implicit model currently used to improve reading comprehension is based on faulty, but commonplace, ideas. Second, that a more scientifically accurate picture of reading comprehension exists—and it puts background knowledge and vocabulary, along with fluent decoding ability, at the center of reading comprehension. Third, we can identify the knowledge that is most useful to reading comprehension. Fourth, if we accept these premises, we are obliged to revise the early grades curriculum so that we can impart to all students, in language arts classes and throughout the day, the knowledge that will enable them to read with strong comprehension. And, finally, if we do this, we will help all students become strong comprehenders of high-level texts, and we will disproportionately help our most at-risk students.

I. The Wrong Ideas That Underlie Our Approach to Teaching Reading Comprehension

When I began college teaching in the 1950s, my academic specialty was the history of ideas. I also specialized in the theory of textual interpretation, which, reduced to its essence, is the theory of reading. So I became well-versed in the scientific literature on language comprehension and in American and British intellectual history of the 19th century. This double research interest prepared my mind for disturbing insights about American schooling. I saw that John Maynard Keynes's remark about the power of ideas over vested interests was profoundly right. Root ideas are much more important in practical affairs than we usually realize, especially when they are so much taken for granted that they are hidden from our view.

In American education, the ideas that influence us, though often hidden from view, come to us from the intellectual movement known as Romanticism, which held great sway during our country's formative years. It is thanks to the Romantics (also known as transcendentalists, pragmatists, and, in education, progressives) that the word "natural" has been a term of honor in our country and that the ideas of "nature" and "natural" were elevated to a status that previously had been occupied only by divine law. We can hear these romantic beliefs in John Dewey's writings, which continually use the terms "development" and "growth"—terms that came as naturally to him as they do to us.

Being trained in the history of ideas, I had become familiar with the way in which unnoticed metaphors like "growth" and "development" unconsciously govern our thought—and continue to do so, even when scientific evidence clearly shows that one of the primary goals of education, reading, is not a natural development at all.

Let's ponder "development" for a moment. When a fertilized egg turns into an embryo, that development is indeed something that unfolds naturally. Similarly, in the first two years of life, when a child learns to walk and talk, those are natural developments. Since the child acquires these extremely difficult skills often without conscious adult instruction, we might mistakenly extend trust in natural unfolding to the next stage of life—when a child enters school. And we might expect that given loving exposure to lots of books, a child might learn to read with little explicit instruction in reading mechanics. Hence, the whole language movement, which for so many years led many teachers, teacher educators, textbook publishers, and administrators to neglect decoding and other early reading mechanics.

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A naturalistic approach to teaching decoding is not, however, the most deleterious romantic idea influencing the teaching of reading. The most harmful idea is that children do not need a knowledge-rich curriculum to become proficient readers. The word reading, of course, has two senses. The first means the process of turning printed marks into sounds and these sounds into words. But the second sense means the very different process of understanding those words. Learning how to read in the first sense, as vital as it is, does not guarantee learning how to read in the second sense, comprehending the meaning of what is read. To become a good comprehender, a child needs a great deal of knowledge. A romantically inspired long delay in beginning to teach that knowledge is socially and economically harmful to our students—especially our most disadvantaged students.

Disparagement of factual knowledge, as found in books, has long been a strong current in American thought. Henry Ford's famous dictum, "History is bunk," is a succinct example. Since the 19th century, such anti-intellectualism has been as American as apple pie, as the great historian Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, and it came straight out of the Romantic movement into our schools.1

Instead of a respect for the importance of knowledge, Romanticism gave us faith in the half-truth that the most important thing for students to learn is "how to learn." It bequeathed to us a tendency to dismiss the acquisition of broad knowledge as "rote learning" of "mere facts," to subtly disparage "merely verbal" presentations in books and by teachers, and to criticize school knowledge unless it is connected to "real life" in a "hands-on" way. These ideas are now so commonplace that we don't think twice about them; we don't scientifically scrutinize them. Yet, these ideas underlie what we as a nation think about reading comprehension.

Pick up a typical basal reader and the clear implication is that comprehension skill depends on formal "comprehension strategies," such as predicting, summarizing, questioning, and clarifying.2 Look in them fruitlessly to find evidence that the publishers believe reading depends on imbibing a body of knowledge. I call this romantic idea, "formalism"—a belief that reading comprehension can best be improved by acquiring formal comprehension strategies, not by building children's knowledge base.

This idea is ruinous to reading instruction. It is sabotaging efforts to raise reading comprehension scores. It is causing citizens to question the quality of their schools and is leading policymakers to blame school staff for reading failures. It is time to fault the idea, not the teachers and the students who are doing their best.

These Wrong Ideas Underlie Reading Textbooks and Distort the Use of Classroom Time

Publishers now spend tens of millions of dollars to produce—and schools hundreds of millions to buy—reading programs that are constantly being upgraded and revised. But the guiding ideas behind these programs are typically formalistic and almost indistinguishable from one another. Although the editors of several of these programs have strong credentials in education or psychology, the programs are far from up-to-date with regard to the relevant consensus in cognitive science. For instance, cognitive scientists agree that reading comprehension requires prior "domain-specific" knowledge about the things that a text refers to, and that understanding the text consists of integrating this prior knowledge with the words in order to form a "situation model."3 Constructing this mental situation model is what reading comprehension is. But, existing reading programs, while they may pay lip service to this finding about the need for relevant background knowledge, fail to systematically exploit this fundamental insight into the nature of reading. (See "How We Neglect Knowledge—and Why.") Hundreds of pages of basal text offer up trivial stories that provide little opportunity for children to build their store of knowledge. They persist, unit after unit, in asking students to "predict," "summarize," "infer," etc.—as if endless use of these strategies will increase students' reading comprehension ability.4

Here's an example of how these ideas and practices affect real children in real classrooms. In May 2004, a front-page story in the Washington Post described the activities in a third-grade classroom at a public school in Maryland, which the reporter, Linda Perlstein, identified as being typical of activities "across the nation." Perlstein had been sitting in classrooms at the school, observing what went on and talking to students, teachers, and administrators. The piece begins with a comment by one of the students:

Here is 9-year-old Zulma Berrios's take on the school day: "In the morning we read. Then we go to Mrs. Witthaus and read. Then after lunch we read. Then we read some more."

These reading periods, Perlstein points out, come at the expense of classes in history, science, and art. The reading materials themselves are quite vapid. In this particular class, the children were reading a book about a grasshopper storm. But the point of the class was not to learn anything in depth about grasshoppers; the point was to learn how to ferret meaning out of a text by using formal "strategies." Perlstein writes:

For 50 minutes, Tracey Witthaus pulls out a small group of third-graders—including Zulma—for Soar to Success, an intensive reading-comprehension program used at many county schools. Instead of studying school desegregation and the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Zulma's group finishes a book about a grasshopper storm and practices reading strategies: predict, summarize, question, clarify. "Clarify," said Zulma, who began the year reading at the late first-grade level.

The theory behind these deadening activities is that learning comprehension strategies will give students a shortcut to gaining greater expertise in reading. Supposedly, learning such strategies will quickly provide the skills they need to comprehend unfamiliar texts. But as the teachers in the school pointed out to the reporter, the methods did not seem to be working. Reading scores were not going up significantly. Perlstein reports that "staff members said they aren't sure what they might be doing wrong."

The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students' achievement in reading. It is true that students benefit from learning and practicing reading comprehension skills, but a key point has gotten lost: More training in these skills is not necessarily better. A meta-analysis has shown that six classes of comprehension skill instruction has the same effect as 25 classes.5 (This is emphatically not to suggest that some of the methods, such as asking students questions about important content they have read, would be a bad idea. Of course teachers do and should ask students to engage with reading material in a variety of ways, including questioning students about the author's intent, summarizing what they've read, and so forth. The ineffectiveness of an emphasis on strategy arises from two sources: first, conscious strategizing takes up limited mental space that otherwise could be devoted to meaning; second, the skills are being practiced apart from important content. When the questions are asked about trivial content, when learning these strategy skills becomes the end—not the means—for engaging content, and when the time devoted to skills training drives needed content out of the classroom, then reading comprehension is not effectively advanced.) Formal comprehension skills can only take students so far; knowledge is what enables their comprehension to keep increasing. The staff and children at the school Perlstein visited do not need more skills training. They need a revolution in the ideas that now drive reading comprehension instruction.

II. Reading Comprehension Depends Mainly on Knowledge and Knowledge-­Related Vocabulary

Recently, schools have begun to do a much better job of teaching all children to become good first-step readers who can turn printed symbols into sounds and words quickly and accurately, a process called decoding. The importance of systematically and effectively teaching decoding cannot be overstated (and the role played by AFT members in making such instruction better understood and more commonplace can hardly be overstated either). But becoming a skilled decoder does not ensure that one will become a skilled reader. There are students who, after mastering decoding, and reading widely can, under the right circumstances, gain greater knowledge and thence better reading comprehension. But such gains will occur only if the student already knows enough to comprehend the meaning of what he or she is decoding. Many specialists estimate that a child (or an adult) needs to understand a minimum of 90 percent of the words in a passage in order to understand the passage and thus begin to learn the other 10 percent of the words.6 Moreover, it's not just the words that the student has to grasp the meaning of—it's also the kind of reality that the words are referring to (think of our baseball example).7 When a child doesn't understand those word meanings and those referred-to realities, being good at sounding out words is a dead end. Reading becomes a kind of Catch-22: In order to become better at reading with understanding, you already have to be able to read with understanding.

Long before Joseph Heller's Catch-22, this idea was implied in the Gospel of Matthew, which stated that those who already have shall gain more, while those who have not shall be taken away even what they have. Alluding to this biblical passage, cognitive scientists and reading researchers have spoken of the "Matthew effect" in reading. Those who already have good language understanding will gain still more language proficiency, while those who lack initial understanding will fall further and further behind.8

"Filling in the Blanks": Why Reading Comprehension—and Reading Comprehension Tests—Require Broad General Knowledge

As scientists have probed more deeply into the nature of language comprehension, they have discovered that what the text implies but doesn't say is a necessary part of its understood meaning. In fact, what the text doesn't say often far exceeds what it says. Just as with "Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run," the reader or listener has to fill in the blanks and make the unstated connections. This is hardly a new observation. The ancient Greeks knew it, and Aristotle even gave the phenomenon a name—enthymeme—which is technically a syllogism with some of the logically necessary steps left out.9 For instance, if I say, "All men are mortal, so Socrates is mortal," everyone will understand what I say. But that is because their relevant knowledge enables them to supply the missing inference: "Socrates is a man."

To different extents, all speech has these blank spaces. Cognitive psychologists have determined that when a text is being understood, the reader (or listener) is filling in a lot of the unstated connections between the words to create an imagined "situation model" based on domain-specific knowledge.10 This situation model constitutes the understood meaning of the text. Take, for example, this passage from my book What Your Second-Grader Needs to Know:

In 1861, the Civil War started. It lasted until 1865. It was American against American, North against South. The Southerners called Northerners "Yankees." Northerners called Southerners "Rebels," or "Rebs" for short. General Robert E. Lee was in charge of the Southern army. General Ulysses S. Grant was in charge of the Northern army.

Potentially, this passage is usefully informative to a second-grader learning about the Civil War—but only if he or she already understands much of what's addressed in it. Take the phrase "North against South." A wealth of preexisting background information is needed to understand that simple phrase—going far beyond the root idea of compass directions, which is simply the necessary first step. The child needs a general idea of the geography of the U.S. and needs to infer that the named compass directions stand for geographical regions. Then a further inference or construction is needed: The child has to understand that the names of geographical regions stand for the populations of those regions and that those populations have been organized into some sort of collectivity so they can raise armies. That's just an initial stab at unpacking what the child must infer to understand the phrase "North against South." A full, explicit account of the taken-for-granted knowledge that someone would need to construct a situation model for this passage would take many pages of analysis.

To understand language, whether spoken or written, we need to construct a situation model consisting of meanings construed from the explicit words in the text, as well as meanings inferred from relevant background knowledge. The spoken and the unspoken taken together constitute the meaning. Without this relevant, unspoken background knowledge, we can't understand the text.

That is why we are able to understand some texts but not others—no matter how well we can decode the words (imagine trying to understand a technical article on astrophysics). Since relevant, domain-specific knowledge is an absolute requirement for reading comprehension, there is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading.

Among experts on reading, there's one group that understands this particularly well—the makers of standardized reading comprehension tests. Such tests always include a diversity of passages on quite different subjects. Why? Through experimentation, test makers found that such variety is absolutely critical to the validity and reliability of the tests. If they sampled just one kind of subject matter, their tests would prove to be inaccurate as measures of general reading ability. Because of the inevitable influence of background knowledge, someone who reads well about the Civil War may not necessarily read well about molecular interactions. If a test is to measure general reading ability, it must include passages that sample a person's general knowledge of several kinds of subjects. (For more on reading comprehension tests, see "What Do Reading Comprehension Tests Mainly Measure? Knowledge.")

Why Building Vocabulary Is Vital and Why It Is Largely Built through Broad Exposure to Content Knowledge

Comprehending a text depends on knowing the meanings of most of its words. An adequate early vocabulary is, therefore, fateful for later reading achievement. Other things being equal, the earlier children acquire a large vocabulary, the greater their reading comprehension will be in later grades. Vocabulary growth is a slow process that gradually accumulates a very large number of words and, therefore, must be fostered intensively in the earliest grades if we are to bring all children to proficiency in reading as quickly as possible. Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich have shown that under current conditions of American schooling, vocabulary in second grade is a reliable predictor of academic performance in 11th grade.11 They have also shown that the biggest contribution to the size of any person's vocabulary must come from the printed page (whether it is heard or read), because print uses a greater number of different words than everyday oral speech does.12

That a person has learned roughly 60,000 to 100,000 words by 12th grade is one of the most remarkable feats of the human mind. Even though how we do it remains something of a psychological mystery, recent work has taught us enough about vocabulary growth to formulate some conclusions about the most productive means of enlarging children's vocabularies, especially among students whose initial vocabularies are relatively small.

One critical finding is that word learning takes place most efficiently when the reader or listener already understands the context well. For example, researchers have found that we learn the words of a foreign language most effectively when the subject matter is familiar.13 If you read in French that "Lyon a battu Lille," you will make greater gains in learning what battu means if you know something about soccer. This finding appeals to common sense. You can guess accurately what the word ought to mean in the context because you know what is being talked about. This picture of how words are learned in context is supported by recent research, which shows that we infer the meanings of words by grasping the whole meaning of the utterance in the form of a mental situation model. If we are hearing a story about a team of firefighters putting out a fire and we encounter the word flames for the first time, we can make a good guess about what it means because we understand the situation referred to in the sentence in which flames is used. We must grasp this whole situation (precisely or vaguely) when we understand what is said or written. This understanding of the whole context is the basis for guessing the meanings of new words. This fact explains why we learn words up to four times faster in a familiar context than in an unfamiliar one.14 An optimal early reading program will exploit this characteristic of word learning by ensuring that the topics of class read-alouds, independent reading, and discussion are consistent over several class periods, so that the topic will become familiar to the students and thus accelerate word learning.

Why a Knowledge Focus Will Disproportionately Help Disadvantaged Children

The Matthew effect in reading, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, is inevitable in the case of vocabulary and knowledge. As we've seen, experts say that we need to know at least 90 percent of a text's words to understand it.15 Children who already have sufficient word knowledge will understand the text and begin learning the meanings of the other 10 percent of the words as well as acquire new knowledge through their reading. But those students who know only 70 percent of the words will not understand the text (and thus, will neither begin learning the other 30 percent of the words, nor acquire knowledge from the text). Now, after looking at the text, they are further behind the advantaged group than they were before they read the text. If this pattern continues, the gap between the two groups will grow with each successive language experience.16

Let's focus for a bit on the subject of speeding up word learning for disadvantaged children. Between the ages of 2 and 17, an advantaged child learns an average of 10 to 15 new words a day.* But the growth in vocabulary is not linear: No one learns the same number of words every day, week, or year. The number of new words gained per unit of time is rather small at age 2, and it rises with each succeeding year. In later life, when people already know most of the words they hear and read, the number of new words they gain per year slows down again.17

This nonlinear pattern of vocabulary growth allows us to make a hopeful qualification of the Matthew effect in reading comprehension. Vocabulary growth in the typical school is similar to the growth of money in an interest-bearing bank account. Suppose the interest on money is compounded at 5 percent a year. Somebody who starts out with just $10 in an account will fall further and further behind somebody who starts out with $100. After 10 years, the initial difference of $90 will become a larger difference of $146. That is because the growth rates stay the same for both accounts and the supply of money is not limited. That pattern, unfortunately, describes the vocabulary gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students—it widens over time.18 Potentially, though, schools could alter this pattern because the rates of vocabulary growth in the two students do not have to be identical. If a student who is behind in word knowledge can be brought to know 90 percent of the words that she hears and reads in school, then she can pick up new words at a faster rate than the advantaged student who already knows 95 percent of the words heard and read in school. This is because the former child is getting more opportunities to learn new words since she is further from a point of diminishing returns.

Besides this structural possibility for narrowing the vocabulary gap, there is a further opportunity for catching up, depending on the special richness of the vocabulary being studied in school. That is because the vocabulary heard in school is potentially richer than the vocabulary heard outside school. Oral speech tends to use a smaller vocabulary than written speech.19 Almost all of the rare words that we know have been gained from print—print that we read silently or that is read aloud to us.20 If school conditions provide enough context familiarity to speed up the learning of these rarer words for all groups, then the relative gain by the disadvantaged groups will be greater and the gap will be narrowed.

III. What Knowledge and How Much?

Such is the case for the fundamental, inescapable importance of substantial, broad background knowledge for reading comprehension (and for performing well on reading comprehension tests). But agreement on this begs the next question: Knowledge of what? What knowledge should the schools be responsible for teaching to all kids? I believe that part of the answer is quite straightforward, and I hope uncontroversial—and to teach it ought to take about 40–60 percent of curricular time. I will return to this question in a moment and explain how I think we should answer it.

But beyond this central core of knowledge that all students should know, how should the rest of students' curricular time be spent? Exactly how much emphasis should schooling give to a particular event, individual, or historical trend? The answers to these questions will always be somewhat subjective. Individuals from different regions and from different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds may have particular views about what the proper emphases should be. In addition, local districts, states, schools, and individual teachers will have particular ideas about what should be taught, given their particular histories and their own knowledge of what is interesting, relevant, and useful to the students in their schools and classes. Part of the curriculum, perhaps about half, should be reserved for topics that have local resonance. Different locales will make different choices and the debates over those choices will no doubt be lively and interesting—and hopefully enrich our children's education in many ways.

But while we pursue these debates and encourage local areas to make different choices about how to allocate this portion of the curriculum, let's also move quickly to identify what should be in the half of the curriculum that all students deserve to be taught. The question that we need to answer is what must students learn so that as adolescents and adults they are able to comprehend written and spoken material aimed at educated general audiences—newspaper stories of civic interest, political debates, popular books and magazines, entry-level college texts, job-related reading, high school exit tests and SATs, directions and commentaries by employers, testimony heard by juries, etc. Students who possess this knowledge are prepared to participate in civic life, move up career ladders, succeed in college, converse confidently with a wide variety of Americans with whom they work or socialize, and generally have the esteem that comes with being regarded as an educated person.

So, again the question: What knowledge?

Students Need the Knowledge That Allows Them to Read Material Aimed at a "General Audience"

To sketch an answer to the question of what knowledge, we need a good understanding of the notion of the "general audience." When we say we want to educate good readers, we don't mean that we expect them to read a treatise aimed at physicists or constitutional scholars; we mean that we expect them to be good "general readers." But what does that mean? It sounds almost circular, but it means that they possess the shared knowledge that is assumed by individuals who communicate with an educated general audience.

Every newspaper and book editor and every producer for radio and TV is conscious of the need to distinguish what can be taken for granted from what must be explained. Learning the craft of writing is bound up with learning how to gauge what can be assumed versus what must be explained. The general reader that every journalist or TV newscaster must imagine is somebody whose relevant knowledge is assumed to lie between the total ignorance of a complete novice and the detailed knowledge of an expert. A newspaper baseball story cannot assume an audience as uninformed about the game as our imagined British person or one consisting of baseball experts. Every person who speaks and writes must make an estimate of what can be left unexplained and what must be explicitly stated. Proficiency in reading (and listening, speaking, and writing) requires possession of the broad knowledge that the general reader is assumed to have.

Here are the first three paragraphs of an article by Katherine Greider, taken at random from the City Lore section of the New York Times on November 13, 2005. It is an example of writing addressed to a general reader that a literate American high school graduate would be expected to understand.

As the civil rights figure Rosa Parks lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda two weeks ago, her 19th-century Northern forerunner, a young black schoolteacher who helped integrate New York's transit system by refusing to get off a streetcar in downtown Manhattan, rested in near-perfect obscurity.

Mrs. Parks's resistance on a bus became a central facet of American identity, a parable retold with each succeeding class of kindergartners. But who has ever heard of Elizabeth Jennings?

The disparity is largely an accident of timing. Thanks to television, Americans around the country became a witness to events in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala.; by contrast, Jennings's supporters had to rely on a burgeoning but still fragmented mid-19th-century press. By 1955, when Parks refused to be unseated, segregation was emerging as an issue the nation could not ignore. When Jennings, 24, made her stand, on July 16, 1854, the first eerie rebel yell had yet to rise from a Confederate line. Segregation was a local or perhaps a regional story. It was slavery that was tearing the nation apart.

This example shows that the background knowledge required to understand the general sections of the New York Times, such as the City Lore section, is not deep. It is not that of an expert—of course not, for we cannot all be experts on the diverse subjects that are treated by newspapers. If publishers want their papers to be sold and read widely, they must not assume that their readers are experts. They may take for granted only the relevant background knowledge that a literate audience can be expected to possess.

What do readers need to know in order to comprehend this passage? First and foremost, we need to know who Rosa Parks was—indeed, the author suggests that those who do not know of Rosa Parks are less knowledgeable than the typical kindergartner. We need to have at least a vague semantic grasp of key words like integrate, streetcar, obscurity, parable, disparity, and segregation. We must be able to picture "a burgeoning but still fragmented" press and grasp how it contrasts with 1955 television's ability to make Americans a "witness" to events. We need to know some of the things mentioned with exactness, but not others. The author clearly does not expect us to know who Elizabeth Jennings was—but we are expected to know enough about Parks to immediately grasp what Jennings faced when she refused to get off a streetcar. The mere mention of Montgomery, Ala., is assumed to trigger a flood in our minds of facts, film footage, and photos from the bus boycotts. Likewise, the words "rebel yell" and "Confederate line" are assumed to fill our minds with facts and photos from the Civil War. Note, however, that more knowledge is assumed with regard to Montgomery in 1955 than Manhattan in 1854: Greider reminds us that segregation was at best a regional issue in Jennings's time. Consider the knowledge domains included in this list. Montgomery belongs to history and geography; so does the North. The two means of communication and the two means of transportation belong not only to history, but also to technology. Civil rights and Parks lying in state belong to history, current events, and politics. We may infer from this example that only a person with broad general knowledge is capable of reading with understanding the New York Times and other such newspapers.

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Reading achievement will not advance significantly until schools recognize and act on the fact that it depends on the possession of a broad but definable range of diverse knowledge. Our sketch of the background knowledge needed to understand Greider's short passage offers clues to the kind of instruction that is needed to advance general reading comprehension ability. It will be broad instruction in the worlds of nature and culture that will build the necessary platform for gaining deeper knowledge through listening and reading.

What Knowledge Is Necessary to Be a Good General Reader?

The knowledge that exists in the world and could, in theory, be targeted toward children is infinite. How can we identify what portions of that knowledge are best to help students become strong general readers? My colleagues Joseph Kett and James Trefil and I set out to define an answer that would provide useful guidance for schools. We asked ourselves, "In the American context, what knowledge is taken for granted in the classroom, in public orations, in serious radio and TV, in books and magazines and newspapers addressed to a general audience?" We considered and tried out various scholarly approaches to this problem.

Ultimately, we determined that the best way to answer this question was by asking professional speakers and writers (including, for example, lawyers, who must convince juries, and newspaper reporters) what specific items of knowledge they take for granted when they speak and write. We then used a process that involved regional groups of teachers, as well as administrators, representatives from education and other groups, a multicultural advisory group, and scholars from relevant disciplines to review the critical material, to add to it, and to subtract from it. From people in every region of the country we found a reassuring amount of agreement on the substance of this taken-for-granted knowledge.

Several years after our compilation of such knowledge was published, independent researchers investigated whether reading comprehension ability did in fact depend on knowledge of the topics we had set forth. The studies showed an unambiguous correlation between knowledge of these topics and reading comprehension scores, school grades, and other indexes of reading skill.21 One researcher investigated whether the topics we set forth as taken-for-granted items are in fact taken for granted in newspaper texts addressed to a general reader. He examined the New York Times by computer over a period of 101 months and found that "any given day's issue of the New York Times contained approximately 2,700 occurrences" of these unexplained terms, which "play a part in the daily commerce of the published language."22

This technical approach to deciding what children need to know in order to join the literate speech community is, of course, just one strategy for identifying the content we need to teach in the early grades. It does not include our ethical, civic, and aesthetic aspirations for education, nor topics that are of particular interest in some places but not others. But this technical approach is a big start. It is remarkable how much of the early curriculum in America can be built by simply asking the question, "Is this information often taken for granted in talk and writing addressed to a general literate audience?" As my colleagues at the Core Knowledge Foundation have shown, a very rich and interesting early education can be based on this principle. Striking examples of success from applying this approach can be found—disadvantaged students gaining ground, and all students gaining high literacy. (See "Engaging Kids with Content: 'The Kids Love It'.")

IV. Maximizing Reading Comprehension, ­Especially Among Poor Children

Time is of the essence. Because of the Matthew effect, the greatest opportunities for enhancing language comprehension come early; once wasted, they may be lost permanently. What are the best ways to use school time productively so that we bring students from all social backgrounds to proficiency in reading and writing? How can we impart the most enabling language and knowledge as quickly as possible? Most reading activities that teachers and parents engage in with young children have been shown by research to be beneficial. But research rarely asks or answers a crucial question—what is the opportunity cost of engaging in this reading activity rather than that one?

"Opportunity cost" is an important concept from economics that reflects the fact that we forgo some benefits whenever we engage in one activity rather than another. If we read the same story three times to a child, we need to ask, how great are the benefits that the child will accrue by repetition compared to the benefits of using that valuable time in more productive activities, such as reading other stories on the same topic? If we ask students to repeatedly endure lessons and exercises on "main idea" and "prediction" and "inferencing" instead of using that time to familiarize them with important content, are we using the time as well as we could? The principle of opportunity cost in reading instruction has become even more important now that longer periods—as much as two and one-half hours in New York City and California and at least 90 minutes virtually everywhere—are being devoted to language arts in the early grades. This means that language arts are getting time that in the past may have been allotted to history, science, and the arts. Yet those neglected subjects are ultimately among the most essential ones for imparting the general knowledge that underlies reading comprehension.

Bring Content to Reading Instruction

A great opportunity is being lost when an efficient and coherent approach to the knowledge required for reading is neglected in the very place where it is most needed—namely, in the long hours devoted to the subject of reading. Decoding experts suggest that for most children, about 30 minutes per day is necessary to teach decoding in grades 1 and 2 (more and with greater intensity for struggling students).23 Where schools spend 90–120 minutes per day on reading throughout the elementary grades, that leaves at least an hour per day that could be devoted to imparting the language and world knowledge that is most important for competence in listening, talking, reading, and writing. Substantive topics in literature, history, the arts, and the sciences—all of which literate Americans take for granted—are deeply interesting and highly engaging to children.

For many years, the great reading researcher Jeanne Chall complained that the selections offered in language arts classes did not provide students with the knowledge and language experiences they need for general competence in reading. In the two decades since Chall entered this complaint, little has changed. Regrettably, most early reading materials and programs take such a formalistic view of reading comprehension that they neglect the systematic expansion of children's general knowledge and accompanying vocabulary. The systematic phonics in these programs (which, on the whole, are admirable) are not backed up by a systematic approach to the background knowledge that the children will need for later reading comprehension.24

We need to reconceive language arts as a school subject. In trying to make all students proficient readers and writers, there is no avoiding the responsibility of imparting the specific knowledge they will need to understand newspapers, magazines, and serious books directed at the national language community. There is no successful shortcut to teaching and learning this specific knowledge. Those who develop language arts programs at the school level or in publishing houses must understand that the skills they wish to impart are in fact knowledge-drenched and knowledge-constituted. The happy consequence will be reading programs that are much more absorbing, enjoyable, and interesting than the disjointed, banal programs offered to students today.

Topic Immersion

We know that proficient reading requires an adequate vocabulary. We know that children's vocabularies will get bigger when they hear or read rich material, fiction or nonfiction. But not everyone knows how to answer these questions about time use: What is the most effective way to foster vocabulary gain? Is it better to read a child a short text of a different kind each day, or is it better to stay on a topic that stretches over several days or weeks? As we have seen, important research suggests that children can learn words much faster if we stick to the same topic for several sessions, because word learning occurs much faster—up to four times faster—when the verbal context is familiar.25

Suppose, for example, you are reading to 5-year-old Dmitri a story about kings and queens. If you extend that topic for the next few days by reading more fiction and nonfiction stories about kings and queens, how they lived, and what they did, the chances are that Dmitri will increase his general knowledge and vocabulary faster than if you read about zebras the next day, planets the day after that, and so on. Clearly, then, a good way to induce fast vocabulary gain for young children (for whom so much is new and unfamiliar) is to stay on a subject long enough for the general topic to become familiar.

Oral Language Development/Reading Aloud

The crucial years for gaining a good start in language are the early years.26 At the youngest ages, 2 through 7, long before children can comprehend through reading as well as they can through listening, progress in language occurs chiefly through listening and talking, not through reading and writing. This reality has rightly resulted in some time being devoted to teacher read-alouds in the early grades. But it's worth considering how we might treat these read-alouds and the conversations they generate differently if we regarded them as absolutely fundamental to imparting necessary knowledge to children. For example, we might consider the effects of topic immersion—reading a sequence of books on a significant topic (over days or weeks) instead of selecting books as stand-alone texts. We would select books in part for the topics and language they brought to the classroom and for the challenging classroom conversations they sparked. We would consider how to use other classroom activities to engage children in the content of the books.

We need to place a great deal of emphasis in early grades reading classes on nonwritten, oral activities—on adults reading aloud coherent and challenging material, on discussing it, on having children elaborate on these materials. There is every scientific reason to predict that an intensive focus on oral language development during the classroom reading period in early grades will not only raise reading achievement for all students, it will also help narrow the gap between social groups.

V. Beyond the Reading Class—Imparting Important Knowledge ­Systematically, from the Earliest Ages

Great strides could be taken with reading comprehension if we simply brought well-considered content into the reading curriculum. But there's no getting around the fact that that's only the beginning. If we really want to impart to students the general knowledge that will allow them to be strong general readers, they, especially if they're not already from print-rich homes, deserve immersion in well-considered content all day long—and from the earliest ages. And, as we will see, for practical reasons, the specifics of the content—and when it will be taught—can't be decided separately by each school, teacher, or district. Not if we really care about whether our students actually learn what they need to learn in order to be strong readers.

Why Educational Effectiveness and Equity Require Students across Schools to Share a Curriculum Core

I'm now looking at one state's guidelines for language arts. (I won't reveal the state, since its request for me to review the document indicates its own dissatisfaction with them.) This state curriculum guide is quite typical. It is a 103-page document organized into a dozen broad categories, all of which apply to all grades from kindergarten through grade 12. The general categories have process rubrics like "Students shall demonstrate knowledge and understanding of media as a mode of communication," "Students shall employ a wide range of strategies as they write, using the writing process appropriately," and "Students shall apply a wide range of strategies to read and comprehend written materials." Then, in the more "detailed" amplifications of these categories for the early grades, we find directives like, "Distinguish the purpose of various types of media presentations, using informational or entertainment presentations," "Use a variety of planning strategies/organizers," and "Draft information collected during reading and/or research into writing." For later grades, the detailed amplifications are directives like, "Write research reports that include a thesis and use a variety of sources" and "Read a variety of literature, including historical fiction, autobiography, and realistic fiction."

These are empty admonitions. And they constitute the first major shortcoming of these process-oriented, formalistic guidelines—they offer no real guidance. In offering no guidance, they guarantee an incoherent education with huge gaps and boring repetitions. Elementary school students reasonably complain of reading Charlotte's Web three years in a row. That's not too surprising. With guidelines like these, why should Mr. Green in grade three, Ms. Jones in grade four, and Ms. Hughes in grade five not treat their students to a book they are very fond of? Of course, while students are reading that estimable work three years running (being bored in two of them), they are missing at least two other estimable books they might have been introduced to.

This kind of problem is not limited to language arts. I once did an analysis of a district science curriculum which, like most American curricula, had a hands-on, formalistic, process orientation and found that students did a hands-on study of seeds in four different grades but were never required to learn about photosynthesis at all.27 Gaps and repetitions are the reality of American students' school experience even when they stay in the same school—and the gaps are far greater for those many disadvantaged students who must change schools (see "Why the Absence of a Content-Rich Curriculum Core Hurts Poor Children Most"). These gaps and repetitions occur unwittingly, not through the fecklessness of guideline makers nor the incompetence of teachers, but thanks to the formalistic idea that no particular piece of knowledge will boost reading comprehension more than any other. It is true that some of the new state standards can point to increasingly specific guidance in a few areas, but these are the exceptions. In general, the de facto curriculum in the American school is defined by the textbooks that are used and by the selections within them that are made according to the tastes and beliefs of individual teachers. In other words, the curriculum in most American classrooms is an unknown curriculum, one that assures incoherence from grade to grade and school to school.

*  *  *

Coherence and commonality of curriculum, gained through specifying core content, has decisive educational advantages over our vague, laissez faire curriculum arrangements. Of course, by "commonality of content," I do not mean a 100 percent common curriculum across the nation under which each child in each early grade follows exactly the same course of study. I mean rather a more reasonable percentage of common content, such as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann had in view—say, between 40 and 60 percent of the topics that young children are taught.

In addition, to reduce the negative impact of massive student mobility, we must reach agreement not only about what subject matter should be taught in school, but also about the grade level at which that agreed-upon subject matter should be taught. Just as we have created a convention about the standard spelling of Mississippi, we need to create a convention about the grade level at which school topics shall be introduced. If we agree that primary-grade children should be taught about the lives of George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr., then we have an obligation to decide when these topics will be introduced. The ravages of mobility on disadvantaged students ought to exert a powerful moral claim in favor of such a policy, which deserves to trump local sentiments about whether kindergarten is or is not the right place for Washington or King. No one can really answer that question in absolute terms. In most cases, questions about proper grade level have no absolute right answer, because, as Jerome Bruner famously observed, almost any topic, if taught appropriately, can be taught at any school age.28

But Bruner's insight emphatically does not argue for laissez faire regarding the sequencing of topics. On the contrary, using an automotive analogy, either side of the road, appropriately demarcated, is suitable for driving in either direction—which is precisely why it is necessary to create a convention for determining whether the right side or the left side will be used. Whichever side of the road a state decides on, that same convention needs to hold for all roads in all the states, because cars cross state lines every day—just as disadvantaged students move across schools (and districts and even states) every day. The consequence of not creating a convention about the sequencing of agreed-upon topics is that some highly mobile students will never read Charlotte's Web or Langston Hughes, while others will hear about them endlessly, in kindergarten, grade one, grade two, and beyond.

Why Equity Requires Knowledge-Rich Preschool for Children from Low-Income Homes

Research from many quarters argues that the sooner children can be exposed to and engaged with words, knowledge, language, and language conventions, the better off they'll be. The reason for this is clear: because the powerful Matthew effect will be working for them, not against them. That this is especially true for children from the poorest, least language-rich homes should be obvious.

When children are offered coherent, cumulative knowledge from preschool on, reading proficiency is the result. The fullest evidence for the validity of this prediction comes from large-scale studies conducted by French researchers on the effects of very early knowledge instruction in school on later reading achievement.29 The French are in a good position to perform such studies. They have been running state-sponsored preschools for more than a hundred years. By age 5, almost 100 percent of French children, including the children of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and southern Europe, attend preschools. At age 4, 85 percent of all children attend, and astonishingly, at age 2, 30 percent of all children attend. Analyses of records from tens of thousands of students—records that include detailed information about race, ethnicity, and social class—show that the earlier the child starts, the greater the positive effect on reading will be. By the end of fifth grade in France, the relative benefit to disadvantaged pupils who start at the amazingly early age of 2 rather than 4 is over one-half of a standard deviation, quite a large effect size. (In terms of percentile scores, it's like moving a student up from the 16th to the 31st percentile or from the 50th to the 69th percentile.) Those who start at age 3 do better in later reading than those who start at age 4, and starting school at age 4 is better than starting at age 5. These studies show that the long-term gain in starting early is greater for disadvantaged than for advantaged students.

*  *  *

Effective use of school time is especially important in all areas of learning connected with the advancement of language comprehension, which is inherently a slow process. For children who grow up in highly articulate homes where they hear a wealth of language every day, the need to use time effectively to enlarge language comprehension is not as critical as it is for children who grow up in language-barren circumstances. For those growing up in such homes, schools themselves should become highly effective and efficient imparters of language in all its aspects: vocabulary, syntax, knowledge, etc. If we can do that, greater reading comprehension, higher school achievement, and greater equity will be the result.

When James Coleman, the great sociologist of education, analyzed the school characteristics that had the greatest impact on educational achievement and equity, he found that schools with greater academic intensity—a persistent, goal-directed focus on academics—produced not only greater learning, but also narrowed the achievement gap between ethnic groups.30 That such academically focused schools would raise general achievement is obvious since an intense focus on academics is self-evidently the most likely means to raise academic achievement. The finding on narrowing the achievement gap is more interesting, and it has positive implications for both advantaged and disadvantaged students.

The theoretical explanation for Coleman's finding about equity is this: When students learn more in school during the course of a classroom period and during an entire year, disadvantaged students begin to catch up, even when their advantaged peers are learning more or less the same things they are. That is because disadvantaged students start out knowing less, so each additional bit of learning is proportionally more enabling to them than to students who already knew more. If we are reading a story about Johnny Appleseed and some students know how plants grow while others don't, the latter group, the botanically challenged students, will be the ones who learn most from the story (assuming they know at least 90 percent of the words), although both groups will learn something new about Johnny Appleseed.

And there is a further reason for the equity effect that Coleman observed. When a lot of learning is going on in school, the proportion of the academic knowledge gained in school increases and the proportion gained outside school decreases. When students are learning many academic things in the classroom, that will narrow the academic gap because disadvantaged students are more dependent on schools for gaining academic information than advantaged students. Advantaged students have a chance to learn a lot of academically relevant things from their homes and peer groups, whereas disadvantaged students learn academically relevant things mostly from their schools. Boosting the in-school proportion thus reduces the impact of the unfair distribution of out-of-school learning opportunities.

There is another point to be made here. A school that enrolls a heavily middle-class population faces a far lower hurdle in getting its children to reach high reading levels than does a counterpart school enrolling a heavily low-income population. The first school enrolls students who typically entered school ahead in their background knowledge and vocabulary and will have substantial access to knowledge and vocabulary in their non-school lives, as well (whether from summer camp, vacation trips, educated parents and relatives, museum visits, etc.). The counterpart school, with a heavily low-income student population, typically enrolls children who entered kindergarten already behind and have fewer opportunities to gain this knowledge and vocabulary outside school. In comparison to the first school, the low-income school's task of bringing its students to proficient reading comprehension levels is enormous. Schools that enroll many poor children can't be merely effective; to bring their students to proficient reading levels, they need to be supereffective. They need an extraordinary level of help, support, and good ideas to meet the challenges they face. I believe that the ideas put forward here can help these schools be supereffective, as their students, and the nation, need them to be.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., is the author of many books and articles, including the bestselling Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need. He is a fellow of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. (Full disclosure: American Educator's editor, Ruth Wattenberg, is on the foundation's board.) This article is adapted from The Knowledge Deficit, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., to be published by Houghton Mifflin Company in April, 2006. Copyright © 2006 by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. All rights reserved. Adapted with permission.

*Of course, the figure of 10 to 15 new words a day is not a description of the actual process of word learning. It is an average number, arrived at by taking the number of words that a superior student knows at age 17 and dividing that number by the number of days the student has lived from age 2 to age 17. Children actually gain vocabulary in fits and starts with advances and retreats and slow progress in small increments along a broad front. Words aren't learned through one or even two exposures; knowledge of what words mean and how they can be used gradually accumulates. (back to article)


1. Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York:Vintage Books.

2. Walsh, K. (2003). "Basal readers: The lost opportunity to build the knowledge that propels comprehension," American Educator, Spring 2003, p. 24–27.

3. Among the many research reports on this subject, the following are notable: A. Garnham and J. Oakhill, "The Mental Models Theory of Language Comprehension," in B. K. Britton and A. C. Graesser (eds.), Models of Understanding Text (Hillsdale, N.J.:Erlbaum, 1996); Arthur C. Graesser and Rolf A. Zwaan, "Inference Generation and the Construction of Situation Models," in Charles A. Weaver III, Suzanne Mannes, and Charles R. Fletcher (eds.), Discourse Comprehension: Essays in Honor of Walter Kintsch (Hillsdale, N.J.:Erlbaum, 1995), pp. 117–139; Walter Kintsch, Comprehension: A Paradigm for Cognition (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1998); H. van Oostendorp and S. R. Goldman (eds), The Construction of Mental Representations During Reading (Mahwah, N.J.:Erlbaum, 1999); and Rolf A. Zwaan, and Gabriel A. Radvansky, "Situation Models in Language Comprehension and Memory," Psychological Bulletin 123, 2 (Mar. 1998), p. 162–185.

4. Walsh, K. (2003). "Basal readers: The lost opportunity to build the knowledge that propels comprehension," American Educator, Spring 2003, p. 24–27.

5. Rosenshine, B. and Meister, C. (1994). Reciprocal Teaching: A Review of the Research. Review of Educational Research, 64, p. 479–530, Winter.

6. See, for example, Steven A. Stahl, Vocabulary Development (Cambridge, Mass.:Brookline, 1999).

7. Stephanie Caillies, Guy Denhiere, and Walter Kintsch, "The Effect of Prior Knowledge on Understanding from Text: Evidence from Primed Recognition," European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 14, 2 (Apr. 2002), p. 267–286.

8. Keith E. Stanovich, "Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy," Reading Research Quarterly 21, 4 (Fall 1986), p. 360–407.

9. M. Singer, R. Revlin, and M. Halldorson, "Bridging-Inferences and Enthymemes," in A. C. Graesser and G. H. Bower (eds.), Inferences and Text Comprehension (San Diego:Academic, 1990), p. 35–52.

10. Graesser, A. C., Singer, M., and Trabasso, T. (1995). "Constructing Inferences During Narrative Text Comprehension," Psychological Review 101, 3, p. 371–395; and Graesser, A. C. and Zwaan, R. A., "Inference Generation and the Construction of Situation Models," in Weaver III, C. A. and Mannes, S., et al. (eds) Discourse Comprehension: Essays in Honor of Walter Kintsch, Hillsdale, N.J.:Erlbaum, p. 117–139.

11. Cunningham, A. E. and Stanovich, K. E. (1997). "Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later," Developmental Psychology 33, 6, p. 934–945, November.

12. Cunningham, A. E. and Stanovich, K. E. (1998). "What Reading Does for the Mind," American Educator (Spring/Summer 1998): Vol. 2, No. 3; Hayes, D. P. and Ahrens, M. (1988). "Speaking and Writing: Distinct Patterns of Word Choice," Journal of Memory and Language 27, p. 572–85; and Chafe and Danielewicz (1987). "Properties of Spoken and Written Language," in Horowitz and Samuels (eds), Comprehending Oral and Written Language (San Diego:Academic), p. 83–113.

13. Gipe, J. P. and Arnold, R. D. (1979). "Teaching Vocabulary Through Familiar Associations and Contexts," Journal of Reading Behavior 11, 3; 281–285; and Pulido, D. C. (2001). "The Impact of Topic Familiarity, L2 Reading Proficiency, and L2 Passage Sight Vocabulary on Incidental Vocabulary Gain Through Reading for Adult Learners of Spanish as a Foreign Language," Dissertation Abstracts International, 61(10-A), p. 3892.

14. Landauer, T. K. and Dumais, S. T. (1997). "A Solution to Plato's Problem: The Latent Semantic Analysis Theory of Acquisition, Induction, and Representation of Knowledge," Psychological Review 104, 2, p. 211–240.

15. I. S. P. Nation, Teaching and Learning Vocabulary (New York:Newbury House, 1990); S. A. Stahl, Vocabulary Development (Cambridge, Mass.:Brookline Books, 1999).

16. Jencks, C. and Phillips, M. (eds) (1998). The Black-White Test Score Gap. Washington, D.C.:Brookings Institute Press.

17. Bowles, R. P. et al. (2005). "A Structural Factor Analysis of Vocabulary Knowledge and Relations to Age," Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 60B(5), p. P234–P241.

18. Graves, M. F., Brunetti, G. J., and Slater, W. H. (1982). "The reading vocabularies of primary-grade children of varying geographic and social backgrounds," in J. A. Harris and L. A. Harris (eds), New inquiries in reading research and instruction, p. 99–104, Rochester, N.Y.:National Reading Conference; also see Graves, M. F. and Slater, W. H. (1987), "The development of reading vocabularies in rural disadvantaged students, inner-city disadvantaged and middle-class suburban students" (paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, D.C.); also Baker, S. K., Simmons, D. C., and Kameenui, E. J. (1995), Vocabulary Acquisition Synthesis of the Research, Eugene, Ore.:National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators.

19. Hayes and Ahrens, "Speaking and Writing: Distinct Patterns of Word Choice"; Cunningham and Stanovich, "What Reading Does for the Mind," pp. 2–3; and Keith E. Stanovich, "Does Reading Make You Smarter? Literacy and the Development of Verbal Intelligence," in Hayne W. Reese (ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 24 (San Diego:Academic, 1993) p. xii, 317.

20. Keith E. Stanovich, "Does Reading Make You Smarter? Literacy and the Development of Verbal Intelligence," in Hayne W. Reese (ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 24 (San Diego:Academic, 1993).

21. Kosmoski, G. J. et al (1990). "Cultural Literacy and Academic Achievement," Journal of Experimental Education, 58, 4, p. 265–272, Summer; Pentony, J. F. (1997), "Cultural Literacy," Adult Basic Education, 7, 1, p. 39–45, Spring; and Hofstetter, C. R. (1999), "Knowledge, Literacy and Power," Communication Research, 26, p. 58–80.

22. Willinsky, J. "The Vocabulary of Cultural Literacy in a Newspaper of Substance," ERIC, ED 302836 EDRS.

23. Personal communication with Louisa Moats.

24. Walsh, K. (2003). "Basal readers: The lost opportunity to build the knowledge that propels comprehension," American Educator, Spring 2003, p. 24–27.

25. Landauer, T. K. and Dumais, S. T. (1997). "A Solution to Plato's Problem: The Latent Semantic Analysis Theory of Acquisition, Induction, and Representation of Knowledge," Psychological Review 104, 2, p. 211–240.

26. Hart, B. and Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Baltimore:Peter Brookes.

27. Hirsch, Jr., E. D. (1996). The Schools We Need, New York:Doubleday, p. 29.

28. Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education, Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, p. 33.

29. This research is translated and summarized on the Core Knowledge Web site:….

30. Coleman, J. S. (1990). Equality and Achievement in Education, San Francisco:Westview.

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