A Wealth of Words

Why the shrinking middle class? According to E.D. Hirsch, the explanation is short and simple: Declining educational opportunity leads to fewer high-achieving students, which leads to greater income inequality, which leads to the decline of the middle class. Educational opportunity for only the privileged, therefore, polarizes a nation’s population and creates a society of haves and have-nots.

In his new article “A Wealth of Words”, Hirsch attempts to pinpoint where America’s education system has failed—and left in its wake, increasing income inequality. He identifies poor language arts instruction as the culprit. As evidence, Hirsch points to America’s history of declining and now stagnant SAT verbal scores. Starting in the mid-60’s, SAT verbal scores declined precipitously, reaching their nadir in the early 80’s and persisting at low levels until today. Citing a number of studies, Hirsch insists that changes in language arts teaching beginning in the mid 1940’s diluted students’ knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. These instructional changes, Hirsch suggests, correlate to falling SAT verbal scores.

To improve students’ verbal skills, Hirsch argues that we need to reform language instruction. As models of effective language instruction, he looks at, for example, the use of content-based instruction in second language instruction and how French preschools teach their youngsters language skills. Based on these examples, he offers three practical recommendations: Improve language instruction starting in preschool, classroom instruction that focuses on content knowledge, and a systematic approach to vocabulary growth across all grades and starting in preschool.

SOURCE: Hirsch, E.D. "A Wealth of Words." City Journal 23, no. 1 (Winter 2013). http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_1_vocabulary.html.

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