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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 04/ 6/2010

E.D. Hirsch Jr.: Common Core Standards could revolutionize reading instruction

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several acclaimed books on education issues, including the best-seller "Cultural Literacy."

By E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
The results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress recently released were as predictable as they were dispiriting. Reading scores for the nation’s 4th graders are unchanged since 2007. Eighth graders showed a one point uptick, but scores remained essentially flat.

Facts must be faced. We are making no progress at all in teaching children to read in the United States. Our massive and well-intentioned national effort to focus the work of our schools on improving reading instruction has failed. But our failure is less one of education policy, than the simple fact that we are wedded to a demonstrably flawed model of how to teach children to read.

There is a way we can sail out of the reading doldrums.

The recently released English Language Arts Standards drafted by the National Governors Association Center and the Council of Chief State School Officers may provide desperately needed wind we need to move forward. Released for comment several weeks ago, the document has been criticized by many observers as offering little improvement over the broad and insubstantial individual state standards they would replace. Indeed, stating that children should be able to “determine central ideas or themes of a text,” for example, would seem to offer little guidance on what teachers should teach, or how to reach this laudable, if obvious goal.

But look closely. Note the unusual title it carries: “Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies & Science.” The title shouts that language mastery requires knowledge of history, and science, (music and fine arts I hope will be included in due course) not just fiction and poetry. It states explicitly that these non-literary subjects should be generously represented in the long classroom hours devoted to literacy.

This emphasis on non-literary content is defended on the grounds that building “a foundation of knowledge in these fields will give [students] the background to be better readers in all content areas.”

That is an especially important consideration for the early grades, which now spend up to half the school day on literacy. Here is something new under the sun. It resists the infamous narrowing of the curriculum. And it is an important reform also for helping to overcome the test-score gap, which is essentially a knowledge gap, between racial and ethnic groups.

A second advance this document makes over existing ones is to recognize its own limitations. A whole section is devoted to “What is not covered by the Standards.” This turns out to be a lot, including teaching methods and the curriculum. But the concession is critical.

The word “standards” has misled the public into thinking that these documents represent curriculum guides. Yet not even the best of the current state standards defines a curriculum.

This document is, I believe, unique in stating that it is neither a curriculum nor a curriculum guide. Rather, it concedes explicitly that proficiency in reading and writing can only be achieved through a definite curriculum that is “coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

This is a welcome acknowledgement that only a cumulative, grade-by-grade curriculum, focused on coherent content, can lead to the high level of literacy which the nation needs.

In short, the Common Core Standards represent a fundamental and long overdue rethinking of the dominant process-approach to U.S. literacy instruction. To appreciate what a radical transformation it represents, one needs to understand how children are now schooled in literacy.

Reading is taught as if it’s a transferable skill. It’s assumed that once children learn how to convert printed symbols into sounds and words, or “decode,” they can be taught to read anything by practicing strategies such as “find the main idea” and “question the author.”

But cognitive science has shown that comprehension is “domain specific.” If you can comprehend this op-ed, it doesn’t mean you can also comprehend Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Several studies show that “poor” readers suddenly look quite strong when reading on subjects they know a lot about, and “strong” readers who have weak subject knowledge, suddenly look quite weak. Despite this finding, students are boringly and time-wastingly taught to practice formal strategies on trivial fictions as though these strategies will somehow replace the subject-matter knowledge needed to become broadly literate.

Transforming the elementary school “literacy block” into a rich, meaningful and sustained engagement with subject matter would be the single greatest transformation of instructional time in decades. If there is one Big Idea that can help arrest the decline of reading achievement in American schools, this is the one. To their credit, the authors of the Common Core standards have taken pains to get this right, and it is a master stroke.

Of course, plenty can go wrong. If textbook publishers hear the message “more nonfiction” instead of “coherent curriculum” then the effort will have come to little. Slapping random nonfiction (duly tested for complexity) into existing textbooks will be no more effective than the reading of random fiction has been.

The draft standards of course leave curriculum decisions to the states, but the message is clear: there must be a curriculum. And it must be coherent, specific and content-rich. Truly to adopt these standards means to adopt a curriculum having greater specificity and coherence than any currently followed by a state.

To my mind, the critical factor in a state’s decision to adopt the Common Core Standards would come down to a single question: Will my state be more or less likely to raise student achievement by adopting the standards and implementing them as recommended?

Cognitive science says unambiguously that the answer is “yes.” The authors have charted a way out of the incoherence that reading instruction has become. Whatever further improvements we might decide to suggest we would do well to follow their lead.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 6, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Reading  | Tags:  Common Core Standards, E.D. Hirsch, guest bloggers, reading  
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", meaningful and sustained engagement...." what great notions to weave into our reading curriculums. It is also very true that content knowledge is necessary for comprehension. When I was teaching at an alternative high school for poor readers, the faculty noticed that many of the reluctant scholars became eloquent when writing about 'Dungeons and Dragons': they could rapsodize on character descriptions,write out lists (correct spellings even!)of 50 weopons, different armors, etc. etc.

This from a poet addressing kindergarden parents:
"Give your children experiences;otherwise, what will they have to write about?"

As an artist & theater buff, I would love to see the 'content-rich' curriculum envisioned here include methodologies that
reinforce language and social skills, such as writing and performing short plays on the content learned, reading and writing poems on the content studied, create "historical newspapers", etc. etc.
A tapestry of many colors, in other words.

It won't hurt the textbook companies to get a little more creative themselves.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | April 6, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Yes. Good idea having science readings and social studies readings right in the reading text.

At my child's school they kept sending home these little booklets with a very lame plot. Then the kids had to answer questions about the books that required them to use information from the text. The questions were good, but the books were so awful! Then, in fourth grade the homework became
"Choose a book, they call it a "Just Right Reading Book" and they read that for 20 minutes and then do questions about the characters, plot, etc. Sometimes they have historical fiction, sometimes non-fiction. But they get to choose the books. This is the first year my daughter reads and does her homework on her own. It could be due to her age, but I also think it is because she is reading real books and choosing them herself.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 6, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

PJMichaelsArtist at Large

Writing and performing plays would help kids with reading, writing, social skills and on top of all those, they would have fun and would be less likely to drop out of school!
Of course, this idea has not been studied by an Ivy League College or a Education- business corporation, or the Chicago Public Schools or a Texas system, so we can't prove that having fun while learning challenging material would do anything for the drop out rate.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 6, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

This articles totally ignores the fact that by the fourth grade, test scores can indicate the children that are already reading on a 12th grade level.

Reading tests at the fourth grade are tests of comprehension and not simply an identification of the word "blue" from the word "red".

Research of the children that read at the 12th grade level in these tests would probably find that these children knew how to read before entering the first grade.

Reading is a skill that a child either has or does not have and it should be no surprise that children that do not have this skill by the fourth grade do not have it by the 8th or 12th grade.

The focus of public school education has to be almost exclusively on children learning to read by the fourth grade, instead of the pretense that children that fail to learn to read by the fourth grade will later learn to read.

Posted by: bsallamack | April 6, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse


I agree that reading instruction is important at the early levels but disagree about when a student is able to "prove" it. My son is in 6th grade and is one of those kids who reads above 12th grade level(supposedly), but he did not begin really reading until second grade. My daughter just began to pick up on reading now in fourth grade. Neither of my kids could read before first grade.

Also, I taught fourth grade for years and I was lucky to have a classroom aid. I had a few kids who were actually illiterate in fourth grade. I put them with the aid and they had intense small group instruction everyday and they did learn to read. Most were on 2nd or 3rd grade level by the end of the year.

But I couldn't have helped them without the extra adult in the room. They needed someone to sit next to them and make them do the work and you can't do that while you teach the other 30 kids.

By the way, those kids learned to read in English and Spanish. Double achievement!!

Posted by: celestun100 | April 6, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Why won't this cranky old bastard really retire, already? I looked forward to something new in his latest book, and found all of that was in what he learned about reading and explicated from his former faculty colleague at U VA, D. Willingham.
Here, he's excited to have found support for content, a canon, which he's been shoveling for twenty-to-thirty years. Yes, the stuff which would presumably leave accomplished students from all Commonwealth Countries in remedial classes on entry to the US, because their reading and knowledge base was different. Haven't we seen clearly enough, again, in the Texas schoolbooks fiasco what happens when the examples of content become the extensive examples, canonical knowledge itself.

One more thing, Prof Hirsch. Get a capable undergrad to acquaint you with the NAEP data through the real-time Data Explorer. You can put to yourself the thought experiment: "What if in the next four years American boys were to demonstrate growth in reading so that their deficit compared to girls was completely closed?"
Yes, that would be 30 years worth of "growth."

Enough progress for you, Professor? Not possible without your recommended sylabus of required reading?

Posted by: incredulous | April 6, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Professor Hirsch but I'd like to explain his ideas as I understand them from a reading teacher's point of view:

While I was teaching I was well acquainted with the families of two children. "Mark" was the son of a math professor and a teacher. From infancy he was surrounded by books and read to frequently. By the age of four, Mark had an excellent vocabulary as well as many skills that prepare a child for school: the ability to identify shapes and letters,and to count objects. By the time Mark entered kindergarten he knew most of the sounds of the alphabet and could identify some words. He had already enjoyed travel and trips to the museums and sounded rather precocious when asked questions. He liked to tell people that his favorite painting was The Starry Night and his favorite president was Abraham Lincoln. Although Mark could not read when he entered first grade, he caught on easily with a phonics-based program and "was reading everything by Christmas." At his school, reading instruction took about an hour a day. The rest of the day was devoted to other subjects. If asked to read a selection about animals on a farm, Mark had no problem because he had visited a farm and knew the names for all the animals. By the end of first grade Mark was already an avid reader and was going through a children's encyclopedia by himself.

"Sofia" was the daughter of immigrants who spoke Spanish in the home. Her loving parents cared for her and provided Sofia with the basics of food and shelter but there was little time for family discussions as both parents had to work really hard. However, they were happy that Sofia was American-born and would learn "when she goes to school." They did not see themselves as Sofia's first teachers.

Sofia spent her first five years at home, playing with her sister and watching TV. Although she traveled to Mexico each year, she did not have many activities outside the home.

When Sofia got to kindergarten, she knew little English and was frightened by her surroundings. She could not write her name, identify colors, letters or sounds. Pressured to prepare her for testing, the teacher drilled her on phonemic awareness, sound blending and sight vocabulary. Sofia seemed bewildered by it all and was labeled "slow" by her teacher.

In first grade Sofia was drilled for hours each day on blending sounds into words. By the end of the year she could decode sentences like "Nan and her pig hid in the den" but she scored very poorly on the reading comprehension section of the benchmark test. She still spoke only "playground English."

This is what No Child Left Behind has done to children like Sofia. Instead of getting the content knowledge that would enable her to become a competent reader, she is getting drilled over and over again on skills that will allow her to "sound out" but not to read. With this type of instruction, it is no mystery to me why test scores have not improved.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 7, 2010 12:35 AM | Report abuse

"By the end of the year she could decode sentences like "Nan and her pig hid in the den" but she scored very poorly on the reading comprehension section of the benchmark test."

I was a good reader, but if I'd been asked to decode the sentence above, I'd be confused too. I'm confused right now, actually, not understanding what a pig would be doing hiding in a den, with or without Nan.

"See Dick run" makes a lot more sense.

Posted by: efavorite | April 7, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse


I agree that reading instruction is important at the early levels but disagree about when a student is able to "prove" it.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 6, 2010 4:50 PM
It really is not a question of proving it.
Results for reading in DC for 2009 were 56 percent failing in reading in the 4th grade and 49 percent failing in the 8th grade.

I can not conceive of improvements in public education with these types of problems not being addressed.

In my mind there is little point in continuing to sending children into the educational pipeline when children can not read.

Any public school system is doomed to failure if at say the 5th grade there is not a 90 percent success rate for children that can read.

Posted by: bsallamack | April 7, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

With our fund of knowledge doubling so rapidly, each discipline now has an almost infinite amount of information. How is it that we come to choose teaching X and Y as opposed to P. and Q.? If we provide free conditions for our students to explore what they find remarkable, interesting, and important, we would see that students would develop a growing love of learning, a growing inquisitiveness, and a growing self-direction. Today schools and universities coerce students into remembering isolated pieces of information which may soon become outdated. We need much more openness freedom and trust. As Mohandas Gandhi said: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." We may also say there is no way to trust. Trust is the way. Teachers need to trust students much more than they now do. Those students who lie, will soon find that they are only hurting themselves.
Conrad P. Pritscher, professor emeritus
Bowling Green State University

Posted by: conp926 | April 8, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I disagree. Our fund of knowledge is now doubling so rapidly that we will soon have a virtual infinite amount of knowledge in each field. If we freed students to explore what they find remarkable, interesting, and important, we would find that we are natural learners who love learning, who are inquisitive, and are self directing. Our present coercive schools and universities desire excessive certainty and as a result students are turned off from learning, aren't inquisitive nor are they self directing. This will understand the said: "there is no way to peace. Peace is the way." We might also say there is no way to trust. Trust is the way. If we trusted our students we would find that we would not need to coerce them into naturally learning to be self directing.
Conrad P. Pritscher, professor emeritus
Bowling Green State University

Posted by: conp926 | April 8, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Can't you just imagine states rubbing their hands in glee. If social studies, civics, history, etc. constitute the content of literacy instruction, states can eliminate those classes along with art and music and put even more focus on states' high stakes testing prep - the only thing that really matters. I concur with incredulous.

Posted by: becky6 | April 8, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Professor Pritscher's comment that the amount of knowledge doubles so rapidly that it makes no to try to teach a body of knowledge misses the point. The idea that we should just lets kids learn what they want overlooks Hirsch's insight that reading comprehension correlates with background knowledge. In other words, kids who learn only what they want will be competent readers only of the subjects they're interested in, which will hamper their ability to function as informed citizens. Hirsch's argument is, at its root, not a philosophical one but a technical one. Sure, events and technology change, but surely a body of lasting knowledge even a diverse society like ours can agree all children should know--and critically, that readers and speakers will take for granted they WILL know as adults, basic principles of government, major events of world history, essential elements of science and math, etc.

These fundamentals change very slowly, if at all.

Posted by: rpondiscio | April 8, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

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