To the Editor:
In his April 26, 2006, Commentary (“Reading-Comprehension Skills? What Are They Really?”), E.D. Hirsch Jr. contends that to improve comprehension, educators should focus on building students’ background knowledge, rather than on teaching comprehension strategies that use “trivial stories in basal readers.”
He appeals to cognitive science as justification for his position. But cognitive scientists’ conception of reading comprehension is that it is affected both by the reader’s prior knowledge and by active processing of text in ways that can be encouraged through strategies instruction.
In fact, much that is strategic depends on prior knowledge, for example, making predictions about what is coming next in text, constructing images representing the situation conveyed in the text, asking questions, and constructing interpretive summaries and reactions to the text. The leading basal series recognize this, teaching strategies as students read texts that have the potential to connect to prior knowledge and build additional knowledge about social studies, science, and human-values themes.
Mr. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge approach, a program he sells to the American public in competition with the basals he criticizes, flows from the knowledge-based conceptualization outlined in his essay. Rather than offering “a radical change of ideas” about reading comprehension, as he claims, Mr. Hirsch is attempting to resuscitate a position he advanced two decades ago, one producing only modest effects on reading, as evidenced in published evaluations.
If you want to select a program that promotes comprehension, pick one that develops children’s word-recognition skills and encourages the extensive reading required to increase fluency. Also select one that teaches students the vocabulary they need to know and offers a steady diet of texts to read that can build important knowledge, with students also taught the comprehension strategies that will permit them to get the most out of reading those texts.
Professor of Education
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Mich.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Hirsch Essay on Reading Breaks Little New Ground