The fiction fallacy

Among the most controversial aspects of the Common Core ELA standards is their far greater emphasis on nonfiction reading than is traditionally seen in American classrooms. The standards demand that students spend as much as 50 percent of their time reading “informational texts” in the early grades and up to 75 percent on informational texts and literary nonfiction by high school. It’s a common sense effort to restore balance to readings that have traditionally focused almost exclusively on fiction. But it also takes on one of the most prominent and often fiercely defended fallacies in American education: that fiction is the only—or perhaps even the best—way to develop students’ love of reading, learning, and critical comprehension skills.

The CCSS take on the fallacy that fiction is the only—or perhaps even the best—way to develop students’ love of reading, learning, and critical comprehension skills.

Diane Ravitch recently added fuel to the fire when she penned a post entitled, “Why Does David Coleman Dislike Fiction,” where she lamented the standards’ focus on informational texts and literary nonfiction. She argued:

Maybe David Coleman thinks that education is wasted on the young. But how sad it would be if future generations of young people never read the poems and stories and novels that teach them not only how to think but how to feel, how to dream, how to imagine worlds far beyond those they know.

Of course, none of the CCSS architects or supporters imagines a world where students don’t read fiction. Coleman himself has acknowledged that “literature plays an essential role in cultivating students’ reading skills and developing their love of reading” and he has argued that “the standards celebrates the role literature plays in building student knowledge and creativity.”

Instead, the Common Core seeks to rebalance what has been an almost exclusive focus on fiction in reading and literature classrooms. In a recent post, Dana Goldstein cited research that suggested that only 20 percent of the reading that students are assigned in school is nonfiction. In the early grades, those numbers are even worse—one study of first grade classrooms found that students spent an average of only 3.6 minutes engaging with nonfiction texts in reading classrooms. (In low income classrooms, they spent only 1.4 minutes per day, adding further to the already enormous content and reading gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.)

But more than just increasing the amount of time spent reading nonfiction, the standards push teachers to improve the quality of the nonfiction reading they assign. Particularly in the upper grades where teachers have a wealth of beautifully written literary nonfiction to choose from.

Common Core detractors would have you believe that will be near-impossible to do. Reading their anti-nonfiction laments, you’d think that there has been little of value written in the genre and that somehow students are going to be forced to pass up Shakespeare and Whittier for bus schedules and trade books.

There is a wealth of literary nonfiction that is at least as captivating and stirring as the most finely written, imaginative fiction.

Of course, the opposite is true. There is a wealth of literary nonfiction (essays, letters, biographies, and so on) that is at least as captivating and stirring as the most finely written, imaginative fiction. Take, for example, the following newspaper article written by veteran war correspondent Ernie Pyle talking about the heroism of front-line soldiers who fought in World War II:

I heard of a high British officer who went over this battlefield just after the action was over. American boys were still lying dead in their foxholes, their rifles still grasped in firing position in their dead hands. And the veteran English soldier remarked time and again, in a sort of hushed eulogy spoken only to himself:
"Brave men. Brave men."

Or this one, where Pyle captured the unabashed joy felt by the soldiers and the French upon the liberation of Paris:

For fifteen minutes we drove through a flat gardenlike country under a magnificent bright sun and amidst greenery, with distant banks of smoke pillaring the horizon ahead and to our left. And then we came gradually into the suburbs, and soon into Paris itself and a pandemonium of surely the greatest mass joy that has ever happened.
The streets were lined as by Fourth of July parade crowds at home, only this crowd was almost hysterical….As our jeep eased through the crowds, thousands of people crowded up, leaving only a narrow corridor, and frantic men, women and children grabbed us and kissed us and shook our hands and beat on our shoulders and slapped our backs and shouted their joy as we passed.

How such writing could possibly limit the imagination or fail to stir emotion is beyond me. And we do a grave disservice to our students when we pretend that the only things that could possibly spark their interest in reading are young adult novels or creative fiction.

What’s more, nonfiction has the benefit of being true; of telling stories that help enhance student knowledge of history, science, art, and on. Things that our students need to know to be able to think critically and make deep connections about what they learn and what they read, no matter the genre.

Of course, for teachers who have spent 80 percent of their instructional time teaching novels, short stories, and poetry, the challenge will be finding and selecting the kind of nonfiction that can enhance learning, bestir emotion, and spark the love of learning we all want students to have. But that is a challenge worth facing.

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