Reading

New York

How “the rich get richer” in reading for understanding

In response to yesterday's post about the Core Knowledge Reading Program, reader Smith asks, Is he saying their is a core set of content that would prepare a student to understand a randomly selected reading passage on a standardized test? Could someone explain this idea to a non-ELA teacher? I’ve always assumed those reading passages could range from “The Mysteries of Ancient Egpyt” to “Sally’s Bad Day at School” to “Roger’s Time Machine Adventure”. How is content selected? Great question. It's true that the content of test reading passages varies, and I don't think anyone believes that a child can be prepared with content knowledge specific to every possible topic. Rather, some children enter school knowing thousands more words than others, and this difference compounds over years of schooling in a "rich get richer" scenario called the "Matthew Effect" by researchers. (Don't take my word for it: this study, one of many, found that by age 3, children of parents with smaller vocabularies not only knew fewer words, used fewer words per hour, and used a smaller variety of words per hour, "but they were also adding words more slowly.") Hirsch summarized this effect in a 2006 article in American Educator: Many specialists estimate that a child (or an adult) needs to understand a minimum of 90 percent of the words in a passage in order to understand the passage and thus begin to learn the other 10 percent of the words. Moreover, it’s not just the words that the student has to grasp the meaning of—it’s also the kind of reality that the words are referring to.... When a child doesn’t understand those word meanings and those referred-to realities, being good at sounding out words is a dead end. Reading becomes a kind of Catch-22: In order to become better at reading with understanding, you already have to be able to read with understanding.