Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

The recent disappointing news that performance on the third grade reading MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) dipped in 2011 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.

So we read with interest a 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 an article (“A Solution for Gotham’s Reading Woes”) in City Journal about a promising New York City pilot program based on Hirsch’s work. They dovetail with 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. In stressing the importance reading comprehension, Lesaux 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. “Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer,” Hirsch writes. “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 kindergartners 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.  “Among Hirsch’s insights,” Stern writes, “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,” Stern continues. “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. “On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group,” Stern writes. “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.

“Reading words,” Lesaux writes, “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, unsupportive of learning.”