Nonfiction Reading Is Getting a Bum Rap and That's Bad For Kids

Amidst the general kerfuffling over the national Common Core State Standards, the English language arts portion has been singled out by critics for the supposed offense of emphasizing nonfiction reading. Like a lot of Common Core pushback, the ELA allegations are fraught with misunderstanding and rumor. Nonetheless, the charges have gained traction and are even showing up in some states' legislative efforts to back out of the Common Core.

This is really too bad. Developing students' skill at reading for information is equally important to reading and analyzing novels, drama and poetry. Yet, expository texts currently make up a small fraction of the reading that students do in school. Regardless of whether a state adopts the Common Core or goes it alone, they should still pay attention to nonfiction reading in their K-12 standards.

We recently published a study, Beyond Fiction, which examines the importance of reading for information. American schools actually do a reasonably good job at teaching students to read literature. Our fourth-graders score near the top in this area -- only Finland outperforms them by statistically significant margins. American teens, likewise, score above the international average when reflecting on literature. But the performance of both age groups drops off when reading to acquire and use information. Our adults fare worse. Despite being one of the most educated nations in the world, the ranking of U.S. 16-65 year-olds fell well below the international average on a recent test of practical literacy skills.

There is much more at stake than international bragging rights, however. The ability to comprehend and analyze informational texts plays a key role in equipping students for college, work and day-to-day life. Young people with weak literacy skills are less likely to go to college or succeed if they get there. In the workplace, they face fewer job opportunities and earn lower wages. At home, they have more difficulty making choices about cell phone plans or interpreting basic medical tables. As parents, they are less likely to read to their children.

All of this argues for an emphasis on nonfiction reading in state standards. But what should rightfully be seen as a strength in the Common Core is held up by opponents as evidence that the standards are flat-out bad. In response, I offer a little critical reading exercise to distinguish fiction from nonfiction based on what the naysayers claim.

Fiction: The emphasis on informational reading will push literature out of the curriculum.
Nonfiction: This claim is probably the one heard most often. It is also the easiest to dismiss. The Common Core recommends (although does not require) a 50-50 ratio of nonfiction-fiction reading in elementary school increasing to a 70-30 split in high school. The fallacy is assuming that this reading will all be done in the English classroom. In fact, the Common Core states that reading for information will need to occur across the curriculum, basically calling for more reading of all kinds, not less literature. Politifact rated the assertion that the study of literature will decrease as "false."

Fiction: Informational reading does not make students college-ready.
Nonfiction: This argument has been made forcibly by Sandra Stotsky, a well-respected educator who oversaw the development of the widely praised Massachusetts state standards in the late 1990s and who has been highly visible in state capitals testifying against the Common Core. Stotsky claims that, unlike with literature, there is no research relating nonfiction texts and college readiness. Many other scholars disagree, however, citing E.D Hirsch, Daniel Willingham and others, who have connected content knowledge with the ability to read proficiently. Beth Deniell of Kennesaw State observed that the critics of informational reading "seem not to have considered that the contextual information students need in order to understand a literary work arrives in non-literary texts."

Fiction: Informational reading is boring.
Nonfiction: This particular fiction is summed up by the meme "EPA regulations". The Common Core offered "EPA recommended levels of insulation" as an example of technical reading for high school students, so the statement is literally true. However, it's missing important context, namely, that this is one example out of nearly 70 pages of suggested informational texts. The vast majority of nonfiction titles can actually stand quite comfortably alongside fiction for high interest. They include biographies and autobiographies; primary and secondary historical sources including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; popular science writers like Neil deGrasse Tyson; and a grade 2 recommendation with the intriguing title "Boy Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs." Good nonfiction is anything but boring.

And what about those EPA regs? Agreed, probably not the most engaging read. But a lot of jobs require the ability to comprehend and implement written government regulations. Not a bad thing for schools to expose future workers to.

States' participation in the Common Core is a legitimate issue for public debate for a host of reasons. However, concern that the standards call for too much nonfiction reading should not be among them. Schools need to build on what they already know about teaching literary skills, and ensure all students develop into critical consumers of informational texts, too.