“. . . we have bad memory for words but good memory for meaning.”

“Is our background meaning itself part of the meaning of a text? Are all the extralinguistic inferences part of the meaning we initially understand? . . . ‘inferences based on prior knowledge are part of meaning from the very beginning’ . . . ‘inferential elaborations are apart of the process of understanding prose’ . . .”

In 1978, E. D. Hirsch, Jr. conducted research experiments designed to detect “variations in reading skill that can be attributed to variations in relevant background knowledge.” Hirsch and his colleagues found that, “as long as both versions of a text concerned a subject familiar to the readers, their performances showed definite sensitivity to the stylistic superiority of one version over the other. When the topic was familiar, the group reading the better version understood it more efficiently; when it was unfamiliar, the performances of the two groups was nearly the same.”

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987, 39ff)


I love E. D. Hirsch. He, along with Lynn Cheney and a host of conservative educational thinkers in the 1980’s were the precursors to N[o] C[hild] L[eft] B[ehind]. I include text from his national bestseller (Featuring the Thinking American’s List) lest we forget.

To his credit, what Hirsch and his colleagues demonstrated is that students learn better when they already know something about the content of the texts they are assigned to read. They also demonstrated that the more clearly the information is communicated, the better it is received. Duh. There’s tons of data (Hirsch covers a bunch of it in his book), so why isn’t it the standard that instructors lecture prior to assigning reading?

[There’s the other side to this, too: intertextuality. We know and think a lot of stuff based on our individual experiences. Sometimes we think and know stuff so well that we mistakenly “read” what we already know, rather than the ideas actually being communicated in the text. Throughout this course, remember to slow down and read carefully. Look for new ideas, or new ways of looking.]

While I may be conditionally opposed to “letting the student struggle with the text,” there is a lot to be said for student preparation and participation in class discussion. If we lectured before the reading, then you wouldn’t have an opportunity to participate. So let’s make a deal: I’ll take 10-15 minutes at the end of each class period to introduce you to the most important points to look for in the reading assigned for next time. In return you a) do the reading and b) pay particular attention to what’s being said when you come across the main points we preview in class. I’ll recommend the fuller text for those who want more.

Reading the text and preparing for discussion are the most important responsibilities you will have in this class. Please take it seriously.



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