A war on fiction?
By Suzanne on November 30th, 2012
This is one in a series of posts examining the Common Core State Standards and the conversation surrounding their impact on teaching and learning. Welcome Suzanne McCabe, a longtime editor of Junior Scholastic magazine, here to talk about the fiction vs nonfiction debate. Thanks, Suzanne!
If you know anything about the new Common Core standards for English Language Arts, you probably have an opinion. There’s a lot of debate—and confusion—about the enhanced role of informational texts in the classroom. Are bus schedules and repair manuals replacing Henry James? The short answer is no.
That hasn’t stopped the bickering, which in many places is being called a “fiction vs. nonfiction smackdown.” Such arguments may miss the point. The key objective of the ELA standards is not to pit fiction against nonfiction—which are given equal time in elementary school—but rather to ensure students’ mastery of rich complex texts. As a 2006 ACT report noted: “The clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and students who are not is the ability to comprehend complex texts.”
Yes, the Common Core puts a greater emphasis on informational texts, which everyone knows are plentiful in the modern workplace. But if you read the standards closely, you’ll see that “teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.”
Then why are so many language arts teachers scrambling for nonfiction?
Because, in part, they have relied so heavily on fiction in the past. Michigan literacy researcher Nell K. Duke found in 2000 that “informational text occupied only 3.6 minutes of a first grader’s day and 10 percent of the shelf space in their classroom libraries.”
Still, if more classroom time is spent on nonfiction, how will students discover those life-changing works of fiction? “Teachers don’t have to give up a single poem, play, or novel,” Carol Jago, who directs the California Reading and Literature Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently told Ed Week. “But students are going to have to read four times as much as they are now.”
Texting teenagers, take note: The world is out there waiting for you to discover it. As the sign on my college library door said, “There is no Frigate like a Book.” No one knew that better than the author of the line—the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson.