It’s Building Kids’ Vocabulary, Stupid.

Published by — You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.

In the tedium of tests, testing, test scores, and so-called accountability, the point of education is lost.  Tests are not the point.  Learning is.  Testing is merely the read on the dipstick into a kid’s tank of knowledge.  Tests assess How Much learning has taken place.

E.D. Hirsch is an education thinker I greatly admire, largely because he’s comfortable with specifics about what actual knowledge is.  He’s so specific — very refreshing among squabbling education reformers — that he assembled teams of experts to create the Core Knowledge Curriculum.

The simple idea embedded in Hirsch’s large canon of writings is this:  knowing more words makes a kid smarter.  How?  Consider his 2006 example that has haunted me since I first ran across it:

Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

As a confident reader, I can tell you what every one of those words means.  But as a sports idiot, I read the sentence without comprehension.  Which is to say I can’t really read it.  Any baseball nut can tell you exactly what the sentence means because their understanding of the sport provides the context that give baseball meanings to “sacrifice,” “knock” and “run.”

Reading comprehension is all about understanding the context.

Hirsch unpacks the above sentence by describing a bit about the landscape of baseball to help, say, a British reader understand how those words might be bent to mean what they do.  Frankly, I learned details about America’s favorite pastime that I never knew before.  (Sports bore me to death.  Sorry.)

Likewise, if I knew nothing about the Egyptians, on a test I might think the “mummies” were the moms.  If the above sentence appeared in a reading comprehension test, I would have failed.

The SAT and even the GRE tests are essentially vocabulary tests.  Whatever subjects you know well, you know by the vocabulary used to discuss them.  If you don’t know what “binomial probability” means, then surely you haven’t a clue as to how to do the related math.

Build new contexts; build vocabulary. 

Not surprisingly, the Core Curriculum leans heavily on classic literature and actual history, geography, and civics — as opposed to hard-to-define social studies.  Designed for students pre-K through 8th grade, the Curriculum systematically teaches the sort of knowledge that was far more common in my day.  Yes, modern works have been woven in, and in interesting ways.  But the spine is, well, good old Western Civilization built out to be more inclusive and contemporary, but not dumbed-down.  Rigorous literature and primary historical sources have chewy syntax and unfamiliar words.  Challenging language requires more effort, but the payoff is that with teacher guidance, children enter new worlds that expand their horizons.  Each new context, like baseball, has words or word-meanings all its own.

Contrast classical literature with the vapid, politically-correct writings found in the Basal readers developed by textbook companies whose goal is to market their wares.  Textbook companies have long lists of rules that govern what goes into their sanitized texts, rules designed to reduce offense to easily-offended public School Committees.  One rule is to avoid everything written before 1970 — too many white male protagonists and authors, among many other sins.  (For infuriating details on corporate educational publishers and why public school kids read such dreck, read Diane Ravitch’s painful but brilliant book, The Language Police.)

Classics are inevitably offensive because their values come out of other times, places and cultures.  But it is precisely by taking a child into those other contexts that broaden their horizons and their historical, cultural and linguistic foundations.

Instead of actually reading broadly, kids learn “reading skills.”

Hirsch says, “The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading. It is true that students benefit from learning and practicing reading comprehension skills, but a key point has gotten lost: More training in these skills is not necessarily better.”

Today’s new teachers have been taught to waste a lot of time on explicitly teaching the sorts of skills readers naturally pick up.  Students have lessons in “reading strategies,” like predicting, summarizing, questioning, clarifying and identifying the main idea.  By all means give the kids the vocabulary for what they are doing when they discuss Charlotte’s Web.  Name “summarizing” when that’s what they’re doing.  But Charlotte’s world is vastly more important and interesting — the farm, the critters, and the agricultural cycle that would normally turn Wilbur into food.  Help kids build vocabulary for all of it, the book and their approach to it.

We’ve grown so crazed with assessments that we’ve forgotten what on earth it is we’re trying to measure.  By all means measure.  I love data.  Measure words.  You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.  If we immerse students in real contexts that expand knowledge and build vocabulary, kids will have a shot at an education.

And, God help us, they’ll get better test scores.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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