To teach students to read and write involves CONTENT…

    by Freddy Hiebert | June 22, 2006

    If you’ve been checking to see if this week’s Frankly Freddy was up, you’ll see I’m a little late with it. I’ve had a content crisis. I planned on writing about the centrality of ideas/content/information/background knowledge/schemata in a literacy/reading/language/arts curriculum. To prepare for the task, I reread E.D. Hirsch, Jr‘s article in the American Educator and I scanned his new book, The knowledge deficit. I then reread David Pearson’s letter to the editor of the New York Times:

    Reading, Rehashing, ‘Rithmetic
    Published: March 28, 2006

    To the Editor (of the New York Times):

    As a longtime reading educator, I share the concern expressed in your article that reading and math are shortchanging other subjects. This development is as bad for reading as it is for science and social studies. Without strong knowledge about the big ideas that come from solid instruction in the sciences, arts and humanities, students’ reading (and writing) will ultimately suffer. Reading and writing must always be about something, and the something comes from subject-matter pedagogy — not from more practicing of reading ‘‘skills.‘’ Reading skills are important, but without knowledge, they are pretty useless. We’d all be better off if schools taught reading as a ‘‘tool’‘ to support learning those big ideas found in subject-matter instruction.It’s time to transform reading instruction from its current role as the curricular ‘‘bully’‘ in our schools into a role it is better suited to play — being a curricular ‘‘buddy’‘!

    P. David Pearson
    Berkeley, Calif.,
    March 26, 2006

    The writer is professor and dean of the Graduate School of Education, University of California at Berkeley.

    E.D. Hirsch has described the dilemma in depth; David has described the same dilemma succinctly. The bottom line is that reading/language arts instruction needs to be centered on content. We agree on that. But what content? I reviewed the standards documents of the nation’s two largest states and the national standards document. I found little that could guide state and district leaders or publishers in designing the content-rich curricula that Hirsch and Pearson are describing.

    To illustrate how the grain size of the national standards in language arts compares to other subject areas, I located the first standard for other subject areas (oriented to Grades K-4). This information is in Table 1, along with the first standard for language arts (which is intended for K-12). I should note that, while I used the history standards for social studies, there are also standards for geography, economics, civics, and world history. Further, music, theater, and fine arts have standards as (or even more) detailed as those for dance.

    Jump to the table

    Whether the subject area is dance, health, geography, or earth science, experts have provided focused content standards. However, for language arts, the guidance for grades K-12 is vague, along the lines of “students need to read a lot.”

    The content as well as domain-specific literacy strategies outlined in the standards for science, social studies, health, and the fine arts need to be part of the language arts/reading curriculum. However, there is also a substantial body of content in language arts that merits attention. At best, this content is hinted at in current national and state standards documents.

    No one wants to go out on a limb and identify what the content (as opposed to the strategies) of language/literature could be. Hirsch and his colleagues have made some attempts in their “What every (nth grader) needs to know?” series. Hirsch’s list (in his 1988 text) and his dictionary of terms led many to view this as a superficial effort, even though the core knowledge efforts represented in the “What every (Nth grader) needs to know?” is more substantive.

    Other than Hirsch’s efforts, there are few sources to turn for identifying content for a reading curriculum. In an effort to support our thinking at UCSIR 2006, I have outlined the beginnings of content for “reading” (elementary). This outline appears in Table 2.

    Table 2. Very Cursory Ideas for a Reading Curriculum (K – 4)


    Myths & Fables (e.g., Greek, Roman, Aesop’s Fables, European, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American & American tall tales), addressing questions such as: How do people show bravery? Courage? Fear? Roots of English: Where did English come from? Where do new words come from (e.g., words used in technology)? Newspapers & magazines

    • Mother Goose
    • Prominent historical poets for children: (e.g., Rossetti, de la Mare, Stevenson, Milne)
    • Rope Rhymes
    • Limericks
    • Prominent American poets (e.g., Dickinson, Longfellow, Whitman, Frost, Sandburg, Hughes, Nash)
    • Contemporary poets for children (e.g., Brooks, Hopkins, Prelusky, Kushin, Zolotow, Giovanni)
    Spanish and English connections Television & movies (How are stories created? What is a script?)
    Biography & Autobiography Idioms Internet: How can we find the best sources of information?
    Speeches, including but not limited to: Gettysburg Address, I have a dream, I will fight no more forever (Chief Joseph), We observe today… (JFK) Sayings & Phrases
    Words & phrases from other languages
    Comics & cartoons
    Classics for children (including but not limited to: Dr. Seuss, Milne, Stevenson, Alcott, Montgomery, Carroll, Twain, London, Frank) Onomatopoeia & Alliteration The language & images of advertisements
    Types of Stories: Mystery, suspense, realistic fiction, science fiction/fantasy/adventure (addressing questions such as: How do writers keep you guessing about what is going to happen? How do writers make you laugh?) Simile & metaphor Reading everyday texts… recipes, directions, crafts
    Types of Information: History, geography, economics, life science, physical science, earth science, experiments, fine arts, addressing questions such as: How is a description in history different than one in a science experiment? Word play (including puns) Nonverbal Communication: Sign, Braille, Morse code
    Contemporary children’s authors and illustrators (including current award winners such as Caldecott & Coretta Scott King and authors of particular genre such as Gail Gibbons)  

    There is much more that needs to be considered, including strategies and processes (especially those that have to do with scanning and selecting information from digital sources). Please regard this effort as illustrative and intended only to generate thinking as you prepare for the Institute (whether as a participant, facilitator, or presenter). The ideas are not proposed as comprehensive or definitive. Even a cursory glance will illustrate that I haven’t begun to examine the developmental manifestations of particular content. These ideas are presented as fodder to support our conversations—and, ultimately, our contributions to the children who depend on schools to become fully literate.

    [After working on this much too long and pulling it off the website once, I’m convinced that this wasn’t such a good idea. I’ve gotten somewhat specific on the literature strand but not on the other two. I also haven’t included vocabulary, reading level—including fluency, writing and grammar and on and on. However, I’m going to put this on the website so that Institute participants can begin adding, deleting, and expanding on a language arts curriculum.]

    Table 1

    ScienceSocial StudiesDanceHealthLanguage Arts

    Life Science Content Standard 1: As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop understanding of the characteristics of organisms:

    • Organisms have basic needs. For example, animals need air, water, and food; plants require air, water, nutrients, and light. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met. The world has many different environments, and distinct environments support the life of different types of organisms.
    • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. For example, humans have distinct body structures for walking, holding, seeing, and talking.
    • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment). Humans and other organisms have senses that help them detect internal and external cues.

    History Topic One: Living and Working Together in Families and Communities, Now and Long Ago

    Family life now and in the recent past; family life in various places long ago:

    • Investigate a family history for at least two generations, identifying various members and their connections in order to construct a timeline.
    • Understanding that many students are raised in nontraditional family structures — i.e., single-parent families, foster homes, guardians raising children.

    Content Standard 1: Identifying and demonstrating movement elements and skills in performing dance

    Achievement Standards:

    • Students accurately demonstrate nonlocomotor/ axial movements (such as bend, twist, stretch, swing)
    • Students accurately demonstrate eight basic locomotor movements (such as walk, run, hop, jump, leap, gallop, slide, and skip), traveling forward, backward, sideward, diagonally, and turning
    • Students create shapes at low, middle, and high levels
    • Students demonstrate the ability to define and maintain personal space
    • Students demonstrate movements in straight and curved pathways
    • Students demonstrate accuracy in moving to a musical beat and responding to changes in tempo
    • Students demonstrate kinesthetic awareness, concentration, and focus in performing movement skills
    • Students attentively observe and accurately describe the action (such as skip, gallop) and movement elements (such as levels, directions) in a brief movement study

    Students will comprehend concepts related to health promotion and disease prevention:

    • Describe relationships between personal health behaviors and individual well being.
    • Identify indicators of mental, emotional, social, and physical health during childhood.
    • Describe the basic structure and functions of the human body systems.
    • Describe how the family influences personal health.
    • Describe how physical, social, and emotional environments influence personal health.
    • Identify common health problems of children.
    • Identify health problems that should be detected and treated early.
    • Explain how childhood injuries and illnesses can be prevented or treated.

    Reading for Perspective: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.