To the Editor:
Michael Pressley’s May 10, 2006, letter in response to E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Commentary represents exactly the roadblock that education schools nationwide have, for decades, placed in the path of developing elementary school children’s skill and pleasure in reading and learning.
As a former volunteer teacher’s aide in two New York City public schools where more than 90 percent of students were eligible for the free-lunch program, I have witnessed ad nauseam the inertia and boredom of pupils in grades 1-4 who are required to find the “main idea” and to “predict” what comes next in their texts, at the expense of precious time available to absorb the content of the day’s reading sessions. And how dull much of that content is—little stories about their neighborhoods, sibling rivalries, and so on, assembled on the theory that children “relate” best to the familiar.
The truth, for me, lies in a cherished memory: sitting in the hall on a hard bench, with one tough little 3rd grade boy on one side and another on the other, physically holding them down as they fought across me to read a portion of Peter Pan, both proclaiming their undying love for the fairy Tinker Bell.
Children love the unfamiliar, fantasy, drama, adventure, and, equally, they love information, facts. They love Egypt, planets and stars, dinosaurs, kings and queens, evil stepmothers. They also want to know where their home city is in relation to the rest of their home nation and continent and globe, where the other continents and nations are, where the seas go, who George Washington was and what he did. Students want to know the facts; they want, and are proud of, knowledge.
But there is no time, even in school days that have painfully diminished all subjects but reading and math, to teach effectively both “comprehension strategies” and “knowledge.” Time spent on the first badly subtracts from the second.
The reverse, however, is not true. If the reading material provided includes both good fiction and interesting informational subject matter, adjusted of course to the age and stage of the children, acquaintance with this “knowledge” in itself generates expanded “comprehension,” especially through increasing vocabulary. Learning substantive knowledge, of literature, geography, history, or science, itself increases “comprehension.”
On a recent Teacher Magazine “Blogboard,” one teacher said it best: “Perhaps the best thing an English teacher can do is try not to build more walls between the kids and the content than is really necessary” (April 27, 2006).
Unhappily, what the education school establishment has done over the decades is to insist on building such walls. And the calamitous result appears in another article in the same issue of Education Week as Mr. Pressley’s letter. The headline reads “Young Adults Don’t Think World Knowledge Is Vital.”
The lesson is too obvious to belabor. E.D. Hirsch Jr. presents a persuasive remedy.
Louisa C. Spencer
New York, N.Y.
The writer is a trustee of the Core Knowledge Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2006 edition of Education Week as Hirsch Offers ‘Persuasive Remedy’ for Reading Ills