How the nonfiction backlash could derail Common Core ELA implementation

Everywhere you look these days, someone is running down the Common Core. One of the most frequent critiques comes from those who argue that the CCSS “mandate” the percent of time that English teachers must spend on nonfiction and who worry that this requirement will force educators to replace Shakespeare and Twain with technical manuals and bus schedules. It’s one of those lines that’s apparently “too good to fact check” because the deeper you dig, the more it unravels. Here are the facts:

First, it’s literally wrong. Nowhere do the CCSS “mandate” the percent of time ELA teachers need to spend on nonfiction. In fact, the reference to the balance of fiction and nonfiction in the classroom specifically warns,

The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. 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.

It’s hard to imagine the authors being clearer on this point. Yet commentators on all sides of the debate regularly—and mistakenly—claim that the CCSS wants to see literature in ELA classrooms go the way of the dinosaur. Even as recently as this weekend, New York Times education writer Sara Mosle wrongly claimed that the Common Core pushes for up to 70 percent of time in 12th grade English classrooms be devoted to reading nonfiction titles. (To Mosle’s great credit, she subsequently corrected and edited her piece, but the error reflects the proliferation of this incorrect—and perhaps deliberately misleading and hyperbolic—idea.)

The second and far more troubling issue is that the focus on this nonexistent nonfiction “mandate” has distracted us from a far more important implementation conversation—specifically, how we can meet the content and rigor demands of the Common Core by upping the quality, complexity, and rigor of the texts students read and the analysis they do.

Commentators on all sides of the debate regularly—and mistakenly—claim that the CCSS wants to see literature in ELA classrooms go the way of the dinosaur

Mosle alludes to this in her article when she argues that “what schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction...” Unfortunately, she gives little credit to the standards for their attempt to refocus the conversation on ensuring that all students—regardless of their ability—are exposed to a healthy diet of rich, high-quality, and appropriately complex texts across all genres. And the truth is, whether teachers spend 20 or 90 percent of their time teaching nonfiction will matter very little if the texts students study aren’t worthy of reading and analysis.

The focus on text complexity is also where the Common Core is on its firmest footing. There is abundant research that underscores the importance of having students grapple with appropriately rigorous, high-quality literature and literary nonfiction. A 2006 ACT report, for example, found the following:

..while it is important for students to be able to comprehend both explicit and implicit material in texts, as well as to understand how various textual elements (such as main ideas, relationships, or generalizations) function in a text, the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and students who are not is the ability to comprehend complex texts." [emphasis added]

In other words, what was most critical was not student mastery of transferrable reading skills but, rather, their ability to read, understand, and analyze complex texts.

This is the kind of research that informed the CCSS focus on text complexity, and it’s why the standards subordinate skills so that they are taught only in service of deep comprehension and analysis of grade-appropriate reading. (Previously, standards focused on student mastery of reading skills and aligned curriculum and instruction often used texts as mere vehicles for helping students practice those skills.)

Unfortunately, this critical Common Core shift is all but lost amidst the noise about whether ELA teachers should spend 50 to 70 percent of their time assigning informational texts. And if Mosle is right that we need not more but better nonfiction—content rich texts that help build knowledge and lay the groundwork for future reading and learning—then the best way to get there is to stop talking about arbitrary (and nonexistent) nonfiction quotas and to start searching for the kind of content-rich, engaging literary and narrative nonfiction that will not only help build background knowledge but will also help students improve their comprehension and analysis skills and bestir a lifelong love of reading and learning.

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