About the Author
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., is an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia and the author of The Knowledge Deficit, The
Schools We Need, and the bestselling Cultural Literacy and the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. He and his wife, Polly,
live in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they raised their three children.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Reading, Writing, and Your Kindergartner
Acquiring the Skill of Reading
Literate adults are constantly interacting with text in one form or another. Think about the reading and writing you do
on any given day. Perhaps you start the morning with a glance at a newspaper or headlines on your iPad. You might
hastily scribble a note for your daughter’s lunch bag. Billboards and road signs compete for your attention as you drive
around town. At work there are memos, reports, and emails to read and write. Your child’s knapsack carries home forms to
fill out and announcements from his school or teacher. There are recipes to be read, bills to be paid, and account
statements to be examined. When time allows, perhaps you end the day with a novel, a magazine, or Facebook posts from
friends and family.
Each of these activities, and countless others, involves reading and writing. But we rarely think about our ability to
make or make sense of printed words. It feels like something we do without thinking about it at all. In reality, our
ability to make sense of the printed word is one of our greatest intellectual achievements. Most of us learn to speak
and listen naturally, without formal instruction. But reading and writing are different. There’s nothing at all natural
about acquiring these abilities.
Reading Is Not a Skill
Most of us think learning to read is like learning to ride a bike. It’s a skill we acquire as children and never lose.
Moreover, riding a bike is also a transferable skill. Once you learn how, you can safely ride almost any bike. Surely
it’s the same with reading: some of us may read faster or slower than others, but reading is reading is reading. Once
you learn how to read, you can read anything, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Your ability to translate written symbols into sounds—what reading experts call
“decoding”—is a transferable skill. This explains why you can “read” nonsense words, even if you’ve never seen them
before, such as those found in the famous Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky.”
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Few of us would disagree on how to pronounce words such as “brillig” and “mimsy,” even though they don’t exist. But
there’s more to reading than simply decoding the words on a page. Reading is about comprehension—your ability to make
meaning from written words. If we can’t make sense of the words on the page, we really cannot be said to be “reading.”
Unlike decoding, reading comprehension is not a transferable skill at all. It’s the result of years and years of
vocabulary growth, and of building up a store of knowledge about the world that helps you make sense of what you read.
Reading about a subject that you know little about can be awkward and disorienting. For example, in his book The Making
of Americans, Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch describes reading this account of a cricket match in a British
Thus, as the final day dawned and a near capacity crowd lustily cheered every run Australia mustered, much depended on
Ponting and the new wizard of Oz, Mike Hussey, the two overnight batsmen. But this duo perished either side of lunch—the
latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before—and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off
an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket.
You probably know nearly all the words in this passage, but it’s nearly impossible to understand what the writer is
trying to say. Even common words such as “lunch” and “overnight” suddenly seem awkward and strange. Knowing that this is
an account of a cricket match played by a team from Australia doesn’t help. Your lack of knowledge about how the game is
played keeps you from understanding what the words mean. This might strike you as an extreme example, but think of how
it feels when you try to make sense of directions for installing an operating system on your computer, or struggle to
understand a product warranty. Your rate of reading slows. You read and reread, struggling to understand.
Why is this so hard? Isn’t reading like riding a bike?
Your ability to make sense of what you read depends heavily on your prior knowledge—the stuff you already know. “Prior
knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information,” notes University of Virginia cognitive scientist
Daniel Willingham. Suppose you read, “He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.” According to Willingham, you
easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you have prior knowledge of puppies (they
aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them), and landlords (they are protective of their property). But what if you
didn’t know those things? You would be confused, and comprehension breaks down.
In short, it’s deeply misleading to think of reading as a “skill” at all. Reading is really a two-part process. The
first part is decoding, which is a skill. The second part is comprehension, which depends almost entirely on vocabulary
and background knowledge—you need to know all the words. But critically, you also need to know the things to which those
words refer. And comprehension is most certainly not a skill. It’s the product of years and years of language growth and
knowledge acquisition. The work of acquiring that knowledge begins in earnest the day your child sets foot in
The Knowledge Connection
When we use this lens, it becomes clear that “knowing stuff” is critical to reading comprehension. Broad general
knowledge is not merely nice to have; it’s essential if we want our children to be able to read widely with
understanding. When children struggle with comprehension, it is usually not because they cannot “read.” More often it’s
because they lack the vocabulary and background knowledge to understand what the writer is trying to say.
The Core Knowledge approach to reading is built on this essential understanding: broad general reading ability
correlates with broad general knowledge. If we want our children to become literate adults, they first must be
explicitly taught to decode writing at a very early age. But their education must also furnish the broad, rich knowledge
that educated Americans take for granted and assume that others have as well. Without that background knowledge,
children will struggle to be fully literate and read fluently and with comprehension.
Kindergarten and Your Child
Most of us do not take on the task of teaching our children how to read and write. We send our children off to school
and encourage them to work hard and pay attention, and we assume their teachers are caring and competent. But you would
not be holding this book in your hand if you were not deeply concerned about your child’s education. Thus, it’s useful
to know what a good kindergarten language arts program should look like. It’s worth paying careful attention, since the
first days of a child’s formal education are critical to the goal of helping your child become a proficient reader.
Listening and Learning
We tend to think of the three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic—as the foundations of a good, skills-based early
childhood education. But to build this foundation, a good kindergarten classroom should probably be equally focused on
the two L’s—listening and learning.
Think of the way language develops. Oral language development (speaking and listening) precedes written language
development (reading and writing). Nearly all children learn to listen and speak long before they can read and write.
Science confirms what we know from common sense: children must be able to understand words before they can produce and
use them independently—attention paid to listening and speaking will provide a solid foundation for later reading and
Listening comprehension also develops faster than reading comprehension and remains more advanced for far longer than
you might expect: your child’s ability to independently comprehend material on the printed page probably won’t catch up
to his or her ability to listen and understand the same material read out loud until the end of middle school. Our
brains can only do so much at one time. When a child is learning to read, a significant amount of mental energy is
devoted to decoding and reading with fluency. When she listens to text read out loud, attention is freed up to focus on
the material itself. Thus, a good kindergarten classroom is one in which children are given lots of opportunities to be
exposed to rich language by being read aloud to often.
Most kindergarten teachers read to their students. They know that small children love a good story. But the wisest
teachers understand the importance of building vocabulary and background knowledge. They read nonfiction picture books
and take advantage of a child’s curiosity to begin building background knowledge of the world around us—knowledge that
is critical to mature reading comprehension.
Read-alouds—both fiction and nonfiction—yield another important benefit: the language of books is richer and more
formal than spoken English. By listening to stories or nonfiction selections read aloud, children can experience the
complexities of written language without expending cognitive energy on decoding.
Helping young children develop the ability to listen to and understand written texts read aloud must be an integral
part of any initiative designed to build literacy. A good kindergarten takes advantage not just of the natural benefits
of listening and learning but also of the nuanced benefits provided when read-alouds are done in a coherent, systematic
fashion. To achieve this, careful consideration should first be given to the selection of text read aloud, to ensure
that the vocabulary and syntax presented are rich and complex. Furthermore, to make efficient use of instructional time,
read-alouds must build a broad knowledge base while simultaneously building listening comprehension and language skills.
To do this, the selection of read-alouds within a given grade level and across grade levels should not be random but
rather should be guided by a coherent, sequenced approach to building knowledge.