Opinion
Curriculum Letter to the Editor

Hirsch Essay on Reading Breaks Little New Ground

May 09, 2006 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Michael Pressley

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

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum Miami School Board Reverses Itself, Approves Sex Ed. Textbook
The board reversed itself again to accept the text but to maintain a block on access on the more controversial chapters.
3 min read
Image of books on a library shelf.
iStock/Getty
Curriculum Florida School Board Rejects Sex Ed. Textbook Under Pressure
Critics said the material was not age appropriate for students in middle and high school.
2 min read
Image of books.
iStock/Getty
Curriculum 4 Ways States Are Exerting More Control Over Classroom Materials
States have limited power over what materials teachers use—but some are wielding influence anyway.
7 min read
Curriculum Opinion A Search for Common Ground: Navigating Tough Classroom Conversations
Should parents or legislators have a say in what subjects educators teach?
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty