“Over thirty years ago, E.D. Hirsch advanced the argument that true literacy stems from broad knowledge of the world,” write Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Associate Director of Research Adam Tyner and Early Childhood Researcher Sarah Kabourek in an important new report entitled “Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.”
“Without an understanding of art, music, history, science, geography, and literature, students struggle with articles in the local newspaper, let alone texts in college courses,” the authors continue. “They also earn lower scores on reading tests. It is background knowledge, built in and outside the classroom and around the kitchen table, that enables fluent reading comprehension.”
The longitudinal study, which we strongly encourage all parents to examine, tracks 18,000 students from Kindergarten through fifth grade. Its primary takeaway is that increased instructional time in social studies and history is associated with improved reading ability and that, in fact, social studies is “the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement.” The authors argue that if schools are serious about wanting kids to become stronger readers, they should be teaching students more social studies—rich content about history, geography, and civics—rather than devoting an excessive amount of class time to English language arts.
This conclusion underscores the critical point Professor Hirsch made in his groundbreaking book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know more than 30 years ago: that “literacy is not just a matter of decoding the strings of letters that make up words or the meaning of each word in sequence. It is a matter of decoding context: the surrounding matrix of things referred to in the text and things implied by it.”
As such, the study is a powerful endorsement of the sequential, content-rich Core Knowledge Curriculum Series™, which is based on conceptions presented by Prof. Hirsch and serves as the backbone of the TASIS Elementary School’s academic program. The Elementary School’s Core Knowledge-inspired curriculum is designed to help children become familiar with the traditions and knowledge commonly shared by educated citizens in a society, enabling them to develop cultural literacy in a way that is systematic while providing an excellent grounding and preparation for academically rigorous upper-school curricula such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the Advanced Placement (AP) program. It also aims to set young students on a path to successfully complete a Civic Literacy exam, a requirement for all TASIS graduates.