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E.D. Hirsch, Linda Katz, and Mike Smith Weigh in on Reading Development

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If journalism is history's first rough draft, then perhaps blogs like this one are journalism's notes and outline. For me, this blog continues to be a wonderful learning opportunity, largely because of thoughtful readers who question my assumptions and provide me with information I have either forgotten or never seen.

In the few days since I posted my thoughts about early reading, I have received several (welcome) wake-up calls from E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (of Core Knowledge fame), Marshall "Mike" Smith (former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton), and Linda Katz (Director of the Children's Literacy Initiative in Philadelphia).

Katz suggested that I was misleading the public by repeating the "30,000,000 word gap" assertion.

"I personally think it's mathematically impossible," she wrote. "It's the equivalent of reading the densest children's picture books you can find, every hour for 14 hours. You would have no voice, your baby would have no sleep or quiet feeding, no playtime with other kids, and it would be relentless."

So we pulled out the original research and discovered that Hart and Risley made monthly visits, each lasting one hour, to selected homes of 2- and 3-year-olds and counted the words, over a course of 36 months. From that, they apparently assumed that what they heard in that monthly hour would apply over a 14-hour waking day for four years. For professional families, the 2,153 words per hour they recorded translates into 35 words per minute, every minute, in order to get to Hart & Risley's total of nearly 45 million words, as opposed to the 13 million in welfare homes over the same four-year period.

I found myself humming a song from "Pajama Game":

"Seven and a half cents doesn't mean a heck of a lot, doesn't mean a thing...but give it to me every hour, every day, every week, and that's enough for me to be living like a king."

Just as those singing workers are delusional, so too are those who imagine 14 hours a day of nonstop conversations. Linda Katz is right.

Besides, what actually happens in most educated families is very different. Yes, there are vocabulary-rich conversations, but there's lots of quiet time too. Picture yourself sitting in the living room reading, your 3-year-old daughter on the floor beside you, playing with toys or coloring. Occasionally you will reach over and tousle her hair, or she may lean against your leg. Stuff like that matters as much as anything else in child-rearing.

So it's not 30 million words, but there still is a vocabulary gap between affluent and poor. That's where Mike Smith chimed in. It's not about vocabulary, he pointed out. It's about language, conversations, speaking and listening. Focusing on vocabulary can lead educators to forget how kids in affluent homes acquire that wonderful vocabulary -- through conversations, not vocabulary drill. An important warning flag from someone who knows how policy can get screwed up if we aren't careful.

And then Don Hirsch weighed in. Hirsch, the founder of the Core Knowledge movement and the author of Cultural Literacy, welcomes the national attention to our nation's reading problems -- but warned against focusing on the abstract concept of "reading".

What matters most is not the skill set associated with reading (phonemic awareness, etc.), but vocabulary and content knowledge. Don sent me a copy of the speech he made to the Virginia House of Delegates last month, a marvelously clear statement of his principles.

I've pulled out a memorable line:

"The persistent achievement gap between haves and have-nots in our society is chiefly a verbal gap. There is no greater practical attainment in the modern world than acquiring a bellyful of words. A large vocabulary is the single most reliable predictor of practical, real-world competence..."

Don explained what is called "the Matthew Effect" to Virginia's legislators, perhaps hoping that the biblical reference would make them listen more carefully. "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." What that means, Don said, is that the more you have learned, the more you are capable of learning and likely to learn. The reverse is also true: the less you know, the harder it is for you to acquire knowledge.

What does all this have to do with learning to read, I asked? Simple, he said: it's all about content knowledge. You don't just learn to read in the abstract. You learn facts, content, concrete information. There's no "learning how to learn" or teaching "critical thinking skills" or "comprehension strategies," he warned, because those are a dead end. That approach might yield a temporary uptick in reading scores, but no genuine lasting learning.

So what have I learned?

First, it's not about numbers, although the vocabulary gap is real. Reading is the foundation, but what matters most is content knowledge. You have to read about something, whether it's baseball or Patrick Henry or space travel or a pet dog. And it's important that all children have common reading experiences -- shared content. Finally, closing the vocabulary gap is best done in situations that replicate how vocabulary-rich children in the study acquired their larger vocabulary -- through conversation, not in cold classrooms where drill is the M.O.

And the more you know, the easier it is to learn more.