Some teachers are blending fiction and nonfiction materials in the classroom as they shift to Common Core State Standards, which emphasize informational texts, such as essays and historical documents.
Some educators and experts question whether fiction will be completely squeezed out of the classroom. An elementary-school teacher in Baltimore used a blended approach for a unit called “fall fun with friends,” in which she read to students from two versions of “The Three Little Pigs,” as well as books on weather, pumpkins, apples and friendship.
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where all but four states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, teachers are finding ways to incorporate historical documents, speeches, essays, scientific articles, and other nonfiction into classes.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.
“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.”
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.
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