Challenging children to read
E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (of "Cultural Literacy" fame) is back in the news in this Rocky Mountain News article about effective programs for getting kids past the "fourth-grade reading slump." Why is the teaching of reading comprehension such a "recalcitrant problem", as Hirsch puts it?
...because the more words you already know, the easier it is to learn the meaning of the new ones you encounter when you tread, and by the time they come to school, children differ greatly in how many words they already know...It's when they begin encountering lots of new words in their textbooks that the gap in language skills is revealed. And it widens over time.
How wide can this gap become?
In another article in the journal, "Early Catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3," Betty Hart and Todd Risley document the enormous difference in early language experience. They recorded more than 1,300 hours of parent-child conversation for 42 children from age 7 months to three years, whose parents included university professors, middle-income working parents, and parents on welfare.
Professors talk a lot, so it isn't surprising that in an average recorded hour they said more and used more different words than the adults in the other groups. But even their children - not older than 3, remember - used more different words in an hour than the adults in the other groups. By age 3 or 4, researchers estimated, the professionals' children had heard a total of tens of millions of words more than the children in the least verbal families. And the effects were still apparent when the researchers did a follow-up study of the children in third grade.
Tens of millions. It's staggering to contemplate, and it explains why rote vocabulary drills may not have much of an effect on kids once they master the basics of reading. These drills simply don't allow the kids who have fallen behind to assimilate new words quickly enough. What does Hirsch think will work?
Start early, Hirsch suggests, "to build word and world knowledge." Apart from the time spent specifically on decoding skills, where it is appropriate to limit vocabulary to build confidence, much of the time spent on language arts is a wasted opportunity to introduce children to new words and concepts. When teachers read aloud, the material should be a couple of years ahead of the children's own reading skills, and should be followed by class discussion of the new topics for further practice...
A really good school program, Hirsch concludes, is inherently egalitarian and compensatory. It has a bigger effect on low-income children because they typically have more to learn, and if the program is effective they begin to catch up. A weak program, on the other hand, does more damage to low-income students because they need more from school than their more advantaged peers.
Which is a nice way of saying that schools that dumb down reading requirements for poorly-performing, low-income students under the guise of protecting their "self-esteem" are doing far more harm than good.