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Reading & Literacy

Using a Curriculum Rich in Arts, History, and Science Led to Big Reading Improvements

By Sarah Schwartz — April 11, 2023 6 min read
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More school districts are interested in using reading programs designed to build students’ broad knowledge about the world by focusing their reading and writing on specific topics in social studies, science, and the arts.

Now, a new study of one of these approaches has shown strongly positive results for students’ reading comprehension.

The program is the Core Knowledge Sequence, a set of guidelines for the content and skills that students should learn in pre-K-8. Developed by the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation, the approach is based on the work of education researcher E.D. Hirsch, who has argued for decades that students’ reading comprehension hinges on wide-ranging background knowledge—a shared “cultural literacy.”

In a new working paper, a team of researchers at the University of Virginia, the University of Notre Dame, and Auburn University studied what happened when schools took this approach.

On average, the students in schools that used the framework scored a statistically significant 16 percentile points higher on end-of-year state tests than a control group of students who did not, after controlling for race, gender, and free and reduced lunch eligibility.

“Sixteen percentile points is a very large effect,” said David Grissmer, a research professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, and the lead author on the study. “If you have a kid in school, and he ends up at the 50th percentile—kind of in the middle of the group—16 percentile points would put him ahead of two-thirds [of the group],” Grissmer said.

The role of background knowledge in reading comprehension

Research has long shown a link between background knowledge and reading comprehension. Readers with more general knowledge about the world tend to have an easier time understanding new texts.

Most of this research is correlational, though, and there are other factors that could be at play. People who score higher on tests of general knowledge also tend to have greater language ability, for instance, and tend to be from higher-income backgrounds.

It’s also not clear whether explicitly teaching background knowledge in school can lead to better reading comprehension overall. One factor in this equation is how far students’ knowledge can transfer.

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Open book with space theme complete with hand drawn astronaut and planets coming alive off the pages.
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If a student learns about Greek gods in class, it makes intuitive sense that they would do better on a reading comprehension test about Greek gods. But most reading tests—the year-end tests every state gives, for example—aren’t designed to cover the topics that students have learned in school. They’re tests of general comprehension.

So, does learning about specific topics improve general comprehension?

The researchers on this paper found that students in the Core Knowledge schools did score higher on general comprehension tests.

Their focus was nine charter schools in Colorado that used the Core Knowledge Sequence to guide instruction between 2010-2016. To set up the experiment, they took advantage of the charters’ lottery systems.

More families applied for kindergarten slots at these charter schools than were available. After the lotteries, the researchers ended up with two randomly selected groups of students: One that got into the charters that used Core Knowledge, and one where students didn’t get spots at the charters and went to other schools. The researchers followed these children through 6th grade.

Then the researchers examined state test results for students in grades 3-6 in reading/language arts and math, and results for 5th grade science. Students in the Core Knowledge charter schools outperformed their peers who attended other schools, both charter and traditional public schools.

Most of the schools in the Core Knowledge-using sample were predominantly middle- and high-income. But in the one school that served mostly low-income families, the effect sizes were even larger in reading. The students in this school also outperformed their peers in math.

To Grissmer, the study suggests strong evidence for the idea that a curriculum based in general knowledge can improve reading comprehension. Still, he said, it’s possible that there were other factors influencing students’ scores, especially at the one school that served predominantly low-income families.

“When you only have a single school, there are lots of things that [could affect the results]—maybe something else happened at that school,” he said.

There are other potential differences between the treatment and control groups that could have affected results. Most of the Core Knowledge school teachers received professional development on how to implement the guidelines, while it’s not clear what PD teachers at other schools received. The program also uses different methods than many other reading curricula—relying more heavily on read-alouds, for example.

How culturally responsive is the idea of ‘core’ knowledge?

The Core Knowledge Sequence itself is not a curriculum. Instead, it outlines topics that teachers should cover. In kindergarten, for example, students read fairytales from around the world, learn about the seven continents and the oceans, and study Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, and the 4th of July.

The sequence forms the foundation for Core Knowledge Language Arts, or CKLA, a curriculum sold by Amplify. Free versions of some of the materials are available on the Core Knowledge Foundation’s website.

There are other commercially available curricula that also aim to build students’ knowledge systematically around different topics. These programs are all structured in different ways. While CKLA includes a broad survey of topics, other curricula ask students to delve deeply into just a handful of content areas in a year.

How to balance these two priorities—depth vs. breadth—is an open question, researchers say.

The Core Knowledge sequence has also come under criticism from some educators and commentators who say that it overemphasizes Western history and literature and white, male historical figures.

“CKLA is unequivocally a master narrative curriculum,” said Callie Patton Lowenstein, a bilingual elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C. She referenced a lesson included in the kindergarten materials available for free on the Core Knowledge Foundation’s website, which asks students to learn a song about Columbus sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

“The asterisk I would put is, the schools you’re comparing to aren’t using culturally responsive curriculum either,” said Patton Lowenstein, noting a recent report from New York University that claimed that several of the most popular English/language arts curricula in the country are “culturally destructive,” reinforcing stereotypes and portraying people of color as inferior.

Larry Berger, the CEO of Amplify, said that CKLA is “dramatically more diverse” now than the Core Knowledge Sequence was in its original form. The curriculum is revised periodically, and a supplemental biography series including stories of women and people of color was recently added, and is available to download for free on the Core Knowledge Foundation’s website.

These changes throughout the years are “in part a corrective, and in part because what is ‘core knowledge’ has changed,” Berger said. “If you turn on the radio, or you engage in pop culture, or you read, there are much more diverse cultural references.”

Still, Patton Lowenstein said that it’s possible for curriculum developers to do more—to create content-rich curriculum that starts from a place of centering a diversity of voices and experiences. Standards for social studies, especially, are “very open” in the early grades, she said. “If you’re trying to align to social studies standards, you have a lot of flexibility.”

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