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E.D. Hirsch Right (As Always)

Want to know why we see such poor reading and writing scores among 17-year-olds, just as they need them the most to take advantage of post-secondary training and education they need? Listen to Hirsch, who lays it out in a Times commentary:

Cognitive psychologists agree that early childhood language learning (ages 2 to 10) is critical to later verbal competence, not just because of the remarkable linguistic plasticity of young minds, but also because of the so-called Matthew Effect.

The name comes from a passage in the Scriptures: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer.

The origin of this cruel truth lies in the nature of word learning. The more words you already know, the faster you acquire new words. This sounds like an invitation to vocabulary study for tots, but that's been tried and it's not effective. Most of the word meanings we know are acquired indirectly, by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.

The Matthew Effect in language can be restated this way: "To those who understand the gist shall be given new word meanings, but to those who do not there shall ensue boredom and frustration."

In this commentary Hirsch doesn't lay it out by gender, but there's no need. By now we know who produces the law reading and writing scores, males, the same group that is going on to post-secondary study at anemic rates.

We need to restructure the way reading is taught, focusing on rich content, just as Hirsch advises:

Clearly the key is to make sure that from kindergarten on, every student, from the start, understands the gist of what is heard or read. If preschoolers and kindergartners are offered substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds, then the results show up five years or so later in significantly improved verbal scores. (Five years is the time span by which this kind of educational intervention should be judged.)

By staying on a subject long enough to make all young children familiar with it (say, two weeks or so), the gist becomes understood by all and word learning speeds up. This is especially important for low-income children, who come to school with smaller vocabularies and rely on school to impart the knowledge base affluent children take for granted.

Current reform strategies focus on testing, improving teacher quality, increasing the number of charter schools and other changes. Attention to these structural issues has led to improvements in the best public schools, charter and noncharter. But it is not enough.

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