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Posts Tagged ‘Nonie Lesaux

Background Knowledge for any Reading Comprehension?

Irene Sege published on September 27, 2011 under “Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension” (with slight editing and abridging)

“The recent performance on the third grade reading MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) dipped in 2011.  This disappointing result underscores the need to focus on this critical educational benchmark. Almost two-fifths (39%) of the Bay State’s third graders scored below proficient in 2011, compared with 37% in 2011. Equally disturbing is the fact that performance has remained stagnant since 2001. (See sources in note)

Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

In stressing the importance of reading comprehension, Nonie Lesaux, commissioner of Strategies for Children, emphasizes the need to enhance children’s background knowledge across content areas.

In his op-ed, Hirsch notes the decline in SAT verbal scores and calls for “content-rich” learning in early education settings and kindergarten. Hirsch writes: “Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer. The origin of this cruel truth lies in the nature of word learning. The more words you already know, the faster you acquire new words. This sounds like an invitation to vocabulary study for tots, but that’s been tried and it’s not effective. Most of the word meanings we know are acquired indirectly, by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading…. If preschoolers and kindergartener are offered substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds, then the results show up five years or so later in significantly improved verbal scores.”

In the City Journal article, Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, touts Hirsch’s work.  Stern writes: “Among Hirsch’s insights is that disadvantaged kids quickly fall behind in reading because of inadequate background knowledge….Fourth-grade reading scores around the country improved somewhat over the past decade, thanks to greater emphasis on phonics and word decoding in the early grades—a development for which the 2002 No Child Left Behind law was partly responsible. But Hirsch could see that the effect wore off by the eighth grade, as children had to show greater comprehension of more difficult texts. What was missing, he believed, was greater attention in the early grades to building students’ background knowledge. So Hirsch and his foundation created a reading program for the early grades that contained the necessary phonics drills as well as the background knowledge that students need to improve their reading comprehension.”

Former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein instituted a reading program based on Hirsch’s work in 10 elementary schools. Initial results seem promising. Stern resumed: “On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartener in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids, now in first grade, made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group.” Third year results are due this fall.

Lesaux writes: “Reading words is necessary but not sufficient to support text comprehension…. The reader draws on her background knowledge, constantly applying what she already knows about the reading process and the text’s topic while making her way through the word-covered pages. Ultimately, she is advancing her knowledge. But if the words and/or topic are completely unfamiliar or just too difficult to grasp independently, then sounding out the words may look like ‘reading,’ but it is simply an exercise, not supportive of learning.” (End of quote)

Question:  Could you ever learn a skill without practicing, consistently?  Could you gather enough background knowledge without reading? Consistently?  If you don’t like hard cover books, how about surfing the social platforms?  You want to learn reading?  Start reading, consistently.

Do you suffer physical handicaps that obstruct reading? Fix that handicap and get on the business of reading.  Do you have other more important things to do after school than reading?  Ask your teacher to allocate half the class session time to reading, one-quarter of the time for reflection on the text, and the last quarter for correcting erroneous comprehension and knowledge.

There are not enough time allocated to finish the course material? How can it help if the student cannot read and comprehend?  Teach reading first, encourage the students to invest effort on improving their reading skills and comprehension.

Then, students can finish where you left off in course material. You want to learn reading? Read. Read. Acquire background knowledge.

Reality of the world and life is how you perceive and comprehend the reality of the world and life. Reality is yours.  Realities of the others will remain “virtual” realities, no matter how you convince yourself to the contrary. The more you read and invest effort, energy, and time on your comprehension, the more alive and flexible are your perceptions and visions.

We write based on accumulated background knowledge.  If every article is to explain the necessary required background knowledge, it will lose its power of disseminating ideas and positions.

And for whom do we have to expound on side topics? For those who refuse to read in the first place? Should the social platforms displace the role of schooling and forget its objective of disseminating world problems, looking at problems in various perspectives, understanding the many alternatives, and how to overcome difficulties?

Note:  You may read recent op-ed in the New York Times “How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores” by author and critic E.D. Hirsch Jr.

and “A Solution for Gotham’s Reading Woes” in City Journal about a promising New York City pilot program based on Hirsch’s work.

The recommendations in the 2010 report “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” commissioned by Strategies for Children from Nonie Lesaux, a nationally recognized expert in literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.




December 2022

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