Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Scale Tips Toward Nonfiction Under Common Core

By Catherine Gewertz — November 13, 2012 9 min read
Prekindergartners at Calvin Rodwell Elementary School in Baltimore, above, listen to their teacher, Erika Parker, as she reads A Day at the Pumpkin Patch, a nonfiction book about visiting a farm. The book is part of a unit that aims to blend the reading of stories and nonfiction with learning outside the classroom. The day after the children read the book, they visited Summers Farm in Frederick, Md.
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The common standards expect students to become adept at reading informational text, a shift in focus that many English/language arts teachers fear might diminish the time-honored place of literature in their classrooms.

In schools nationwide, where all but four states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, teachers are finding ways to incorporate historical documents, speeches, essays, scientific articles, and other nonfiction into classes.

The new standards envision elementary students, whose reading typically tilts toward fiction, reading equally from literature and informational text. By high school, literature should represent only 30 percent of their readings; 70 percent should be informational. The tilt reflects employers’ and college professors’ complaints that too many young people can’t analyze or synthesize information, or document arguments.

Some passionate advocates for literature, however, see reason for alarm. In a recent paper issued by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based group that opposes the standards, two language arts experts argue that those distributions make it inevitable that less literature will be taught in schools. Even if social studies, science, and other teachers pick up much of the informational-text reading, co-authors Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein argue, language arts teachers will have to absorb a good chunk as well, and they will be the ones held accountable.

Expanded Bookshelves

The Common Core State Standards require students to read many “informational” texts along with novels, poetry, and plays. An appendix to the standards lists dozens of titles to illustrate the range of suggested reading. Some “exemplar” texts can be found on the bookshelf.


SOURCE: Common Core State Standards, Appendix B

“It’s hard to imagine that low reading scores in a school district will force grade 11 government/history and science teachers to devote more time to reading instruction,” the paper says.

De-emphasizing literature in the rush to build informational-text skills is shortsighted, the study argues, because the skills required to master good, complex literature serve students well in college and challenging jobs. The problem is worsened when teachers make “weak” choices of informational texts, such as blog posts, Mr. Bauerlein said in an interview.

“If we could ensure that the kinds of stuff they’re choosing are essays by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson or Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, then that would be wonderful,” said Mr. Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta. “Those are complex texts, with the literary features that make students better readers in college.”

The only required readings in the standards are four foundational American writings, such as the Declaration of Independence, and one play each by Shakespeare and by an American dramatist. Students also must “demonstrate knowledge” of American literature from the 18th through early-20th centuries.

An appendix to the standards lists texts that illustrate the range of works students should read across the curriculum to acquire the skills outlined in the standards. Those titles are not required reading, but are being widely consulted as representations of what the standards seek.

Stories, poetry, and plays share space with nonfiction books and articles. Kindergarten teachers are offered Tana Hoban’s I Read Signs, along with P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? For 4th and 5th grades, the standards suggest Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince as well as Joy Hakim’s A History of US. Middle school suggestions include Winston Churchill’s 1940 “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech and an article on elementary particles from the New Book of Popular Science along with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. For 11th and 12th graders, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is suggested, as are Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

A New Blend

Taking a cue from the standards, many teachers are blending fiction and informational reading as they phase in the common core.

At Calvin Rodwell Elementary School in Baltimore last month, Erika Parker and her class of 4- and 5-year-olds were planning a trip to a nearby farm as part of a unit called “fall fun with friends.” She read the children two versions of The Three Little Pigs; they joined her to shout out the famous refrain: “Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin!” They were addressing a common-core expectation that they learn to compare points of view in multiple texts, Ms. Parker said.

She also read the children books and stories about fall weather, friendship, the life cycle of pumpkins, and how to grow apples. They ventured into the schoolyard to learn about tree trunks and limbs and how trees could be grafted to produce new varieties and colors of apples.

“We are certainly still reading works of fiction,” she said later. “They love their stories. But they also really get excited about something in real life that they can make a connection to.”

Quinton M. Lawrence, too, is trying out a new blend with his 5th and 6th graders at the K-8 Woodhome Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. The language arts teacher is drawing on newspaper articles, novels, and poems to explore the theme of individuality.

Children are choosing from a range of novels with a “realistic feel,” Mr. Lawrence said, including House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, and The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake. They read newspaper articles about a school uniform rule and the creation of avatars—virtual alter egos—in video games.

Through discussion, the students zeroed in on 10 major components of individuality, such as intelligence, beliefs, and physical appearance, and they explored them through the real and imaginary characters they read about, Mr. Lawrence said. They will write two-page essays exploring the theme further, based on additional research from other articles online, he said.

From left, Nalani Williams, Joshua Johnson-Bey, and Unique Childs, all 4, select pumpkins to take home from Summers Farm.

“The idea that students are exposed to informational text is somehow taken for granted,” said Mr. Lawrence, whose district serves a predominantly low-income, minority population. “Most of my kids have not been exposed to newspaper articles. Their parents don’t subscribe to magazines. So it’s good for them to see these kinds of things, learn about their structure, as well as the structure of novels.”

Sonja B. Santelises, the chief academic officer of the Baltimore system, which has been working with teachers districtwide to design common-core modules and sets of texts in social studies, science, and language arts, said the emphasis on informational reading is crucial as a matter of equity for her 83,000 students.

“We’re naïve if we don’t acknowledge that it’s through nonfiction that a lot of students who’ve never been to a museum are going to read about mummies for the first time or read about the process of photosynthesis,” she said. She considers it important to use informational readings simultaneously as tools to build content knowledge and to familiarize students with a variety of types of text.

When Ms. Santelises visits classrooms, she still sees plenty of literature being enjoyed, so she isn’t worried about fiction losing its place in school, she said. “Fiction and narrative have been so overrepresented, particularly in the elementary grades, that I feel this is more of a balancing than a squeezing-out.”

In a study that painted a portrait of that imbalance, Michigan literacy researcher Nell K. Duke found in 2000 that informational text occupied only 3.6 minutes of a 1st grader’s day and 10 percent of the shelf space in their classroom libraries.

The Role of Literature

In the rush to rebalance, however, educators risk cheating literature, some experts say. “The emphasis on nonfiction is leading to the development of a whole new universe of activities that will leave less time for the ones about literature,” said Arthur N. Applebee, a professor of education at the State University of New York in Albany.

Thomas Newkirk, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, said he thinks the common core’s “bias against narrative” doesn’t serve students well. If teachers seek to make students ready for real life, he said, they must equip them not only to argue, interpret, and inform, but to convey emotion and tell stories.

“The world is much more narrative than the standards suggest,” said Mr. Newkirk, who teaches writing to freshmen and trains preservice teachers.

“Think about when candidates are running for office, and they have to tell the stories of their lives, the story of where we are going as a nation,” he said. “When we honor someone who has passed away, someone who is retiring, we need to tell their story. The other skills are important, too. But in the real world, there are moments when we have to distill emotion, experience. To claim otherwise misrepresents how we operate.”

The question of which faculty are responsible for the new informational-text expectations is permeating conversation.

Colette Bennett, the chairman of the English department at Wamogo High School in Litchfield, Conn., said she believes the standards allow her to keep her focus squarely on literature, with essays and other nonfiction used to enrich that study. Recently, she had students use “The Hero’s Journey,” a narrative framework designed by American mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, to help them interpret King Lear, she said.

“The standards say that 30 percent of a student’s reading in [high] school should be literary, which is as it should be,” she said. “That’s my responsibility. My purview is fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and no other teacher is going to teach that.”

But teachers of other subjects have not been asking their students to read enough, Ms. Bennett said. “I hear them saying, ‘Oh, what am I going to drop out of my course to do more reading?’ And I say, ‘What? You haven’t been doing a lot of reading all along?’ ”

More Time on Reading

To avoid sacrificing literature and still give students deep experience with informational text, one thing will be required, according to Carol Jago, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English: more time.

“Teachers don’t have to give up a single poem, play, or novel,” said Ms. Jago, who now directs the California Reading and Literature Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, which helps teachers design lesson plans. “But students are going to have to read four times as much as they are now.”

Where will the time come from? From substituting good-quality reading for “busywork,” movies shown in class, and the hours students spend daily on electronic entertainment such as texting and playing video games, Ms. Jago said.

In sorting out how to put the standards into practice, some experts caution against an either-or interpretation. It’s important for students to be steeped in all kinds of reading and writing, they say, and it’s all possible with good planning and collaboration.

“I don’t know why this dichotomy has been constructed in a way that is so divisive. It’s very unhelpful,” said Stephanie R. Jones, a professor who focuses on literacy and social class at the University of Georgia in Athens.

“We shouldn’t teach kindergartners as if they’re going to join the workforce next year. But it won’t hurt us to make sure we are emphasizing nonfiction a little more in K-5. And I don’t think fiction has to be edged out at all,” she said.

“In some college and career paths, it’s important to state a claim and justify with evidence, and in others, it’s important to be really creative and innovative and not start with an argument, but have open inquiry and move toward some kind of discovery.”

Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Scales Tip Toward Nonfiction Under the Common Core


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