ED Hirsch – Really not the bogeyman Part 2

Notes on developing Vocabulary:

In Chapter 3 Hirsch tackles the subject of developing knowledge of language. He starts by making an uncontroversial assertion, “every effort should be made to make vocabulary building in school as effective as possible.” (p.59) But then cautions us that developing language is far from straight-forward, “how we do it remains something of a mystery.” (p.59)

It seems, drawing on the theories of Steven Pinker (mentioned in the previous blog on Hirsch), that developing language requires quite different teaching strategies to the ones used to develop decoding/encoding skills, “The consensus of all researchers is that indirect, implicit learning is by far the main mode of increasing one’s vocabulary… there is a big psychological difference between learning word meaning and learning how to decode the sounds of letters… we humans don’t possess a built-in alphabet-phoneme-mapping faculty but we do possess a built-in word-meaning-learning faculty.” (p.62-64)

By ‘implicit’ Hirsch means, “It appears that we have a remarkable innate faculty for learning word meanings in context.” (p.63)

Therefore, “we learn words up to four times faster in a familiar than in an unfamiliar context… ensuring topics of reading and discussion are consistent over several class periods, so the topic becomes familiar to the students.” (p.60)

Concluding, “How astonishing, then if it should turn out that the most efficient way of learning thousands of word meanings is through an unconscious, automatic and implicit process. Yet the weight of evidence indicates so. The proponents of naturalism in learning are not always wrong, it appears. It depends on what is to be learnt.” (p.63)

And, “It’s clear that a sparing use of well-contextualised explicit meaning instruction is useful for vocabulary gain. More extended explicit word study is probably inefficient in the long run.” (p.66)



I’ve read through this chapter several times because I do not want to mis-represent Hirsch’s meaning. He seems to be saying that schools should be using a mixed approach, where they use explicit instruction and focused practice for developing decoding and encoding skills and a completely different, ‘implicit’, approach for developing language and knowledge.

And, this implicit approach is something advocated by the “proponents of naturalism” who, it seems, “are not always wrong”. Because, “It depends on what is to be learnt.”

This conclusion is so good I’m going to repeat it, in bold, and underlined: “It depends on what is to be learnt.” E.D. Hirsch, ‘The Knowledge Deficit’ p.63)

I read something similar last week, “think in terms of education itself rather than in terms of some ‘ism’ about education… For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism’ becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms’ that it is unwillingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems and possibilities.” (J. Dewey, ‘Experience and Education’ p.2)

As I said yesterday, most academics writing about education walk a centre path. Dogmatic polarisation serves no one and is the domain of demagogues. It is my view we should avoid those that would push us to the edges and reduce our professional options, these idealists are zealots for their own cause and unresponsive to reason and evidence. Hirsch is clearly not among them.

Hirsch’s approach is far more pragmatic and evidence focused, and for these reasons it sounds more plausible, familiar and useful. He is advocating a mixture of teaching strategies which are flexible and responsive to the way student’s learn best. Explicit instruction when this is most effective, implicit instruction at other times.

Explicit instruction involves students acquiring and practicing skills and knowledge in focused activities including direct instruction (for example in grammar), ‘drilling’ (chanting and repeating, not necessarily boring) and extended practice (such as silent writing).

Implicit instruction involves students acquiring, applying and developing knowledge and understanding in a range of activities using familiar contexts that extend over time, such as speaking and listening.

From a primary teacher’s perspective this sounds like good sound advice.


Notes on using conventions, contexts and stories:

Hirsch believes that in order to develop the necessary levels of knowledge and skills for high level comprehension children need to understand the complex system of conventions that good readers and writers acquire over time.

Conventions are rules by which language and meaning are conveyed between people, either through spoken language or written words. Conventions are difficult to understand outside of the context they are used and so children need many different examples and situations to see and use the conventions in order to develop a good understanding.

Hirsch recommends using two interlinking approaches:

  • Reading ‘stories’ to children (these can be fiction or non-fiction – teaching subjects in non-fiction through the use of story where possible), followed by questioning and discussion from a young age. Children can understand far more than they can read and speaking and listening is a critical element in developing knowledge, vocabulary and understanding of the conventions.
  • Using ‘pretend’ situations for children to practice reading, writing and speaking in standard code. “In the classroom, the teacher can and should ask children frequently to make formal prepared and unprepared presentations to the class… like pretend radio.” (p.31)

Hirsch is clear that the learning of new vocabulary and knowledge is done much more efficiently in contexts familiar to the children:

“we learn words up to four times faster in a familiar than in an unfamiliar context… An optimal learning program will exploit this characteristics of word learning by ensuring that the topics of reading and discussion are consistent over several class periods, so the topic becomes familiar to the students.” (p.60)

Further, these topics must be relevant (to the children’s learning) and useful: The knowledge children develop in these topics must be “the kind of knowledge that proficient readers and writers actually use.” (p.76) Core knowledge from history, science and the arts.

Hirsch also makes a strong case for using stories, “Stories are indeed the best vehicles for teaching young children – an idea that was ancient when Plato reasserted it in Republic.” (p.78)

However, Hirsch is quick to stress he is not talking about trivial nonsense (which is often found in young children’s reading materials, but proper, challenging material, useful to children’s education: “But stories are not necessarily the same things as ephemeral fictions. Many an excellent story is told about real people and events, and even stories that are fictional take much of their worth from the nonfictional truths about the world that they convey. (p.78)



By this later stage in the book Hirsch is becoming less polemic. His tone softens and as a reader I felt much less ‘battered’ by his argument.

This more conciliatory style might explain why these dimensions of Hirsch’s philosophy have been played down in the commentaries, “Hirsch advocates mixed teaching approach” is not a very provocative headline.

However, I found his ideas in this section interesting and useful. In particular he stresses the importance of teaching through stories. This is not, as he says, a new idea but it is an idea that is becoming very widely accepted among academics in both education and science. The best explanation I’ve read for why stories are so effective as teaching tools is from Kieran Egan, although Daniel Willingham writes about it very convincingly too. The telling, listening to and creation of stories it seems is an ancient and extremely effective method for developing children’s knowledge and understanding and teachers should use stories regularly to teach the curriculum.

Further, stories should be used to create familiar contexts for learning that develop learning opportunities for students over time,

“Suppose you are reading to five-year-old Dmitri a story about kings and queens. If you extend that topic for the next few days by reading more true and fictional stories about kings and queens and how they lived, and what they did, the chances are that Dmitri will increase his general knowledge and vocabulary faster than if you read about zebras the next day, Laplanders the day after that and so on. Clearly a good way to induce fast vocabulary gain for children is to stay on a subject long enough for the general topic to become familiar. This is yet another reason that a coherent, content-orientated curriculum is the most effective way to raise reading achievement.” (p.81)

I’m not sure there is a primary teacher alive who wouldn’t support this philosophy. In fact, it sounds very familiar.

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