In an English/language arts classroom in Iowa, 10th graders are analyzing the rhetoric in books about computer geeks, fast food, teenage marketing, the working poor, chocolate-making, and diamond-mining.
Their teacher, Sarah Brown Wessling, let them choose books about those real-world topics as part of a unit on truth. Students are dissecting the sources, statistics, and anecdotes the authors use to make their arguments in books like Branded by Alissa Quart and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. An earlier unit in the class at Johnston High School, in a Des Moines suburb, focused on film documentaries.
The units mark a heftier emphasis on nonfiction for Ms. Wessling. What she is doing reflects an intensifying focus for teachers across the country: how to develop students’ skills at reading and understanding informational texts.
Teachers are rebalancing their fiction-and-nonfiction scales because the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts demand it. Since all but four states have adopted those guidelines, millions of teachers are now faced with the challenge of revising materials and instruction accordingly.
“Often, our nod to nonfiction is the autobiography or true-story version of something,” said Ms. Wessling, who was the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. “But there’s a real gap in other kinds of nonfiction. Students absolutely understand how to read a piece of fiction with a beginning, middle, and end. But that’s not how you read things like Nickel and Dimed. It’s a much slower process.
“I’m relying on different kinds of strategies and a lot more explicit teaching,” she said. “We spend a lot of time talking about attributes of nonfiction, like how to read an interview. Or how to tell the difference between fact and opinion.”
As states and districts press more deeply into informational text, however, some experts are cautioning them to maintain a proper balance with fiction.
“While we think the emphasis on informational text is a useful idea, our concern is that it could move from being an emphasis to a sole approach,” Richard M. Long, the director of governmental relations for the International Reading Association, said in an email. “Using fiction has many positive and useful values, and it shouldn’t be lost or pushed so far to the sidelines that it disappears.”
Sarah Brown Wessling uses these nonfiction books, among others, in her 10th grade English/language arts classroom in Johnston, Iowa, to reflect the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on informational text.
Every state and district official interviewed for this story hastened to note, without being asked, that fiction would maintain a central position in the curriculum.
Addressing a Need
The common standards’ emphasis on informational text arose in part from research suggesting that employers and college instructors found students weak at comprehending technical manuals, scientific and historical journals, and other texts pivotal to their work in those arenas.
Influencing the standards, also, were the frameworks for the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, which reflect an increasing emphasis on informational texts as students get older. They draw equally from informational and literary passages at the 4th grade level. But by 8th grade, the tilt toward informational reading reaches 55 percent, and by 12th grade, it’s 70 percent.
The common core’s vision of informational text includes literary nonfiction, as well as historical documents, scientific journals and technical manuals, biographies and autobiographies, essays, speeches, and information displayed in charts, graphs, or maps, digitally or in print. Helping students tackle complex examples of such genres across the disciplines—from English to engineering—bolsters them for work and higher education by building foundational knowledge, vocabulary, and literacy strategies, common-core advocates contend.
Many states and districts are responding to the new emphasis on nonfiction with new materials and training.
New York City singled out informational text as this year’s focus in its work to get ready for the common standards in English/language arts.
Josh Thomases, the deputy chief academic officer for instruction, said the district conducted professional development aimed at helping teachers think through how to craft instructional units and tasks reflecting the shift in the standards. Teachers at each of the 1,700 schools in the city developed one unit and task and are now discussing them in multischool meetings, he said.
To support that work, the 1.1 million-student district set up a digital “common-core library” that includes 13 “bundles” of sample activities, lesson plans, and other resources for instruction based on informational text. One example, from 3rd grade, is based on learning about sharks.
The immediate challenge of the informational-text emphasis, however, lies more in training than in materials, Mr. Thomases said.
“Most teachers are not taught how to teach reading,” he said. “Teachers, especially secondary teachers, need help figuring out what they’re going to do to pause long enough in the teaching to have students grapple with text describing the real world. That’s our task.
“It’s not so much that we have the wrong materials in our schools, but [it’s] actually figuring out how to structure classrooms so we speak to text and kids are using text in conversations with each other and are grappling with the meaning of text. We can do that with the texts at hand,” he said.
“In the longer term, yes, we need to make sure that by the end of high school, students are reading science journals,” Mr. Thomases continued. “But right now, just simply the act of reading the science textbook and absolutely making the textbook—rather than the teacher—generate the answers. ... If we did that in every classroom across America, we would see very different outcomes.”
Two-thirds of the schools in New York City opt in to the district’s curriculum, Mr. Thomases said. The district is talking with publishers to “push the vendor community” to create a literacy curriculum it considers reflective of the common standards, he said.
Pearson, for one, is including more “content-rich nonfiction” material in its K-12 programs, said Mike Evans, who oversees math and reading products for the New York City-based education company. In an upcoming revision of its Reading Street program, a 4th grade unit on patterns in nature includes text selections on tornado sirens and the migration of Arctic terns. Supporting materials walk teachers through ways to help students “unlock” those texts, Mr. Evans said in an email.
Designers working on a new digital curriculum in a joint project of the Pearson Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aim to reflect the new standards’ emphasis as well.
The literacy curriculum is still being created. But one idea under consideration is a 5th grade unit on networks that would blend reading about the Underground Railroad with study of very different types of networks, such as online social networks and political-advocacy networks, said Sally Hampton, who is one of the curriculum designers on the project and also served on the panel that wrote the English/language arts common standards.
In the past two years, New York City-based Scholastic Education has seen a rise in demand for training to help teachers teach reading of informational texts, said Patrick Daley, the senior vice president of the company’s classroom and community group, which writes K-10 English/language arts programs.
“It’s one thing to tell school districts that we must do close reading of informational text,” he said. “It’s very different to say, ‘Here is what’s involved with a close reading.’ ”
Last summer, Scholastic launched Everyday Literacy, a K-6 program that incorporates brochures, catalogs, menus, and other text types, and includes suggestions for ways teachers can walk students through the elements in each type of text, Mr. Daley said.
This spring, it plans to launch XBOOKS, a print and digital middle school program with strands on such topics as forensics, which will explore DNA analysis and fingerprinting.
Florida’s Broward County school district is spending $787,000 to put a new Scholastic program, Buzz About IT, into all its K-2 classrooms in response to the new standards’ emphasis on informational text (which is abbreviated in the program’s title). The read-aloud program will supplement the 258,000-student district’s core elementary literacy program, Macmillan McGraw-Hill’s Treasures, said Teri Acquavita, an elementary reading-curriculum specialist in the district.
She said that Treasures does include some informational text, “but not sufficiently, we would say. We wanted something that would supplement that.” The district is now weighing options for similar supplements for grades 3-12, Ms. Acquavita said. Supplements for the early grades came first because Florida is rolling out the common standards in phases, beginning in the lower grades, she said.
Meanwhile, Broward’s elementary reading coaches have met with Nell K. Duke, the Michigan State University professor who wrote Buzz About IT, and are meeting monthly to study her research, Ms. Acquavita said. They also have had training in the program from Scholastic. Next year, the state will conduct a full review of its statewide materials adoption, she said.
Funding for materials and professional development that reflect the standards could prove to be an issue for states, and, as a result, for companies that produce them, said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers.
“We have been unpleasantly surprised that a number of states are only now starting to wrestle with the cost of this,” he said. “The three traditional drivers of this market are changes in standards, enrollment increases, and availability of funding. If one of those things isn’t there, such as funding, well, what do you have?”
Oregon will conduct a full review of its statewide adoption list in English/language arts in 2013 with an eye toward common-standards implementation, said Drew Hinds, an education specialist with the state education department. This year is a “bridge year,” in which the state is inviting its currently contracted publishers to provide updated materials to address gaps between the existing ones and the common core, he said.
New criteria for adoptions of basal instructional materials for the bridge year, approved by the state in January, specify that materials must include “high-quality, complex informational text” in the ratios specified by the standards. Its statewide literacy plan delves into explanations of six major shifts in the English/language arts standards, and the state has also produced an online “toolkit” offering teachers instructional videos and other resources on those shifts.
North Carolina is concentrating more on training teachers than on changing materials, said Maria Pitre-Martin, the state director of K-12 curriculum and instruction.
“What we have discovered is that within schools, there is a great deal of informational text already there,” she said. “It’s really about what is the difference between teaching with those materials and teaching with fiction.”
Using federal Race to the Top money, North Carolina is conducting training institutes that focus, among other topics, on how to teach informational text, she said.
The biggest concern state officials are hearing from teachers is that they be assured of having adequate lesson plans, curriculum maps, and other resources to teach the standards once that begins in 2012-13, Ms. Pitre-Martin said.
To convey its expectations for new materials, the state has hosted a webinar for publishers, pointing them to the “publishers’ criteria” developed by the common-standards writers for grades K-2 and 3-12, which describe what is required for materials to align well with the standards.
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A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Education Week as Districts Gird for Added Use of Nonfiction