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


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.
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

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 Opinion Media Coverage of Critical Race Theory Misses the Mark
News accounts of critical race theory focus on topics that are not particularly controversial, while neglecting those that are.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Curriculum A 'War on Books': Conservatives Push for Audits of School Libraries
After Texas banned critical race theory in schools, battles grew heated in the conservative suburbs surrounding the state's largest cities.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
12 min read
Image of books.
Curriculum Texas Lawmaker Demands Districts Provide Lists of Books on Racism, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ
The Texas attorney general candidate's request has received criticism from educator groups who say the inquiry is politically motivated.
Eleanor Dearman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
3 min read
Image of books on a library shelf.
Curriculum Teachers' Use of Standards-Aligned Curricula Slowed During the Pandemic
More math teachers are using standards-aligned materials than English/language arts teachers, according to RAND survey results.
4 min read
Illustration of a grading rubric.
priyanka gupta/iStock/Getty