View Full Version : Building Knowledge

Alan D. Hyde
05-04-2006, 09:46 AM
Building Knowledge

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

By E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

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.

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The rest of this excellent essay (courtesy of www.aft.org ) is at---


General knowledge not only HELPS us understand what we've read, it also helps us (by association) to remember what we've read. The more we know, the more we're able to learn.

This is a link worth following.

Professor Hirsch makes an excellent case for once again teaching a comprehensive body of general knowledge to our children...


Alan D. Hyde
05-04-2006, 10:32 AM

Phillip Allen
05-04-2006, 11:16 AM
This is a good point...thanks

05-04-2006, 03:15 PM
Schools are generally unable to impart knowledge, period.

05-04-2006, 03:28 PM
Ahh, the motto of Faber College: "Knowledge is Good."

Right up there with "to thine own self be true."

05-04-2006, 03:37 PM
Knowledge is great - it just cannot be taught.

05-04-2006, 04:04 PM
I agree with Mr. Hirsch. The teaching to tests is a mistake, in amplification of the loss of standards that were just known, accepted, forty years ago.

A certain base of knowledge and understanding was accepted in secondary school. No need to test basic history, grammar, geography, thought processes. They'd been taught by sixth grade.

Now, we've got graduates of Cornell who can't read, and have no idea what century the English Civil War was fought. Let alone our own.

So, the desire to tighten up is there, but it won't be accomplished with tests. Hiring teachers who aren't trained in education would be one thing I'd push, if I had the reigns. There are many erudite folk out there still, some of whom would make great teachers.

05-04-2006, 04:05 PM
General knowledge not only HELPS us understand what we've read, it also helps us (by association) to remember what we've read. The more we know, the more we're able to learn. True and insightful. Piecing items of knowledge together to make a more complete picture of a whole subject is about the most satisfying kind of intellectual learning.

05-04-2006, 04:07 PM
I saw a "Bizarro" cartoon a week or so ago. A teacher was standing in front of a blackboard with "History 101" written in big letters. The teacher was saying to the students "The reason to pay attention in class is so you won't be fooled as easily as your parents were."