New York City is home to an experimental curriculum which emphasizes the use of nonfiction material to help children develop the base knowledge required to understand complex texts and ideas in scientific and historical tomes.
The Core Knowledge Reading Method has shown promising results in initial tests:
Children at 10 schools who were taught reading using a curriculum designed by the education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s Core Knowledge Foundation have significantly outperformed students taught at other schools under a variety of other methods
Core Knowledge is set to announce that not only did second graders taught using the new method score significantly higher in terms of reading comprehension than students in the control group, but that they also showed gains in social studies and science knowledge, backing up the organization's claim that the method leads to greater understanding of more complex subject matter.
Most schools in the New York area currently use the âbalanced literary' method promoted by former schools chancellor, Joel Klein. Proponents of this model were quick to point out the issues with the Core Knowledge study.
"I think it's a very problematic study," said Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College and an architect of the city's balanced literacy program.
"As far as I can tell, they gave resources to 10 schools to support content literacy and then they tested all of the schools on content literacy."
While it's true that the study is far from longitudinal, the dearth of rigorous education research makes it impossible to eliminate confounding variables during preliminary studies. What it does have is a high degree of ecological validity and intriguing results that warrant further, more closely controlled, investigation.
"This data shows a promising option for principals to consider," said Josh Thomases, the deputy chief academic officer for the city's Education Department.
The basic idea of the Core Knowledge Method is that certain things must be taught to facilitate the learning process and beyond that children learn based on what they already know. It is this idea of there being fundamental foundational blocks that is generating controversy, as most teaching reforms over the past 30 years have turned education towards a student-directed path where the student is supposed to learn by reading and investigating things that interest them. Indeed, this is what Klein's balanced literary model encouraged: children choosing books that were of interest to them personally.
Self-selection bias in reading materials may harm students who traditionally lack books or parents who read to them, so the Core Knowledge protection may help give equal footing to economically disadvantaged children.
Robert Pondiscio, the director of communications at Core Knowledge Foundation, explains that he used to be a teacher and came to realize that the real problem wasn't that kids couldn't read. He'd seen the children in his classroom who were failing reading tests verbalize, or decode, the words in front of them many times, albeit with varying degrees of fluency. The real issue lay in the children's ability to comprehend the meaning of the sentences. He says the Core Knowledge Language Arts program addresses this issue:
[CKLA is] a comprehensive literacy curriculum emphasizing phonics, coherent content knowledge, and oral and written language development across a wide range of subjects.
Pondiscio remarks that although the finding that studying nonfiction instead of only fiction enhances reading ability and comprehension is the part of the study that has garnered most of the national press attention, it is still only part of a bigger story.
If there's a secret sauce in the curriculum, it probably has as much to do with its emphasis on building background knowledge orally.
He notes that we learn to listen and speak long before we learn to read or write, and claims that although the cognitive work of âdecoding' is a vital building block, children learn faster when freed from this mental responsibility and will understand complex vocabulary much more easily when it's spoken aloud than merely read on a page.
According to Pondiscio, a child's ability to take in information from reading doesn't typically catch up to their ability to process oral information until eighth grade. He notes that âread-alouds' in elementary school classrooms indicate that most teachers are instinctively aware of this process.
Content-rich, nonfiction readalouds, often in narrative form, are a central feature of the CKLA program and a powerful way to build a child's store of vocabulary and knowledge — critical components of mature reading comprehension.
Pondiscio does caution that the current trend of impatience in education reform should be tempered. Core Knowledge won't be a quick fix to all education's problems and the only way to raise achievement is with slow and steady investment in the foundational building blocks that are prerequisites for competence in language.
We expect two to three years language growth per year to catch disadvantaged children up. The inevitable result is quick fixes that overpromise and underdeliver. Today's miracle becomes tomorrow's scandal with depressing regularity.
Joanne Jacobs notes that a Core Knowledge curriculum will mesh well with the requirements of the new Common Core Standards which require nonfiction teaching to gain equal footing with that of fiction. The new program also garnered a relatively enthusiastic response from educators traditionally opposed to any reforms:
Surveys of teachers and administrators of the pilot program indicate that 72% of those involved were either "very satisfied" or somewhat satisfied with the curriculum. Further studies should clarify merits and disadvantages of the Core Knowledge curriculum.