In the past week, the cyber conversation about the Common Core State Standards’ call for increased reading of nonfiction texts in English Language Arts has intensified.
Education Week‘s featured discussion poses the questions:
- Are you in favor of more nonfiction reading in school?
- What challenges arise when trying to teach students to read and understand informational texts?
- And what are some nonfiction books you would recommend for high school students?
Participants in NCTE’s Connected Community have also been debating the issue in a thread titled “mandated nonfiction”.
As you may recall, Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards provides the following rationale for the shift to increased reading of informational texts:
There is also evidence that current standards, curriculum, and instructional practice have not done enough to foster the independent reading of complex texts so crucial for college and career readiness, particularly in the case of informational texts. K–12 students are, in general, given considerable scaffolding—assistance from teachers, class discussions, and the texts themselves (in such forms as summaries, glossaries, and other text features)—with reading that is already less complex overall than that typically required of students prior to 1962. What is more, students today are asked to read very little expository text—as little as 7 and 15 percent of elementary and middle school instructional reading, for example, is expository (Hoffman, Sabo, Bliss, & Hoy, 1994; Moss & Newton, 2002; Yopp & Yopp, 2006)—yet much research supports the conclusion that such text is harder for most students to read than is narrative text (Bowen & Roth, 1999; Bowen, Roth, & McGinn, 1999, 2002; Heller & Greenleaf, 2007; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008), that students need sustained exposure to expository text to develop important reading strategies (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008; Kintsch, 1998, 2009; McNamara, Graesser, & Louwerse, in press; Perfetti, Landi, & Oakhill, 2005; van den Broek, Lorch, Linderholm, & Gustafson, 2001; van den Broek, Risden, & Husebye-Hartmann, 1995), and that expository text makes up the vast majority of the required reading in college and the workplace (Achieve, Inc., 2007). Worse still, what little expository reading students are asked to do is too often of the superficial variety that involves skimming and scanning for particular, discrete pieces of information; such reading is unlikely to prepare students for the cognitive demand of true understanding of complex text. (p. 3)
In the Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3-12, David Coleman and Susan Pimental, lead authors of the standards, elaborate on the types of texts to be infused to meet this call. At the secondary level, they specify which types of texts would fit the term “literary nonfiction”:
Range and Quality of Texts: The Common Core State Standards require a greater focus on informational text in elementary school and literary nonfiction in ELA classes in grades 6–12.
Grades 6–12: ELA programs include substantially more literary nonfiction. The Common Core State Standards require aligned ELA curriculum materials in grades 6–12 to include a blend of literature (fiction, poetry, and drama) and a substantial sampling of literary nonfiction, including essays; speeches; opinion pieces; biographies; journalism; and historical, scientific, or other documents written for a broad audience. (See p. 57 of the standards for more details.) Most ELA programs and materials designed for them will need to increase substantially the amount of literary nonfiction they include. The standards emphasize arguments (such as those in the U.S. foundational documents) and other literary nonfiction that is built on informational text structures rather than literary nonfiction that is structured as stories (such as memoirs or biographies). Of course, literary nonfiction extends well beyond historical documents to include the best of nonfiction written for a broad audience on a wide variety of topics, such as science, contemporary events and ideas, nature, and the arts. (Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards provides several examples of high-quality literary nonfiction.) (pp. 4-5)
What’s important to keep in mind, however, is that the CCSS are not asking us to abandon the reading of literature. Recent evidence of the potential benefits of reading fiction appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times. In an op-ed piece entitled “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul summarizes findings from neuroscience on how sensory language and figures of speech stimulate the brain and how the overlap between the neural networks that process stories and real-life social interactions can help improve our social skills and empathy. While Appendix A of the CCSS document does not reference these studies, half of the reading standards pertain to the reading of literature.
In the March 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, University of New Hampshire professor Thomas Newkirk may help English teachers who have focused their instruction predominantly on literature find the inclusion of nonfiction more palatable. While acknowledging the CCSS’s call for a reduction in narrative reading, Newkirk argues that “narrative is the deep structure of all good writing. All good writing” (p. 29). Newkirk furthers his argument by citing cognitive psychologist and literary critic Mark Turner, who asserts: “Narrative imagining–story–is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining” (cited in Newkirk, 2012, p. 29). While Turner’s assertion dates to 1996, the recent neuroscience studies seem to bear him out. And Newkirk contends that we never really read just for raw information. In fact, he observes that textbooks are not read but are instead consulted, much like a dictionary, because their organization and formatting do not require sustained attention to the development of an idea. Newkirk counters that engaging nonfiction texts–even specialized academic writing and research reports–tell a story for they address unmet social problems, irreconcilable positions in a field of study, or new evidence that challenges previous thinking. As writers of these texts–what the authors of the CCSS refer to as literary nonfiction–take us on a journey of learning and discovery, they use narrative in complex and embedded ways. Newkirk advises us not to move beyond narrative; instead he challenges us to help our students uncover how narrative drives both fiction and nonfiction texts.
As we have been transitioning to using more literary nonfiction in our English Language Arts classes, we have at times struggled to find nonfiction that would merit the descriptor “literary” and that would also merit the repeated close reading that the CCSS calls for as well. In a recent tweet, Carol Jago (@CarolJago) recommended a source for texts that would challenge students to consider conflicting perspectives on questions of substantial human interest: the John Templeton Foundation Big Questions Essay Series. In this series, great contemporary thinkers from a variety of fields share their attempts to answer six “Big Questions” in an essay format. These essays can be used for close readings that could serve as the foundation for Socratic Seminar discussions (Carol Jago’s suggestion) and can also serve as models for students for writing their own essays. Links to more literary nonfiction can be found on a companion page, Big Questions Online, which features columns, blog posts, and feature articles.
Another source of literary nonfiction mentioned in the Twitter discussion thread #engchat is Longreads: The best long-form stories on the web which is updated daily from sources including The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and The New Yorker. The site has a searchable archive and a subject index. For updates on new postings you can follow Longreads on Twitter (@longreads) or Tumblr, or you can like Longreads on Facebook.
If you find these sources valuable in helping you to infuse more literary nonfiction into your instruction and in helping students discover the narrative drive in nonfiction, I hope you will share your successes in the comment section.