What Kind of Reading is Common Core?

Informational Texs vs. Literature

Are we English teachers being asked to read instructional manuals? No, I don’t think so.

There has been a fair amount of discussion, and a fair amount of worry, about whether the Common Core State Standards discourage the study of literature in the English language arts classroom. Various administrators and consultants are admonishing teachers saying, “You have to teach  more informational materials!” implying that we should stop wasting our time with those silly novels, shorts stories, plays, and poems.

Based on my research, the Common Core is actually giving me permission to teach MORE literature than I have for the past several years with the California State Standards and No Child Left Behind. How can this be? Here’s what I’ve been reading:

1) 45% Literature to 55% Informational Text = Just More Reading

According to the CCSS website, the standards are “calling for a special emphasis on informational text.” It cites the National Association for Educational Progress (NAEP) Framework for Reading:

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People skim that chart and assume English teachers are responsible for all of that reading. That is not the case. The CCSS explicitly states that the majority of informational texts must be taught outside of the ELA classroom. Here’s what it says on topic:

“Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.” – Introduction to ELA Standards, Key Design Considerations

Yes! We get to read! It is perfectly appropriate for English teachers to teach the literary fiction and nonfiction that is relevant to our discipline. The good news is that all teachers, in all disciplines, are required to teach reading. Responsibility for reading instruction is no longer solely on the shoulders of the English teacher. Therefore, we have time to teach the literature we love.

2) Text Exemplars = Just Good Stories

Appendix B lists examples of the type of texts CCSS authors want students to read. Guess what? It includes examples of great stories, poems and plays. I think of this list as a present. It is a permission slip saying, “Please, teach the important stories. Help the students see the magic inside.”  Here is a partial list of the text exemplars for literature in grades 6-8:

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
  • “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros
  • “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
  • “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes
  • “Oranges” by Gary Soto
  • The Diary of Anne Frank: A Play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett

I know what you are thinking. There is no way to require the average seventh grader, especially the average seventh grade boy, to read Little Women.  That’s OK. The titles are not supposed to be a required reading list, rather they show what the CCSS is looking for in terms of “text complexity, quality, and range.” We teachers are supposed to use the examples as “guideposts” to help us select similar texts.

Here are some text exemplars for informational texts in grades 6 to 8:

  • Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Petry
  • Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass an America Slave, Written by Himself by Fredrick Douglass
  • Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Now, the Common Core may calls those texts “informational” but who reads those to “get information”? I think of them as literature and I am happy to enjoy them with my students. They are not technical documents instructing me how to set up my TV, nor are they encyclopedia articles, written expressly to convey facts. These works are written to provoke emotional responses in the reader while they describe true events or experiences. I can certainly live with that.

3) Definition of Informational Text = Just Good Nonfiction

I have been trying to figure out what an “informational text” is for several years now. The closest I can get to an answer is that informational text refers to nonfiction. Merriam-Webster defines nonfiction as, “literature or cinema that is not fictional.” Notice the word literature is part of the definition. Merriam-Webster observes what many commenters on the Common Core haven’t noticed: Nonfiction is literature. I knew it!

According to eHow.com, nonfiction, “simply must be believed to be true by the writer at the moment of writing,” and it may include “television and newspaper reports — as well as other news items — biographies, histories, text and reference books, documentaries and personal accounts.” If this is true, we English teachers have a lot of options about what kinds of “informational texts” to teach. My plan is to search for the good stuff, meaning I’ll gleefully leave behind the fake articles and technical documents that sometimes come with “standards-aligned” textbook programs.

More on Informational Text vs. Literature

I found an excellent lesson on this topic on New York Times’s The Learning Network blog: Fiction or Nonfiction: Considering the Common Core’s Emphasis on Informational Text. This lesson, written for students but very relevant to teachers, gives data and resources about both sides of the debate. I recommend this article to any stakeholder in the discussion about literature and informational text in the classroom.

The Learning Network lesson pointed me to blog post titled “What Should Children Read?” by Sara Mosle published in the Opinionator section of The New York Times. Mosle writes, “What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call ‘narrative nonfiction’: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.”

The Bottom Line 

The more I read, the more I realize that there really isn’t anything to argue about. Literature or informational texts? Fiction or nonfiction? How about we just ask students to read good writing? Good writing includes fantasy stories and newspaper articles. Poems and persuasive essays. Plays and memoirs. Can they learn from it? Will they respond to it? OK, then, let’s read it.

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